The picture of gray-haired men stroking their distinguished beards has long dominated the image of the Jewish scholar. The legal and cultural basis for this image remains a matter of historical intrigue.The Torah prohibits cutting certain spots of male facial hair: “You shall not destroy the side-growth of your beard” (Leviticus 19:27). While the Talmud limited this prohibition to five points on one’s face, medieval commentators offered at least six varying definitions of these areas. While all agree that the center of one’s chin must remain unshorn, they dispute the area of the other points, which might include the area around the lower earlobe, the ends and sides of the upper jaw bone and the ends of the mustache (Ritva Makot 21a). Given this dispute, the practice became not to improperly destroy any facial hair (YD 181:11), with decisors debating whether this extends to the neck area (Shach 181:7). The prohibition applies to barbers and clients alike (181:4), although many allow Jewish barbers uninhibitedly to shave non-Jewish clients.Medieval commentators offered various explanations for this prohibition. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra asserted that this prohibition stemmed from the general prohibition of mourning rituals of self-infliction (Leviticus 21:5) or, alternatively, reflected an inappropriate imitation of certain gentile practices that denigrated facial hair (19:17). Maimonides connected this commandment to the general prohibition of imitating idolatrous practices performed by priestly castes (Avoda Zara 12:7). Some decisors understood this rationale as offering room for dispensations in cases when copying gentile mannerisms may be permitted, such as with “court Jews” empowered to represent the community to the local government (Taz YD 181:1). Many strongly disputed this implication (Minhat Hinuch 251:1), with some further highlighting the threats of anti-nomianism created by the entire endeavor of offering rationales for commandments unstated by the Bible (Darchei Moshe). Others retorted that Maimonides believed that while this was the impetus for the law, this rationale had no legal implications, since the Divine command must always be respected (Meshech Hochma Leviticus 14:9). Others connected this prohibition to a general sentiment that a beard indicates the wisdom of age and experience (Sforno), noting that the Sages call a beard the “glory of one’s face” (Shabbat 152a). Indeed, some kabbalistic sources believe that stroking one’s beard while learning will help strengthen one’s acumen.The Sages understood that the Torah only prohibited cutting one’s facial hair at its root (“destruction”) with a blade (ke’ein ta’ar). Yet one may trim with scissors, which do not destroy hair at the root, or pluck with tweezers, which do not have a blade (Makot 21a). Many decisors, including Rabbi Yosef Karo, believed that this was true even if the result were similar to shaving with a blade (BY 181:10), and on this basis, most decisors allowed using depilatory cream to remove facial hair (Haim Sha’al 1:52).Some medieval figures, however, asserted that such close trims remained forbidden (Hinuch 252). This position was emphasized by the third Lubavitcher rebbe (d. 1866, Tzemah Tzedek YD 93), who also endorsed kabbalistic traditions from Rabbi Shlomo Luria (Arizal) that one should never trim any facial hair, except that around the lips which prevents eating cleanly (Be’er Hetev 181:5).Other sages, such as Rabbi Avraham Karelitz, further criticized using such creams because beards remain a symbol of age and wisdom (Kovetz Igrot Hazon Ish 1:197). Rabbi Yisrael M. Kagan (d. 1933) dedicated a book, Tiferet Ha’adam, against the phenomenon of clean-shaven Jews, which he believed was a sign of assimilation. Nonetheless, as Rabbi Moshe Sofer argued already in the 19th century, the preponderance of legal sources allow trimming or cutting one’s facial hair, as long as it is done in a permissible manner (Hatam Sofer OC 159). With the advent of electric shavers, some decisors, including Karelitz and Kagan, believed that such a close shave remained absolutely prohibited (Minhat Yitzhak 4:113). Others, including rabbis Haim Gradzinsky (Halichot Shlomo Tefilla p.11) and Tzvi Frank (Har Tzvi YD142), contended that the screen between the blade and the skin prevented the total destruction of the hair (leaving some stubble) and therefore remained permissible.Rabbi Moshe Feinstein alternatively argued that the key criterion for prohibited shavers was the method used, and not the result.Since electric shavers employ two blades (the outer screen and the inner blade), they are similar to scissors and remain permissible, even though they may cut the hair at skin level.Yet some decisors prohibit certain modern brands, including the “Lift and Cut” shaver, since the inner blade cuts, by itself, very close to the skin. Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch (Melumdei Milhama 122) and others, however, have contended that any shaver that cannot cut long facial hairs like a regular razor (and therefore require an attached trimmer) does not constitute a forbidden blade and remains permissible.The writer, online editor of Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture (text.rcarabbis.org), teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.JPostRabbi@yahoo.com.