The awesome importance of the beard in Jewish Law

Contrary to popular thinking, the beard has tremendous importance to the Jew. It’s more than just a sign of maturity, and up until a few generations ago, it was unheard of Jews even trimming their beards, except under extreme circumstances as we shall see below.

The beard is a mark of distinction and truthfulness [to the Tzelem Elokim], as written in the Zohar Idra Rabbah. It should then be surprising to see how it’s become so commonplace for Jews to cut their beards willingly when Halacha, Kabbalah and Minhag direct us otherwise.

This treatise will be based mainly on a wonderful book Hadras Ponim Zokon by Rabbi Moshe Weiner and Zakon Yisrael Kehilchato, compiled by Rabbi Shalom Yehuda Gross. The latter one is free, and you can find it here.

And so, without further ado…

According to Zakon Yisrael Kehilchato:

The origins of a Jew removing his beard came about through force, and not free will. Close to nine hundred years ago, the Jews of Germany were exposed to grave physical danger, suffering, and tribulation due to the cruel, barbaric Crusaders. In order to enable the Jews who were employed as traveling merchants to escape physical abuse and persecution, the Rabbis permitted a change in the mode of dress, and removal of the beard. The non-Jewish population at that time had dispensed with the wearing of the beard. The Jewish merchants were no longer conspicuous because of physical appearance, and were thus saved from the merciless attacks of the anti- Semites. When these beardless Jews returned from their travels, they were quite different from their fellow Jews. This slowly caused more Jews to remove their beards. The Rabbis and Scholars, who remained in their hometowns the year round, did, however, retain their Jewish appearance, while the great majority of German Jewry was clean-shaven. Those Jews who left Germany prior to the year 4856 (when the removal of beards began) and settled in Poland were not included in the lenient halachic decision, and have indeed retained their beards down to this last century, while in Germany beards were almost non-existent

(Responsa Chatam Sofer, Orach Chayim 159)

Halacha on having a beard

  • It is permissible to comb the beard although many are careful not to do so (since one might inadvertently tear some hair from the beard).
  • It is not proper to tie or pin the beard beneath the chin, as many Jews with long beards are accustomed to doing.
  • That part of the mustache directly over the lips may be shortened if it grows so long that it interferes with eating. The following reasons are cited in Halacha. One who wears a long mustache combed to the sides of the mouth resembles the non-Jews who do so.

Sources:

1) Yad Ne’eman 14a. S’dei Chemed (Klallim. Gimel Par. 75). Responsa K’sonas Yosef (Y. D.1) Hadras Ponim Zokon (Part II ch. 12) at length

2) See Zichronos Eliyahu (Y. D., Zayin, Alef); Rav Akiva Eiger (cited in Hadras PonimZokon Pg. 223-224); Mateh Efrayim 426:3; ef. Likutei Sichos vol. 7. PE- 325. See Hadras PonimZokon Part II loc cit. at length

3) Rav Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (“Ben Ish Chai”) and Rebbe “Rashab” of Lubavitch, quoted in H. P. z. loc. cit. pg. 522

4) Shulchan Gavoah (Y. D. par. 17); H. P. z. part 11. Ch. 11.The Beard In Jewish Law21b. Particles of food may remain in the mustache, causing meat and dairy to mix near the mouth.

PROPERTIES OF THE BEARD

According to the Zohar, the mouth should be completely clear and unobstructed. During prayer, hair should be removed from the area of the mouth

Hair which interferes with eating is detestable and defiles one’s food

The Gaon HaRav Shlomo Kluger was once approached by an individual who had lost all his children in their infancy. The Tzadik advised him: “Pay heed, my son! A baby naturally grabs his father’s beard. Since you have no beard your children have nothing upon which to take hold. Allow your beard to grow, and your children’s lives will be sustained”.

zayin is for beard

Prohibition of cutting one’s beard, from Poskim

The illustrious Chida (Rav Yosef C. D. Azulai) writes in a similar vein: In the times of the Talmud, removal of the beard was unheard of. Later in Europe, this practice was introduced as a result of persecution by the non-Jews. Even when removing the beard under such extreme circumstances, the forgiveness of G-d must still be sought.

