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Month 8:11, Week 2:3 (Shleshi/Bikkurim), Year 5935:211 AM
Gregorian Calendar: Sunday 6 November 2011
Must I Grow a Beard?
What the Torah Says About Facial Hair

      "You shall not shave (naqaf = 'cut in a circle') around the sides of your head ('scalp', OJB), nor shall you disfigure (shachath = 'ruin'; 'mar', HRV, OJB; 'destroy', ISRV) the edges (pe'ot = 'extremity') of your beard (zaqan). You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am Yahweh...Therefore you shall observe all My statutes (chuqqim) and all My judgments (mishpatim), and perform them: I am Yahweh'" (Lev.19:27-28,37, NKJV).

    I am sometimes asked why I, as a Torah-observant Messianic Evangelical, don't wear a beard when the Torah says that I must. The verse always quoted in insisting that all male believers must grow beards is our passage of Scripture today. One Messianic commentary is emphatic:

      "Notice this Yisraelite (Israelite) men were expected and commanded to wear beards. Also this does not specifically prohibit the trimming of side locks, or peyot. Rather the command is not to destroy them, or be fully clean-shaven as are many Sunday pastors" (Footnote #2, RSTNE, 2nd edition).

    But is this a correct interpretation? Let us first of all translate this passage literally and not try to 'read in' anything:

      "You shall not cut in a circle around the sides of your scalp, nor shall you ruin the edges of your beard" (Lev.19:27).

    In the three verses under study Yahweh prohibits four types of cuttings:

    • 1. Cutting the head or hair;
    • 2. Cutting the face or beard;
    • 3. Cutting the flesh to mourn the dead; and
    • 4. Inscribing writing by cutting the flesh.

    Why did Yahweh specifically mention these four things? And what precisely is forbidden by these four mitzvot (commandments)? Are we required to grow long Elvis-style side locks or Rabbanite-style, Orthodox Jewish pe'os? To understand these four commandments we must consider the meaning of the words in their immediate context as well as the broader context of the entire Tanakh (Old Testament) and the ancient world in which the Torah was given. And what of those men who cannot grow beards, such as many Chinese, Native Americans and some African tribes such as pigmies? Is there something wrong with them?

    Let us begin with the first commandment in the series, rounding the side of one's head. To round the side of the head does not mean to cut the head itself but rather to cut the hair on the head. Specifically we are forbidden from rounding the pe'ah of the head. Pe'ah is often translated as 'corner' or 'side-lock', but it actually has the meaning of 'side' or 'edge'. This is always the meaning of the word pe'ah in hundreds of passages throughout the Tanakh (Old Testament):

      "And for the second side of the mishkan (tabernacle), on the north side (pe'ah), twenty boards" (Ex.26:20).

      "And the west side (pe'ah) shall be the Great Sea, from the border as far as over against the entrance of Hamath. This is the west side (pe'ah)" (Ezek.47:20).

    To "round the edge of your head" means to cut off the hair around the sides of the head. Many exegetes associate this with the pagan 'bowl-cut'. A bowl-cut was an ancient hair-cut with pagan significance that was created by placing a round bowl on the head and cutting all the exposed hair. However, when the prohibition to cut one's hair is repeated in Deuteronomy, we read:

      "...you shall not cut yourselves nor shall you place baldness between your eyes, for the dead" (Dt.14:1-2).

    Since most people do not have any significant hair "between the eyes", this phrase is usually understood as meaning the hair on the front of the head above the eyes. Bearing this in mind, we learn two things from Deuteronomy 14:

    • 1. That the prohibition is not necessarily a bowl-cut, but making any baldness around the edges of the head;
    • 2. We see that the prohibition is specifically in the context of mourning.

    In other words, the mitzvah (commandment) is forbidding one from making baldness in the head as an act of mourning "for the dead".

