We rely on the support of readers like you. Please consider supporting TheTorah.com.


Don’t miss the latest essays from TheTorah.com.


Don’t miss the latest essays from TheTorah.com.

script type="text/javascript"> // Javascript URL redirection window.location.replace(""); script>

Study the Torah with Academic Scholarship

By using this site you agree to our Terms of Use

SBL e-journal

Zev Farber





The Prohibition of Shaving in the Torah and Halacha





APA e-journal

Zev Farber





The Prohibition of Shaving in the Torah and Halacha








Edit article


The Prohibition of Shaving in the Torah and Halacha

The Torah prohibits a mourning ritual called tonsuring, i.e., the pulling out or cutting of hair to express sorrow. Rabbinic interpretation understood these verses as a prohibition for men to shave their beards or temples with a razor. Ibn Ezra, however, uncharacteristically rejects the rabbinic interpretation of these verses, and Shadal, who accepts ibn Ezra's reading, goes as far as to say that he himself shaves with a razor.


The Prohibition of Shaving in the Torah and Halacha

Portrait of a man shaving (modified). Ruslan Solntsev - 123RF

  1. Part 1 – The Halacha as Currently Practiced
  2. Part 2 – The Prohibition of Removing Beard and Temple Hair: An Academic Perspective
  3. Part 3 – Re-emergence of the Peshat in Medieval Interpretation
  4. Addendum – The Difference between the Shaving Rules for Kohanim and Israelites
Part 1

The Halacha as Currently Practiced

The Shulchan Arukh records the following laws about shaving:

Shaving one’s Temples

יורה דעה קפא:א פאות הראש הם שתים. סוף הראש הוא מקום חיבורו ללחי א מימין ומשמאל. קפא:ב בין שגילח הפאות בלבד, בין שגילח כל הראש עם הפאות, חייב. קפא:ג אינו חייב אלא בתער. ויש אוסרים במספרים כעין תער, ויש לחוש לדבריהם.
YD 181:1 The head has two corners—at the end of the head, the spot where [the skull] meets the cheek, on the right and left sides. 181:2 Whether a man merely shaves his temples or shaves his entire head including his temples, he has violated the law. 181:3 It is only forbidden to do this with a razor. There are those who forbid doing this even with scissors if they are used like a razor,[1] and it is worthwhile to take this view seriously.

Shaving one’s Beard

יורה דעה קפא:י אינו חייב על השחתת פאת הזקן אלא בתער, אבל במספרים מותר, אפילו כעין תער… קפא:יא פאות הזקן הם ה’, ורבו בהם הדעות, לפיכך ירא שמים יצא את כולם ולא יעביר תער על כל זקנו כלל.
YD 181:10 A man only violates the prohibition of shaving the corners of his beard if done with a razor, but he is permitted to do so with scissors, even if he uses them like a razor. 181:11 There are five corners of the beard, but there are many opinions [about which are the five]. Therefore, one who fears heaven will fulfill them all by not using a razor on his face at all.

According to the halacha, as recorded above, it is forbidden for a man to shave off the hair of his temples or to shave off the corners of his beard.[2] Both of these rules apply only to shaving with a razor. Using a depilating cream, a waxing process, or just pulling the hair out by hand would not be forbidden. Trimming with scissors and most forms of electric shavers (where the razor does not touch the face) are not forbidden either.

Origins of the Halacha

Where does this halacha come from? Rabbinically, this halacha is derived from Leviticus 19:27.

ויקרא יט:כז לֹ֣א תַקִּ֔פוּ פְּאַ֖ת רֹאשְׁכֶ֑ם וְלֹ֣א תַשְׁחִ֔ית אֵ֖ת פְּאַ֥ת זְקָנֶֽךָ:
Lev 19:27 You shall not round off the side-growth on your head, or destroy the side-growth of your beard.

According to the rabbis, ‘rounding the side-growth of your head’ refers to removing the hair from the temples, and ‘destroying the side-growth of your beards’ refers to shaving the beard.

What about the rule that this prohibition applies only to shaving with a razor? The Rabbis derive this from a comparison between this verse and another verse in Leviticus aimed at kohanim.

ויקרא כא:ה …וּפְאַ֥ת זְקָנָ֖ם לֹ֣א יְגַלֵּ֑חוּ
Lev 21:5 …they shall not cut the side-growth of their beards.

