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.

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