    In ancient times, when someone died, the surviving relatives were so distraught that they cut their skin until they bled and shaved bald spots on their head. While cutting one's hair may sound like a strange act of mourning to the modern reader, this was a common practice in the ancient world. In fact, the Torah even permits non-Israelites to perform this despised mourning practice in certain contexts. Thus we read regarding the captive Gentile woman:

      "And she shall shave her head... and she shall cry over her mother and her father for a month of days" (Dt.21:12-14).

    As an act of mercy, the Torah allows the heathen women to shave her head while she mourns her recently killed father and mother (cp.Dt 20:13-14). The prophets also mention that making bald spots on the head was a mourning practice:

      "And I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; and I will bring up sackcloth upon all loins, and baldness upon every head; and I will make it as the mourning for an only son, and the end thereof as a bitter day" (Amos 8:10).

    Similarly, we read:

      "Make yourself bald, and shear yourself for the children of thy delight; enlarge your baldness as the vulture; for they are gone into captivity from thee" (Micah 1:16, KJV)

    These are only two of many verses that relate to the fact that in ancient times making bald spots on the head was an act of mourning along with lamentation, rending of clothes and donning of sackcloth. Thus when we are forbidden in Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 14 to "round the side of your head" and "place baldness between your eyes... for the dead", the meaning is that we may not shave our head or any part thereof as an act of mourning or sadness.

    There is no implication in the commandment in Leviticus 19 that we must grow side locks or pony tails like the Orthodox Jews. The only thing prohibited in Leviticus 19:27a is to shave the side of the head as an act of mourning. Were one to shave their head for stylistic reasons there would be no prohibition whatsoever.

    We have seen thus far that the Israelite is forbidden to make cuts in his flesh and shave parts of his head as acts of mourning "for the dead". In Leviticus 21 we read of a similar prohibition that specifically applies to the Cohanim (priests, descendants of Aaron). In Leviticus 21 the Cohanim are forbidden from becoming ritually impure from the dead with the exception of their immediate relatives. After listing the relatives that the Cohen may become impure from, we read:

      "A man shall not become impurified by his people to defile him. They shall not make bald a baldness in their head nor shall they shave the edge of their beard and in their flesh they shall not cut a cut" (Lev.21:4-5)

    The context of the passage is explicitly defiling oneself for the dead. In this case the Cohanim (Priests) are forbidden from various mourning practices. Not only are they forbidden from coming in contact with the dead bodies of their deceased friends (vv.1ff.) but they are also forbidden from defiling themselves by making bald spots on their heads, by shaving their beards, and by cutting their skin.

    We therefore see here that three of the prohibitions found in Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 14 are repeated in Leviticus 21. In all three passages both the implicit and explicit contexts are that of mourning practices. Every ancient person knew that one cut one's skin or shaved one's head as an act of mourning and it was these acts of mourning that are being prohibited in Leviticus 19. While the mourning connotation of cutting flesh and shaving may not be obvious to the modern reader, we have seen that the Torah itself as well as the later prophets take it as a given that cutting one's flesh and shaving one's head are characteristic acts of mourning along with crying and wearing sackcloth.

    It is worth noting that the Nazir (Nazirite) makes a vow not to shave his head (Num.6:5). At the end of the period of abstention, the Nazir shaves his entire head, as we read:

      "And the Nazirite shall shave his consecrated head at the door of the tent of meeting, and shall take the hair of his consecrated head, and put it on the fire which is under the sacrifice of peace-offerings" (Num.6:18).

    The reason the Nazir is permitted to shave his entire head is because he is not doing it as an act of mourning. Similarly, we read in 2 Samuel 14:26 that Absalom, the son of King David, used to grow his hair long and then shave his head every year. Again, this was not an act of mourning and therefore it was permissible to shave the head. Given that destroying/shaving the beard is mentioned in the context of forbidden mourning rites in both Leviticus 19 and 21, we must ask whether shaving the beard was also a forbidden mourning rite? In other words, is the prohibition to destroy/shave the beard a general prohibition for all occasions or is it exclusively prohibited as an acts of mourning or sadness?