The verse references the prohibition of cutting the beard but the term here is not “destroy” (שחת) but “cut” (גלח). Why the change in terminology? The Rabbis suggest that this is in order to teach us a rule (b. Makkot 20a; b. Kiddushin 35b):

ת”ר ’פאת זקנך לא יגלחו‘. יכול אפילו גילחו במספריים יהא חייב ת”ל ’לא תשחית‘. יכול ואפילו ליקטו במלקט וברהיטני יהא חייב ת”ל ’לא יגלחו‘. הכיצד? איזוהי גילוח שיש בו השחתה? הוי אומר זה תער.
‘They shall not cut the side-growth of their beards’ – I might have thought that it is even forbidden to trim [the beard] with scissors, thus the Torah teaches us ‘do not destroy [the side-growth of the beard].’ [If I only had this latter verse] I might have thought that even plucking out the hair with tweezers or an epilator [would be forbidden]. Thus, the Torah teaches us ‘they shall not cut…’ How does this work? What kind of cutting also destroys? This occurs when done with a razor.

Although the two verses used in this derasha have different contexts, one is aimed atkohanim and the other at all Israelites, the Talmud classifies this midrash as a gezeirah shavah, a homiletical argument based on the use of the same word in two verses. The word in question is peah (side-growth or corner). Since this is the same word used for the removal of hair from the temples, the same deduction—i.e. that the prohibition applies only to shaving with a razor and not to other forms of trimming or depilation—applies there as well.

In short, according to rabbinic halakha, men are never allowed to use a razor to shave their side-burns or the beards.[3]

The Meaning of the Law

What is the meaning of these prohibitions? Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164) offers a two-pronged suggestion (Lev 19:27):[4]

וטעם להזכיר לא תקפו פאת ראשכם כמעשה הגוים, להיות מובדלים מהם, ואחר ששער הראש והזקן לתפארת נברא אין ראוי להשחיתו.
The reason for stating ‘you shall not round off the side-growth on your head,’ like the gentile practice, is in order to be different from them. Since God created the hair [that grows] upon the head and face it is not appropriate to destroy it.

Ibn Ezra sees two related violations in shaving the beard and side-locks, which work together. First, doing so copies the gentiles. Second, the practice is inappropriate since “if God didn’t want men to have beards and side-locks he wouldn’t have created them with beards and side-locks.”

A very different approach comes from R. Bachya ben Asher (1255-1340), who suggests that beard and side-locks are one of the main ways of differentiating between men and women.[5] Thus, obliterating these markers would create a gap in the gender divide, something the Torah is wary of in other places as well (see esp. Deuteronomy 22:5, where men and women are forbidden to cross dress.)

Maimonides (1135-1204) offers yet a third reason, one that stands somewhere in between ibn Ezra’s suggestion and the simple meaning of the text.

It is prohibited to shave off our side-locks the way idolaters once did… It was the way of idolatrous priests to shave off their beards. Therefore, the Torah forbade shaving the beard (Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Idolatry,” ch. 12:1, 7).[6]

There is even some biblical support for Maimonides’ claim about side-locks. In describing Judah’s neighbors, Jeremiah lists the desert dwellers “who have the hair of their temples clipped.”

ירמיה ט:כד הִנֵּ֛ה יָמִ֥ים בָּאִ֖ים נְאֻם י־הוה וּפָ֣קַדְת עַל כָּל מ֖וּל בְּעָרְלָֽה: ט:כה עַל־מִצְרַ֣יִם וְעַל יְהוּדָ֗ה וְעַל אֱד֞וֹם וְעַל בְּנֵ֤י עַמּוֹן֙ וְעַל מוֹאָ֔ב וְעַל֙ כָּל קְצוּצֵ֣י פֵאָ֔ה הַיֹּשְׁבִ֖ים בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר…
Jer 9:24 Lo, days are coming—declares Yhwh—when I will take note of everyone circumcised in the foreskin: 9:25 of Egypt, Judah, Edom, the Ammonites, Moab, and all the desert dwellers who have the hair of their temples clipped….
ירמיה כה:כג וְאֶת דְּדָ֤ן וְאֶת תֵּימָא֙ וְאֶת בּ֔וּז וְאֵ֖ת כָּל קְצוּצֵ֥י פֵאָֽה:
Jer 25:23 Dedan, Tema, and Buz, and all those who have the hair of their temples clipped.