From this, we see that even though halachic leniencies may be found, one should not rely upon them except in times of danger to physical well-being. The Chazon Ish was most vocal about it in very severe terms

The Chazon Ish states further in a second letter:”I have never accepted the behavior of those Jews whoremove their beards, since this was a forbidden practice inprevious times. It was considered as grave as if he had walked inthe street bareheaded, or changed his mode of dress. Althoughshaving the beard has now become commonplace, evenamongst Torah scholars, this by no means decreases theseverity of the transgression. This practice literally burns me up with rage”

Here’s also a letter from some of our generation’s Gedolim:

To the questioner, may he be well,

Concerning shaving the beard with electric shaving machines – See the Sefer “Likutei Halachos” on tractate “Makos” (by the “CHOFETZ CHAIM”), page 14b (“Eyn Mishpot” loc. cit.) where he writes that it is prohibited, and one may not be lenient in this matter. It is also well known that the “CHOZON ISH” o.b.m. ruled that the use of all shaving machines is forbidden. This is my response,

(Signed) Elozor Menachem M. Shach, Rabbi Moshe Stern, Chief Rabbi of DebrecynAuthor of Responsa “Be’er Moshe” (Six Volumes)Brooklyn, New York

Other sources for the Halacha

1. The beard should not be removed even in a time of physical danger!

2. The self-sacrifice Jews displayed by retaining their beards while enslaved was one of the merits which brought about the redemption of Egypt

3. A Jew conscripted into the military should not remove his beard, even if he might thereby suffer a large monetary loss, and even if because of his steadfastness the non-Jews might ridicule and scorn him.

4. Even if every other Jew in the entire town or province transgresses and has no beard, Heaven forbid, and one will be the only Jew with a beard; nevertheless, it is forbidden for him to remove his beard.

5. In Poland, in the year 5606 (1846), a decree was issued by the government prohibiting the Jewish mode of dress and ordering the removal of the beard. The two leading Gaonim and poskim of the time proclaimed that it was forbidden to remove the beard even under the threat of death. The great Gaon and tzaddik, Rav Yitzchok Meir Alter, the first Gerer Rebbe, along with the great Gaon, Rav Avrohom of Tzechonov; declared: “Yehorag V’al Ya’avor” (Rather be killed than to transgress this Holy Mitzvah.).

1) See Sefer Chasidim par. 199; H. P. z. Part II. Ch. 14 at length

2) Shaar Yissochar (Nisan, 59).

3) Chofetz Chaim in “Machne Yisroel” ch. 13. See H. P. 2 Part I. pp. 262-264 for further elucidation

4) Raw Zalman Sorotzkin (Aznaim Latorah, K’doshim 19:27).

5) Meir Eyney Hagolah 0. par. 399; II. p. 41) cf. Sipuri Chasidim (Emor).

The beard in Kabbalah

As our sages teach a person is a small world. The Arizal goes further and teaches us in many places that each lower world is a stamp of the world above it. Not only does each of the olamot eliyonim follow the patterns of those above, but we as Jews are also built with similar functions.

Though there’s no physicality up there, we can understand what goes on in the higher worlds by observing our reality. When speaking about Hashem’s tefilin, kisseh, nose, and arms, we don’t mean that these things actually exist there the way we see them down here. What the Mekubalim mean is that these things are anthropomorphic representations of His Middot. This means that we can’t, chas v’shalom a million times, ever think that we are simply the “physical” counterpart of these Middot because that would enter the transgression of Hagshamah. We can however say that we are cultivating the Tzelem Elokim by mimicking Him.

Just as his Middot “tie tefilin” (meaning: restrains their Gevurot), so do we tie tefilin to do the same.

Men have beards because we follow the pattern of the partzuf (spiritual system) of Ze’ir Anpin and when reaching shlemut of any determinate system, the partzuf of Arich Anpin (Keter). According to the Zohar, these two partzufim have “beards”, which is a way of saying they possess incredibly high and holy channels of light that flow down.

As we are then trying to emulate Hashem in his ways, it behooves us to let our beards grow freely in order to draw down these blessings, if not in this world, certainly in Olam HaBah.

Additional sources:

  • Medrash Rabbah
  • Even Ezra; Raven
  • Rokeach
  • Abarbanel
  • Seporno: Keser Torah
  • Shnei Luchos Habris
  • Bayis Chodosh (Bach)
  • Sidur R. Yakov Emdin
  • Hafloah
  • Tzemach Tzedek
  • MinchasChinuch
  • Komarner Rov: Sedei Chemed; Responsa Meharsham
  • Chazon Ish H.P.Z. part Hichapter 4
  • Ritvah
  • Bach: Beis Meir
  • Yafeh L’Lev: Sedei Chemed: Saba Kadisha
  • Meharsham
  • ChofetzChaim
  • Darchei Teshuva
  • Klei Chemda. See H.P.Z. part II chapter 6 at length

Concluding Remarks

The Beard is more than a nice Minhag. It’s an integral part of a Jewish man’s Tzelem Elokim. The blessings of having a full-grown beard probably are not materialized in this lowly world, but it is certainly visible in the Olam HaEmet. This shouldn’t be taken lightly.

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Chaim Apsan

Chaim is a teacher and Kabbalah enthusiast. He loves helping Jews connect with true Torah teaching and enhancing their spiritual growth. With a focus on meditation, he guides individuals on transformative journeys of prayer, contemplation, and connection with Hashem. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and kids, and is committed to sharing the wisdom and power of Kabbalah in a genuine way.

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