    Perhaps the first clue regarding shaving one's beard is the ritual purification of the Metsora or "leper". We read:

      "And it shall be on the seventh day, that he shall shave all his hair off his head and his beard and his eyebrows, even all his hair he shall shave off; and he shall wash his clothes, and he shall bathe his flesh in water, and he shall be clean" (Lev.14:9).

    We see that in certain contexts a person is required to shave his beard and this is even an act of purification. Similarly, we read about the consecration of the Levites:

      "And thus shalt thou do unto them, to cleanse them: sprinkle the water of purification upon them, and let them cause a razor to pass over all their flesh, and let them wash their clothes, and cleanse themselves" (Num.8:7).

    Again we see that shaving the beard and indeed all the hair is not only permissible but can be an act of purification. In contrast, the prohibition of Leviticus 19 is to shave the head or beard as an act of mourning!

    That shaving the beard was an act of mourning in ancient times is clear from many biblical passages. For example, in the Book of Jeremiah we read about a group of pilgrims mourning the destruction of the Temple:

      "There came certain men from Shechem, from Shiloh, and from Samaria, eighty men, having their beards shaven and their clothes rent, and having cut themselves, with meal-offerings and frankincense in their hand to bring them to the house of Yahweh" (Jer.41:5).

    We see that these pilgrims were mourning and therefore tore their clothes, cut their skin, and shaved their beards. Clearly then shaving the beard was also an act of mourning along with tearing the clothes and cutting the skin.

    The fact that shaving was an act of mourning may shed light on a rather obscure passage that until now has defied explanation. In 2 Samuel we read that David sent emissaries to Hanun king of Amon to comfort him over the death of his father. For some reason Hanun became convinced that David's emissaries had not come to comfort him but to spy out the land. In a strange act of retribution he decided to cut off half their beards and send them humiliated back to Israel:

      "And David's servants came into the land of the children of Amon. But the princes of the children of Amon said unto Hanun their lord: 'Do you think that David does honour your father, that he hath sent comforters to you? has not David sent his servants to thee to search the city, and to spy it out, and to overthrow it?' So Hanun took David's servants, and shaved off the one half of their beards, and cut off their garments in the middle, even to their buttocks, and sent them away" (2 Sam.9:1-4).

    Up until now it always seemed strange that Hanun and his advisors would suspect David's emissaries of being spies without any seeming justification. Even stranger was his reaction to discovering spies be that he cut off their beards. Bearing in mind that ancient peoples shaved off their beards as an act of mourning "for the dead", it becomes clear why Hanun's advisors doubted that David's comforters had come to pay condolences. Presumably Hanun and his cronies sat in the royal court with torn clothes, cut skin, and shaven beards. When David's men arrived with full beards Hanun's advisors assumed they were not coming to mourn the dead king but to spy out the land. For were they really coming to mourn the king they would have shaven their beards. To teach them respect of the dead and humiliate them at the same time, Hanun ordered that half their beards be cut off!

    To summarise, Leviticus 19:27-28, Leviticus 21:4-5, and Deuteronomy 14:1-2 prohibit 4 different acts of mourning. These are:

    • 1. Making a bald spot on the head as an act of mourning;
    • 2. Shaving the beard as an act of mourning;
    • 3. Cutting the skin as an act of mourning; and
    • 4. Writing on the skin as an act of mourning.

    Interestingly, the making of tattoos as an act of mourning is the most elusive in the list. It is only mentioned once in Leviticus 19:28 and then never alluded to again in the Tanakh (Old Testament). Reference is made to writing on the flesh as an act of dedication to Yahweh (Is.44:5), but never as an act of mourning. Yet the practice of inscribing the name of the dead loved one in a tattoo still exists to this very day. Not so long ago this practice came to the attention of the public when it was reported that New York firemen and policemen were inscribing tattoos on their flesh in memory of their deceased comrades.