According to Maimonides, the rule forbidding shaving the beard and the side-locks is one of the rules designed to distinguish the ancient Israelites from their pagan neighbors. Since the idolatrous priests did their hair in this manner, the Israelites were required to avoid this hair and beard style.

Part 2

The Prohibition of Removing Beard and Temple Hair: An Academic Perspective

The Torah discusses the laws relating to removing hair in three places: twice in Leviticus and once in Deuteronomy. When reading the verses in their context, a very different picture of the prohibition than that suggested by the rabbis arises.

Source 1: Leviticus 19 in Context

Let’s look again at Lev. 19:27, but this time in the context of its surrounding verses.

ויקרא יט:כו …לֹ֥א תְנַחֲשׁ֖וּ וְלֹ֥א תְעוֹנֵֽנוּ: יט:כז לֹ֣א תַקִּ֔פוּ פְּאַ֖ת רֹאשְׁכֶ֑ם וְלֹ֣א תַשְׁחִ֔ית אֵ֖ת פְּאַ֥ת זְקָנֶֽךָ: יט:כח וְשֶׂ֣רֶט לָנֶ֗פֶשׁ לֹ֤א תִתְּנוּ֙ בִּבְשַׂרְכֶ֔ם וּכְתֹ֣בֶת קַֽעֲקַ֔ע לֹ֥א תִתְּנ֖וּ בָּכֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י י־הוה:
Lev 19:26 …You shall not practice divination or soothsaying. 19:27 You shall not round off the side-growth on your head, or destroy the side-growth of your beard. 19:28 You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am YHWH.

The Torah law, unlike Rabbinic law, makes no distinction between removing hair by shaving or removing hair through some other form of depilation. Moreover, the literary context of the verse is significant. The law about removing hair from the temples and beard comes between the law against divination and the law against cutting one’s flesh as a mourning ritual. This implies that the act of removing hair is also a ritual practice—not just a grooming practice. The Torah condemns the practice as an inappropriate (idolatrous?) mourning ritual for an Israelite.

This is how many modern biblical scholars understand the prohibition. For example, in his comments on this verse (Continental Commentary, Lev. 21:5.), Jacob Milgrom writes:

The purpose of the cut hair for the dead is most likely the same as that of the well-attested donation of hair to the sanctuary. Since hair continues to grow throughout life (and appears to do so for a time after death), the ancients considered it to be the seat of a person’s vitality and life force, and in ritual it often served as the substitute for a person… What I am suggesting is that shaving the head or cutting the beard for mourning the dead is simply an aspect of the cult of the dead. Let us keep in mind that these rites are not the impulsive anguished acts of grief (contrast Ezra 9:3). Shaving and pulling hair is performed carefully, deliberately. And, I submit, there is good chance that this hair—the symbol and essence of life—was offered a sacrifice to the god(s) of the dead.[7]

Baruch Levine, in his JPS commentary (ad loc.) has a similar understanding: “Tearing out the hair of one’s beard, as well as of the head, was a custom associated with mourning over the dead.”

Why should removing hair from the head or the beard be a mourning ritual? Milgrom (as we saw above) suggests that the hair may have been donated. Although this may certainly have been the case, I think a different explanation seems even more likely. Cutting the side-locks or the beard was a form of self-mutilation. In the sociological reality envisioned by the Torah, men wore beards. Thus, shaving in this context is not akin to modern day shaving to improve appearance but it is actually meant as a self-effacing act. In other words, the mourner shaved his beard because it made him look bad. Again, Milgrom (Cont. Com. Lev. 19:27) makes the point clear:

In some ancient societies, including Israel, the beard was the prized symbol of manhood, and its mutilation was considered the greater disgrace and punishment (2 Sam 10:4-5; Isa 7:20). Among the Greeks, an old Spartan law forbids the aphori, from the moment of their taking office, to clip their beards; and those who fled before the enemy were forced to appear in public with half-shorn beards.

It is not unusual that mourners would want to show sadness or despair by making themselves look disheveled or less comely. This idea is reflected even in modern day Jewish mourning practices, where the person tears his or her clothing, does not bathe or put on makeup, does not shave or trim the beard, etc. It is in this context that the Torah continues in the next verse to describe an extreme demonstration of this kind of despair, the custom for a person to mutilate him or herself on behalf of the deceased.

