For Jews, the beard is a badge of glory (see Shabbos 152a). Nowhere is this better depicted than in the episode (Shmuel II 10:1-5) where Jews are disgraced by having their beards shorn:
“Afterwards, the King of Amon died and his son Chanun ruled after him. Dovid said, ‘I will do chesed with Chanun ben Nachash as his father did chesed to me, and Dovid sent servants to comfort him over his father. The servants of Dovid came to the land of Amon. The ministers of Amon said to Chanun, their master, ‘Do you think Dovid is honoring your father by sending comforters? Is it not in order to search the city and to spy on it and destroy it that Dovid sent his servants to you?’
“Chanun took Dovid’s servants, shaved half their beards and cut their garments half way down… and sent them away. People told Dovid and he sent [messengers] to meet them, as the men were very humiliated. The king said, ‘Stay in Yericho until your beards grow, and [then] return.’”
The question is: why didn’t King Dovid’s messengers simply shave off the second half of their beards and return home immediately? The Radak (died 4995/1235) answers that this would have been no smaller humiliation: “He did not tell them to shave the other half as it was not their custom to shave the beard even with scissors save for the moustache, except to express pain and mourning… Shaving the beard was a disgrace. However, people now have such a practice in the countries we live in.”
Another example of Jewish pride in beards was during the Polish insurrection against Russia in 5590/1830 when Jewish volunteers refused to shave. Instead, they formed a special regiment of 850 Jews known as the “beardlings.”
One of the Haskalah’s first priorities was to destroy the Jew’s pride in his hadras panim. This initiative was not taken kindly. In eighteenth century Germany, when a Jew named Avraham Posner had the audacity to remove his beard, the kehilla gained a royal warrant from Frederick the Great forcing him to grow it back.
Realizing that beards were a source of Jewish pride, the Nazis attacked them bitterly during War II. On countless occasions, their first act after entering a captured town was to forcibly remove Jews’ beards, sometimes with bayonets. Jews often responded with messirus nefesh.
In the town of Rawa the Nazis “graciously” allowed the old Rov to keep his beard for the price of one hundred lashes. He accepted the deal and was beaten to unconsciousness.
Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans
When did people begin trimming their facial hair? Commenting on the mitzvah (Vayikra 19:27), “Do not round the corners of your heads, and do not destroy the corners of your beard,” the Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 37) suggests that this prohibition is based on the abhorrence of idolatry; the Torah is telling us not to destroy the beard since this was the practice of idolatrous priests. Ancient Egyptian art indicates that not only priests shaved, but also a large proportion of the general population including agricultural workers and scribes.
Later in history, Alexander the Great introduced shaving as a practical military measure, considering it foolish to provide enemy soldiers with convenient handles to lay hands on prior to decapitation. Shaving was also common among the Romans whose emperors were generally clean-shaven until the reign of Hadrian (quasher of the Bar Kochva revolt) who reintroduced the fashion of facial hair, reportedly in order to hide facial scars.
Beards waxed and waned periodically according to societal custom and whim. When William the Conqueror of France took over England in 4826/1066, the French custom was to shave fully, while the English custom was to shave only the chin. Due to this depilatory disparity, King Harold of England’s spies reported to him that “the host almost seemed to be priests, because they had all their face and both their lips shaven.” After the French conquest, the English deliberately grew their beards and hair longer than ever, as a symbol of defiance against their cropped and shaven overlords.
As with Emperor Hadrian it was not uncommon for kings to dictate taste. When beardless young Emperor Charles V ascended the throne of Spain in 5266/1516, his younger courtiers perforce shaved in emulation of him and a saying arose, “We no longer have souls since we have lost our beards.” In France too, beards became unpopular after King Henry IV died in 5360/1610, leaving a successor too young to have a beard.
The Chasam Sofer (Orach Chaim 159) mentions how a Polish King’s altering of beard fashion had an impact on halacha.
Someone had written to the Chasam Sofer, complaining bitterly of certain bad minhagim that had spread among the Jewish populace, including shaving. Agreeing that certain bad minhagim indeed existed, the Chasam Sofer saw no reason to make a commotion about people who shaved.
“Let us investigate this,” he writes. “If the concern is because of chukei hagoyim, not following customs prevalent among non-Jews… nowhere in the Shas and Poskim, nor in any extraneous source, do we find that there was a difference between Jew and non-Jew regarding shaving, because in those times all the nations grew their beards…
“Regarding your hint from Kabala seforim that a person should not lay his hand on his beard at all, I have no dealings with hidden things. However, [even] among them and their multitudes, it is regarded perfectly permissible in the whole of Italy where all the sages shave. They rely on the great authority, Rav Menachem Azariah [the Rama of Pano], author of the Asarah Maamaros, and patriarch of the kabbalists, who shaved without leaving one hair. So testifies the Yashar of Kandia in his Eilim. He used to say that according to the Kabbala sages, the Diaspora is unfi tting for this [for growing a beard, as we are unworthy]. But why should I digress about something in which I am unversed.”