    To summarise, then, the meaning of the passage under study: it was an ancient custom to trim the hair of the head and the beard to create a circle around the face - the circle being symbolic of the sun. In this version the mustache was shaved off completely. The wearing of the beard in this case was a means of nonverbal communication - it said, "I am a sun worshiper". What is here condemned is not the trimming or shaving of the beard, but the shaping of the beard to convey pagan images.

    You will search in vain for any scripture commanding Yahweh's men to always grow a beard. The fact that the majority almost certainly did anciently only tells us that this was the personal preference. Nowhere does Torah deny men talmidim (disciples) the freedom to shave if they want to in the manner of the ancient Romans and Egyptians. Indeed, Joseph of Egypt, as Prime Minister, was without doubt beardless, following the customs of that nation, and we all know how Yahweh prospered him.

    It is not for you and I to judge a believer for either wearing a beard or being clean-shaved or even partly-shaven unless they are specifically imitating a pagan custom or practice. Neither do we have the right to guilt anyone for not having one, and especially not those who genetically are not able to grow one. Are they any less men because they do not have some facial hair? Of course not. Indeed, it has disappointed me to see some men Messianic comparing their beards and insinuating that only those who had full beards were properly Torah-compliant Hebrew men. Nonsense! And what vanity not unlike women trying to out do each other with their hairdo's.

    Actually, I used to have a beard once but my preference for now is to be clean-shaven. I have seen a vision of myself in the Millennium and I did have a full beard then! That is something I will no doubt choose and get used to...in the future! Whether with a beard or without one, I am, and will still be, Torah-compliant. So let every man be satisfied whether he removes his facial hair or not, remembering to do so to give glory to Yahweh and not to imitate pagan customs or to please the world or to follow some fad. Vanity is not permitted of true believers.


    The picture at the top of this devotional is a picture of me with a Photoshop beard created by my wife - I had it made to tease some of my ultra-messianic friends who insisted I should look like this to be a true Hebraic man!


    [1] Karaite Corner, Shaving and Sidelocks? The Real Meaning of Leviticus 19:27-28

    Comments from Readers

    [1] "It's always about the intention...I know I believe in The Messiah people refer to as Jesus Christ, but I'm SO sick of people saying it's Yahushua vs. YahuWshuwa vs. Yahoshua vs. Yeshua vs. Yahshua , ect... I just try to obey to the best of my ability...I [will] look more into this. I have agreed with much of what you've said before" (AP, USA 5 November 2011)

    [2] "In your study you missed the part of David's men being shamed.....and to tarry in Jericho till their beards grew back....note that they only had cut off half of it...." (KB, USA, 15 November 2013)

    Author's response: "Therefore Hanun took David's servants, shaved off half of their beards, cut off their garments in the middle, at their buttocks, and sent them away. When they told David, he sent to meet them, because the men were greatly ashamed. And the king said, 'Wait at Jericho until your beards have grown, and then return'" (2 Sam.10:4-5, NKJV). Since a man owning a beard is not a matter of Torah-compliance I believe the reaction of David's men to the incident has to be understood either in terms of that custom of the time and/or David's wish not to humiliate his men further at home. Barnes writes: "Cutting off a person's beard is regarded by the Arabs as an indignity equal to flogging and branding among ourselves. The loss of their long garments, so essential to Oriental dignity, was no less insulting than that of their beards". The object of both shaving half the bear off as well as exposing one buttock was both to humiliate as well as to make sport. Since these particular courtiers were clearly not ordinarily clean-shaven, David wished to spare them the double indignity of having to return to court cleanshaven (which was not their custom) and become the object or mirth at home too, and so he very graciously permitted them to remain in Jericho until the shaved hair had grown long enough that the other half could be trimmed to match it. This was done out of respect for their feelings and reputation rather than because it was a Torah obligation to have a beard, which it was not. (LT, 15 November 2013)

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    This page was created on 6 November 2011
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