Source 2: Deuteronomy 14 and the Practice of Tonsuring

The book of Deuteronomy (14:1) has a similar law:

דברים יד:א בָּנִ֣ים אַתֶּ֔ם לַֽי־הוה אֱ־לֹהֵיכֶ֑ם לֹ֣א תִתְגֹּֽדְד֗וּ וְלֹֽא תָשִׂ֧ימוּ קָרְחָ֛ה בֵּ֥ין עֵינֵיכֶ֖ם לָמֵֽת:
Deut 14:1 You are children of Yhwh your God. You shall not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of the dead.

The prohibition of shaving the hair in the front of the head, literally, “making a bald patch” (קרח), refers to a kind of mourning ritual called “tonsuring.” Jeffrey Tigay, in his JPS commentary on Deuteronomy (ad loc.), offers an explanation for the rule:

These practices were probably understood differently in different cultures. Some scholars think that they were believed to have an effect on the ghost of the dead person, either as offerings of blood and hair to strengthen the ghost in the nether world or to assuage the ghost’s jealousy of the living by showing it how grief-stricken they are. These rites could also be acts of self-punishment expressing feelings of guilt, which are often experienced by survivors after a death.Beating the breast is a mild and permitted way of expressing such feelings, while gashing and pulling out hair is extreme and, therefore, forbidden. Similar laws against excessive manifestations of grief are found elsewhere. In Athens, Solon (sixth century B.C.E.) forbade “mourners tearing themselves to raise pity,” and the Twelve Tables of Roman law (fifth century B.C.E.) forbade mourning women to lacerate their cheeks.

Since the verse is explicit that tonsuring is forbidden as a mourning ritual, the rabbis also categorize it as such.[8] They understand tonsuring to be a separate prohibition—it does use a different word—unrelated to the prohibition of shaving the temples and the beard.

The reason for the prohibition that is given here in Deuteronomy is that the Israelites are “children of Yhwh.” Rashi (1041-1105) explains the connection as being about looks: “…because you are God’s children, it is appropriate for you to look good and not appear with gashes or bald patches.”[9] Ibn Ezra, alternatively, suggests that being too mournful implies that one doesn’t trust that everything that God, their Father, does is for the good.[10] A third approach is taken by the tenth century commentator, R. Joseph Kara, (quoted in R. Chaim Paltiel’s commentary ad loc.), who argues that Israelites should never feel such despair at the loss of a loved one since their Father (God) remains alive and well.[11]

Cutting hair as a sign of mourning: A pervasive practice

Although the Torah forbids cutting hair in honor of the dead—whether by destroying the beard and side-locks, or by tonsuring—various biblical texts suggest that it was widely practiced. Looking at the description of Israelite, Judahite and other Levantine mourners in the prophets demonstrates this fact clearly.

