Ask the Rabbi: A hairy issue

Why do some hassidic Jewish males refrain from cutting their pe'ot?

peot 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
peot 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Q Why do some hassidic Jewish males curl hair around their ears and refrain from cutting it (pe'ot or peyos)? - Meïr Villegas Henríquez, Rotterdam, the Netherlands A While pe'ot, curls of hair in the "sideburn" area around the ears, certainly appear beyond the hassidic community, they do not currently command universal observance, even within the Orthodox community. Many view them with a sense of ambivalence, treating them on the one hand as a sign of marked Jewishness, while at the same time as an aberration from the norm. This ambivalence, in fact, reflects this custom's long history that weaves together Halacha, self-identity and social realities. The Torah commands, "You shall not round off the side-growth (pe'ot) on your head, or destroy the side-growth of your beard" (Leviticus 19:27). This short verse amazingly encompasses the history of Jewish facial shaving. The rabbis understood the latter part of the verse to prohibit shaving with a blade (which shears and utterly destroys the hair), leaving Jews to historically either grow beards, trim with scissors or tweezers or, as in Eastern Europe, to use depilatory cream to burn facial whiskers. (Being clean shaven, I regularly thank God for electric shavers!) For our purposes, the first half of the verse prohibited shearing the hair in front of the ears, extending from the temple to below the cheekbone, or according to some, to the bottom of the earlobes (Makkot 20a). The most popular explanation given by Maimonides and others for both of these prohibitions contends that these shaving habits were promoted by idol worshipers, from whom we must distinguish ourselves (Guide III:37). Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) alternatively suggested that, based on connections to Leviticus 21:5, these practices were expressions of inappropriate mourning. Rabbi Ya'acov ben Asher (d. 1343, Spain), however, criticized this endeavor to offer rationales for these (and other) commandments, contending that we accept them because they represent the divine will (Tur YD 181). Medieval scholars struggled to define the scope of the pe'ot prohibition. Many scholars, such as Maimonides, contended that one may entirely cut this hair with scissors, provided that one does not use a razor (Hilchot Avoda Zara 12:6). The law, however, follows the opinion of Rabbenu Asher, who contended that one must leave some minimal hair, even when cut with scissors (YD 181:3). Much to the rabbis' chagrin, however, some Jews would razor-shave all of the hair in this area, or at best, leave a singular string of hair (Tashbetz 3:501). A number of rabbis condemned this behavior as an unwanted desire to appear like their non-Jewish neighbors. Nonetheless, while medieval scholars condemned overly cutting this area, they did not require people to grow out this hair. Maimonides stated this explicitly, noting that the masses err in thinking that the hair should remain unshorn, like a Nazirite (Responsa 2:44). Moreover, as Prof. Yitzhak Zimmer has documented in a detailed essay on this topic, artistic and literary depictions by both Jews and non-Jews make no reference to the growing of pe'ot. The famed 16th-century Safed kabbalist, R. Isaac Luria (Arizal), was the first to explicitly encourage Jews to grow pe'ot, noting that this mitzva can be performed all day for one's entire life. His students also promoted pe'ot as an external sign of one's Jewish identity, an idea which quickly spread to Sephardi and Ashkenazi lands alike. Under the influence of the Arizal, European hassidic Jews in particular embraced the mystical and symbolic significance of this practice. While some sects wear shorter pe'ot tucked behind ears, others grow them extremely long, to the point where many can identify the affiliation of hassidim based on their pe'ot. During these centuries, however, an increasing number of Jews violated shaving regulations, both regarding the face and the pe'ot areas. This was particularly truly in central European nations under the influence of the Renaissance, Protestantism, Enlightenment and Reform movements, where men were increasingly clean shaven and in some eras, wore wigs. As Prof. Zimmer notes, the increased neglect of shaving regulations by some Jews only increased its symbolic importance for traditionalist Jews, as pe'ot came to distinguish not only Jews from non-Jews, but also Jews from Jews. Indeed, a government commission found that certain secular leaders forced Yemenite children to cut their pe'ot during the 1950 mass emigration period, much to our country's shame. This is particularly true in light of the fact that pe'ot were the subject of vicious governmental decrees by many modern enemies of the Jewish people. Today, one finds an increasing number of religious-Zionist youth growing pe'ot. Some do so as a sign of identity with neo-hassidic spirituality, while others emulate the halachic stringency found in the haredi world. Whatever one might feel about this trend, it clearly indicates the continued symbolic meaning of our hair. The writer, on-line editor of Tradition, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University.