The Chasam Sofer then discusses how shaving became so widespread among certain Jews:
“However, our fathers adopted this custom due to great duress; not because of any bad motive, G-d forbid, but out of great sanctity. This was during the decrees of 4856/1096 [the First Crusade) and the Shepherds [Crusade of 5080/1320] and suchlike, when their gedolim permitted travelers to change their garments and shave their beards so their enemies should not recognize them. Because at that time, the non-Jews were already shaving their beards due to the incident of a certain Polish king… [who had no beard] as the history books relate. The sages of those times allowed one to be shaven.
“Because this is something that cannot be altered [overnight], people were very ashamed when they returned to their homes [shaven]. So the custom developed to not to grow it at all, except for a siman that could be shaven and grown back in a day. Only great Torah scholars who sat at home used to grow it. Those from before the decree who fled to Poland did not come to this [shaving of beards]…”
“It is true,” he concludes, “that if the custom had begun illegally, it [would still be a prohibition] because of chukei hagoyim. But once Jews already had the custom to shave, there is not the slightest problem at all, nor even the odor of a sin…”
The report that Rav Azariah of Pano shaved first appears in Rav Shabsai Baer’s sefer Be’er Eshek, which states that the Rama trimmed or shaved his beard every Friday “according to Italian custom.” On the other hand, Rav Yosef Ergas argues in his sefer Divrei Shalom, that the Rama of Pano never shaved and that there is even a portrait of him with a beard.
Citing the opinion of Rav Yosef Ergas, Rav Chaim Elozor Shapiro of Munkatch (Minchas Elozor v. 2:48) strongly disputes the Chasam Sofer’s conclusion that there is no obligation to have a beard, and nowadays each kehillah follows the opinion of its poskim.
Pro and Con
As the centuries rolled by, non- Jewish attitude toward Jewish beards changed drastically. In early times, non- Jews specifically enforced Jews to grow beards as part of a distinctive dress code. Thus, in the thirteenth century we find Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen of the Holy Roman Empire ordering Jews to wear special bluish badges as well as the compulsory growing of beards.
In Spain also, King Henry III later instated a 5172/1412 decree that Jews must wear special clothing, a red badge, and grow long hair and beards. Similarly, the “Jew’s decree” of 5524/1764, which made it easier for Jews to live in Vienna, insisted that Jews living there grow beards in order to be readily identifiable.
With the Haskala and modernization came a turnabout. Now, instead of forcing Jews to wear beards, rulers tried to force them off.
An early instance of this was in 5530/1780 when Joseph II of Austria granted Jews freedom of religion, but later added that in order to join society they must, among other things, shave their beards. The decree was rescinded when Jews explained that this law directly contradicted the freedom of religion he had granted them two years earlier.
Czar Nicholas I was less accommodating when, egged on by Maskilim, he instigated modernizing decrees against the Jews including the rule that, except for rabbis, Jews must shear off their beards. Although never revoked, this injunction eventually fell into disuse.
The most famous anti-beard decree was promulgated by Peter the Great of Russia in 5465/1705. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries beards had gone out of style in the civilized circles of Western Europe and determined to bring Russia up to date, Peter the Great decreed that every Russian citizen must remove his beard by a certain date under pain of a jail sentence.
Anyone wanting to keep his beards after that date had to pay an annual tax of one hundred rubles, while priests and serfs were subject to the smaller fine of paying a kopeck every time they passed a city gate. As a receipt for paying the beard tax, people were given a copper token (znak) inscribed with a luxuriously bearded nose and mouth mounted by the inscription “Payment received.” On the reverse was stamped the year of payment.
Peter the Great’s concern about the primitiveness of beards was premature, because during the nineteenth century beards swung back into popularity as is attested by photos of important Victorian personages such as Karl Marx, Charles Dickens, and Benjamin Disraeli. The Chofetz Chaim wrote a pamphlet extolling the virtues and importance of growing a beard called, “Tiferes Adam”.
Nowadays, baruch Hashem, Jews’ beards are protected by democratic law. Nonetheless, hallowed by generations of suffering, the Jewish beard is a lofty responsibility that we must live up to. Like it or not, Jews are judged by their beards.