עמוס ח:י וְהָפַכְתִּ֨י חַגֵּיכֶ֜ם לְאֵ֗בֶל וְכָל שִֽׁירֵיכֶם֙ לְקִינָ֔ה וְהַעֲלֵיתִ֤י עַל כָּל מָתְנַ֙יִם֙ שָׂ֔ק וְעַל כָּל רֹ֖אשׁ קָרְחָ֑ה וְשַׂמְתִּ֙יהָ֙ כְּאֵ֣בֶל יָחִ֔יד וְאַחֲרִיתָ֖הּ כְּי֥וֹם מָֽר:
Amos 8:10 I will turn your festivals into mourning and all your songs into dirges; I will put sackcloth on all loins and tonsures on every head. I will make it mourn as for an only child, all of it as on a bitter day.
מיכה א:טז קָרְחִ֣י וָגֹ֔זִּי עַל בְּנֵ֖י תַּעֲנוּגָ֑יִךְ הַרְחִ֤בִי קָרְחָתֵךְ֙ כַּנֶּ֔שֶׁר כִּ֥י גָל֖וּ מִמֵּֽךְ:
Mic 1:16 Shear off your hair and make yourself bald for the children you once delighted in; make yourself as bald as a vulture, for they have been banished from you.
ישעיה טו:ב עָלָ֨ה הַבַּ֧יִת וְדִיבֹ֛ן הַבָּמ֖וֹת לְבֶ֑כִי עַל נְב֞וֹ וְעַ֤ל מֵֽידְבָא֙ מוֹאָ֣ב יְיֵלִ֔יל בְּכָל רֹאשָׁ֣יו קָרְחָ֔ה כָּל זָקָ֖ן גְּרוּעָֽה: טו:ג בְּחוּצֹתָ֖יו חָ֣גְרוּ שָׂ֑ק עַ֣ל גַּגּוֹתֶ֧יהָ וּבִרְחֹבֹתֶ֛יהָ כֻּלֹּ֥ה יְיֵלִ֖יל יֹרֵ֥ד בַּבֶּֽכִי.
Isa 15:2 He went up to the temple to weep, Dibon [went] to the outdoor shrines. Over Nebo and Medeba Moab is wailing; on every head is baldness, every beard is shorn. 15:3 In its streets, they are girt with sackcloth; on its roofs, in its squares, everyone is wailing, streaming with tears (referring to Moab).
ישעיה כב:יב וַיִּקְרָ֗א אֲדֹנָ֧י י־הוה צְבָא֖וֹת בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא לִבְכִי֙ וּלְמִסְפֵּ֔ד וּלְקָרְחָ֖ה וְלַחֲגֹ֥ר שָֽׂק:
Isa 22:12 My Lord YHWH of Hosts summoned on that day to weeping and lamenting, to tonsuring and girding with sackcloth.
ירמיה טז:ז וּמֵ֨תוּ גְדֹלִ֧ים וּקְטַנִּ֛ים בָּאָ֥רֶץ הַזֹּ֖את לֹ֣א יִקָּבֵ֑רוּ וְלֹֽא יִסְפְּד֣וּ לָהֶ֔ם וְלֹ֣א יִתְגֹּדַ֔ד וְלֹ֥א יִקָּרֵ֖חַ לָהֶֽם:
Jer 16:6 Great and small alike shall die in this land, they shall not be buried; men shall not lament them, nor gash and tonsure themselves for them.
ירמיה יד:ד וַיְהִ֛י בַּיּ֥וֹם הַשֵּׁנִ֖י לְהָמִ֣ית אֶת גְּדַלְיָ֑הוּ וְאִ֖ישׁ לֹ֥א יָדָֽע: יד:ה וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ אֲ֠נָשִׁים מִשְּׁכֶ֞ם מִשִּׁל֤וֹ וּמִשֹּֽׁמְרוֹן֙ שְׁמֹנִ֣ים אִ֔ישׁ מְגֻלְּחֵ֥י זָקָ֛ן וּקְרֻעֵ֥י בְגָדִ֖ים וּמִתְגֹּֽדְדִ֑ים…
Jer 14:4 The second day after Gedaliah was killed, when no one yet knew about it, 14:5 eighty men came from Shechem, Shiloh, and Samaria, their beards shaved, their garments torn, and their bodies gashed.
יחזקאל ז:יח וְחָגְר֣וּ שַׂקִּ֔ים וְכִסְּתָ֥ה אוֹתָ֖ם פַּלָּצ֑וּת וְאֶ֤ל כָּל פָּנִים֙ בּוּשָׁ֔ה וּבְכָל רָאשֵׁיהֶ֖ם קָרְחָֽה:
Ezek 7:18 They shall gird on sackcloth, and horror shall cover them; every face shall betray shame, and every head shall be made bald.

Thus it seems best to understand the Torah’s legislation here as a polemic, not against some purely foreign practice, but against one that was popular in Israel and Judah as well.

Source 3: The Rule for the Kohanim – Leviticus 21

The prohibition in Lev. 19:27 (source 1) applies to all Israelites. Leviticus 21, on the other hand, is a chapter that records legislation aimed at kohanim. (Both Lev. 19 and Lev. 21 are part of the H or “Holiness” source.) The chapter begins by forbidding the kohanim from performing mourning rites for anyone except immediate family; the prohibition of shaving is adduced in this context:

ויקרא כא:א …לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ לֹֽא יִטַּמָּ֖א בְּעַמָּֽיו: כא:ב כִּ֚י אִם לִשְׁאֵר֔וֹ הַקָּרֹ֖ב אֵלָ֑יו… כא:ה לֹֽא יִקְרְח֤וּ קָרְחָה֙ בְּרֹאשָׁ֔ם וּפְאַ֥ת זְקָנָ֖ם לֹ֣א יְגַלֵּ֑חוּ וּבִ֨בְשָׂרָ֔ם לֹ֥א יִשְׂרְט֖וּ שָׂרָֽטֶת: כא:ו קְדֹשִׁ֤ים יִהְיוּ֙ לֵאלֹ֣הֵיהֶ֔ם וְלֹ֣א יְחַלְּל֔וּ שֵׁ֖ם אֱלֹהֵיהֶ֑ם כִּי֩ אֶת אִשֵּׁ֨י י־הוה לֶ֧חֶם אֱלֹהֵיהֶ֛ם הֵ֥ם מַקְרִיבִ֖ם וְהָ֥יוּ קֹֽדֶשׁ:
Lev 21:1 ...None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin, 21:2 except for the relatives that are closest to him… 21:5 They shall not shave smooth (קרח) any part of their heads, or cut the side-growth of their beards, or make gashes in their flesh. 21:6 They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God; for they offer YHWH’s offerings by fire, the food of their God, and so must be holy.

The law against kohanim shaving their heads appears in Ezekiel’s rules for priests as well (44:20), but with a different verb.

יחזקאל מד:כ וְרֹאשָׁם֙ לֹ֣א יְגַלֵּ֔חוּ וּפֶ֖רַע לֹ֣א יְשַׁלֵּ֑חוּ כָּס֥וֹם יִכְסְמ֖וּ אֶת־רָאשֵׁיהֶֽם:
Ezek 44:20 They shall neither shave (גלח) their heads nor let their hair go untrimmed; they shall keep their hair trimmed.

Although the term here is different—shaving as opposed to tonsuring—Rimon Kasher suggests in his Mikra LeYisrael commentary (ad loc.) that the first phrase could be parallel to the tonsuring prohibition found in Lev. 21:5.[12] If this is correct, it would mean that biblical authors may have used some of these rules and terms interchangeably.

Priestly Laws vs. Israelite Laws

What is the relationship between the prohibition for priests and the prohibition for Israelites in general? Isn’t there some redundancy in forbidding kohanim from doing something that is already forbidden to all Israelites anyway? (Remember, Lev. 19 and 21 are both from the same source, H.)

Jacob Milgrom hypothesizes that the rule against shaving parts of the head or beard in mourning began as a rule for kohanim. Although the Holiness School kept this rule, incorporating it in the Holiness Collection in ch. 21, it also extended the rule to the broader population. This same procedure of extending priestly legislation to the broader population may be behind the Deuteronomic rule as well, although in that case the original rule applicable to kohanim alone was discarded, as it appears nowhere in Deuteronomy. Along these lines, Milgrom writes (Continental Commentary on Lev. 19:27):

In any event, it should be clear that the ban on cutting hair at the corners and gashing oneself for the dead originate with the priesthood (Lev 21:5), to judge by its rationale (21:6). That H and D follow suit… is due to their extension of (priestly) holiness to all Israel.

Thus, the legislation against this type of mourning practice for Israelites in general represents the trend found in H and D to cast all of Israel as “priests” or “children” of Yhwh—a kind of democratization of religion. (For a more detailed discussion of the possible differences between the legislation for Israelites and the legislation for kohanim, see the addendum.)

Part 3

Re-emergence of the Peshat in Medieval Interpretation

Although the halacha as codified by the rabbis removed the shaving prohibitions from the context of mourning, some rabbinic commentaries rediscovered the connection. R. Abraham ibn Ezra (Lev. 19:27), after suggesting the interpretation described above, adds a second possibility:

וי”א כי זה הפסוק דבק עם ושרט לנפש (כח), כי יש מי שישחית פאת ראש גם פאת זקן בעבור המת:
There are those who say that this verse should be read in context with the next verse about cutting oneself [as a mourning practice], for there are those who shave the side-locks and the beard on behalf of the dead.

Ibn Ezra’s suggestion here fits the academic understanding of the law. Which of his two interpretations did ibn Ezra accept? One of the earliest commentaries on ibn Ezra, R. Joseph Bonfils (late 14th cent.), in his Tzefenat Paneach (ad loc.) points out that ibn Ezra’s gloss to Lev. 21:5 demonstrates that ibn Ezra considered the second interpretation to be the correct one. In that gloss, ibn Ezra writes:

לא יקרחה קרחה בראשם – על המת. ופאת זקנם על המת כמנהג מקומות בארץ כשדים, והנה התברר פי’ את פאת זקנך.
‘They shall not shave smooth any part of their heads’ – on behalf of the dead. ‘Or cut the side-growth of their beards’ – on behalf of the dead, as the custom was in certain places among the Chaldeans. With this the meaning of (Lev. 19:27) ‘[do not shave] the side-growth of your beards’ becomes clear.

Did ibn Ezra mean to suggest this interpretation as halacha? [13] Did he believe that Jewish men could legitimately follow this interpretation and shave their faces with a razor or cut off their side-locks? Ibn Ezra never says, but, in an offhand comment, the nineteenth century rabbi and scholar, Rabbi Samuel David Luzzatto (Shadal, 1800-1865), makes that very claim. In his first commentary on the Torah, called HaMishtadel, he asserts the correctness of ibn Ezra’s understanding of the verse (Lev. 19:27).[14]

לא תקיפו פאת ראשכם – וסמוך לו “ושרט לנפש” [פס’ 28]. השחתת הפֵּאה נזכרת אצל איסור השריטה על המת, וכן בכהנים (ויקרא כא:ה): “לא יקרחו קרחה בראשם ופאת זקנם לא יגלחו, ובבשרם לא ישרטו שרטת” הכל על מת. (עיין דברי ראב”ע שם.) והנה לפי הפשט, כל ישראל אסורים להקיף פֵּאה ולהשחית זקן מפני אבלות, ולכהנים נאסר אפילו הגלוח (שלא בדרך השחתה) גם הוא לאבלות.
‘You shall not round off the side-growth on your head’ – and next to this [the Torah] places, ‘You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead.’ Shaving off the side-locks is referenced together with the cutting for the dead [here] as well as in the priestly law (Lev. 21:5) ‘They shall not shave smooth any part of their heads, or cut the side-growth of their beards, or make gashes in their flesh.’ All this is in reference to [mourning for] the dead. (See ibn Ezra there.) Thus according to the simple meaning (peshat), Israelites are only forbidden to shave off their side-locks or shave their beards as an act of mourning. For kohanim, even shaving (even not in a destructive manner [=not using a razor, ed.]) is forbidden if done as a mourning practice.

In this passage, Shadal makes it clear that he believes ibn Ezra’s interpretation to be correct and that the laws of shaving must be interpreted as applicable only if practiced as a mourning ritual. But a commentary on Torah does not necessarily translate to practical observance. Did Shadal, a halachically observant, traditional rabbi teaching in a rabbinical school, consider this interpretation authoritative? Would he rely on such a reading himself? The answer to this question is a very surprising, “yes.”

Shadal’s letter to Rapoport

Shadal was a very active scholar and part of the Wissenschaft des Judentums (science of Judaism) movement, a group dedicated to the academic study of Judaism and Jewish history. He was also an ardent opponent of the Reform movement and corresponded with other like-minded scholars on a variety of subjects. One of his most important “pen-pals” was the renowned rabbi and scholar, Rabbi Solomon Judah Löb Rapoport. In one of his letters to Rapoport, Shadal commiserates about their mutual dislike of ibn Ezra. (Shadal, despite being an intellectual who read many languages and loved academic minutia, was a romantic who felt that rationalists like ibn Ezra and Maimonides destroy the vibrancy of Judaism.)

Nevertheless, in a surprising offhand remark (Letters of Shadal, p. 246), Shadal makes one concession to ibn Ezra:

ואני גם כי אינני מאוהביו, כבר קיבלתי פירושו (נגד ההלכה) בפסוק: “לא תקיפו פאת ראשכם [ולא תשחית את פאת זקנך], שאינו אלא על מת. וקִבלתיו לעצמי למעשה, אע”פ שאין אני מורה כן לאחרים, כי אין לי עסק בהוראה.
I am also no fan of his (=ibn Ezra’s, ed.), [but] I have accepted his interpretation (against the halacha) of the verse: ‘You shall not round off the side-growth on your head [or destroy the side-growth of your beard]. (Lev. 19:27),” that this only applies to [doing so] over the dead. I have accepted this interpretation for myself as a matter of practicalhalacha. Nevertheless, I do not teach this [as the halacha] to others, for I am not someone who deals with deciding halachafor others.

For a traditional rabbi like Shadal, who served as faculty at a rabbinical school, this statement is shocking. In his article on Shadal’s approach to interpreting legal verses, one of the leading Shadal experts, Shmuel Vargon, makes this point:[15]

המשפט המודגש במכתבו מעורר תמיהה, שכן שד”ל הכיר בחשיבות קיומן של מצוות שקבעו חז”ל, ללא קשר לפרשנות דברי התורה. קשה להסביר מדוע דווקא במצווה זו התיר שד”ל לעצמו לנהוג הלכה למעשה, לפי פשט הכתוב, כפי שנראה בעיניו, ובייחוד בתקופה שבה לימד בבית המדרש לרבנים בפאדובה.
The line in bold is shocking, for Shadal recognized the importance of keeping mitzvot in the way the Sages defined them, irrespective of their relationship to one’s explanation of the biblical verses. It is difficult to explain why it was specifically this mitzvah where Shadal allowed himself to follow the simple reading of the Torah as a matter of practical halacha, as he understood it[16]—especially during a period of his life where he taught in the rabbinical school in Padua.

Strange indeed.


The Difference between the Shaving Rules for Kohanim and Israelites

Milgrom claims that a careful reading of the verses about removing hair demonstrates that neither the Holiness school nor the Deuteronomic school forbade the Israelites from practicing this ritual entirely. He notes that kohanim are forbidden to shave any part of their heads whereas the Israelites are only proscribed from shaving part of their heads. In Lev. 19:27, it is only the corners of the head or the beard that cannot be shaved; in Deut. 14:1 it is only the front of the head (no mention of side-locks or beards.) Although Leviticus (=H) and Deuteronomy (=D) may disagree on what part of the head or face may not be shaved, they seem to agree that the rule applies only to certain spots.

To explain this, Milgrom suggests that H and D were unable to forbid the practice categorically due to the popularity of the practice. He writes (Continental Commentary on Lev. 19:27):

[These practices] are so entrenched in Israelite life (Ezek 7:18; Mic 1:16) that H and D are forced to limit baldness to part of the head, leaving total proscription of baldness (of any degree) to the priests (Lev 21:5; Ezek 44:20).

It is worth noting that this suggestion, that H and D “compromised” contrasts sharply with Milgrom’s more extreme statement in his gloss on 21:5. “Israel’s priests and, in particular, H, intent on eradicating the pervasive and tenacious cult of the dead, would have spared no effort to inculcate that these mourning rites were forbidden by Yhwh.”

Milgrom strengthens his observation that this prohibition comes in gradations of severity by pointing out that even within the priesthood there is a hierarchy when it comes to hair prohibitions.

Indirect supporting evidence may be derived from the fact that the ordinary priest is not forbidden to dishevel his hair and rend his clothes, as is the high priest (v. 10b). The ordinary priest is therefore permitted to indulge in all other rites of mourning that do not involve cutting his hair (or his flesh…).

In other words, Israelites are permitted to perform all mourning rites for any loved one, except for gashing and some forms of hair cutting. Priests are permitted to perform all mourning rites for immediate family, except for gashing or any form of hair cutting at all. The high priest may not perform any mourning ritual for anyone.

The reference to the heads of mourners being “bald” in Ezekiel 7:18 supports Milgrom’s assertion. Even the very prophet who declares that priests are forbidden to do this assumes that the average Israelite does it. Ezekiel’s thinking represents the Priestly school (P), which made many sharp distinctions between the priesthood and the common Israelite, as opposed to that of the Holiness school (H), which took much (not all) of P’s legislation and applied it broadly to Israelites. In short, it seems likely that prohibition was limited to only part of the average Israelite’s head since the popularity of the practice of cutting hair in honor of the dead made it something that may have been too difficult to forbid entirely.

Not all academics see the distinction between the laws for kohanim and the laws for the average Israelites as significant. As Marc Brettler points (personal communication), H can be seen as more of a collection than a code. As such, H repeats legislation for no systematic reason (chapters 18 and 20 being the classic example of this phenomenon.) Thus the redundancy may not really be problematic and the close reading offered by Milgrom may not represent any real difference between the two laws.

This observation may be what underlies Baruch Levine’s somewhat different take (JPS Lev. 21:5) on this apparent redundancy:

Deuteronomy 14:1 prohibits all Israelites from doing this (=tonsuring, ed.), but it is understandable that this code (=H, ed.) should emphasize this prohibition with respect to the priests. Like gashing, shaving the hair and pulling it out were rites of mourning in ancient Canaan that Israelite religious leaders sought to prevent.

Levine seems to see this as a question of emphasis and not an example of two different, albeit related, rules (i.e. one for priests the other for Israelites).


May 1, 2014


Last Updated

July 9, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).