In hundreds of kehillos worldwide, beards and peyos are the proud symbols of the Torah Jew. Indeed, there are gedo- lim who cite the Shulchan Aruch’s ruling (Y.D. 181:9) that “the whole breadth of this place should be left untouched” (lo tiga bo yad) as a corroboration for long peyos. This article is an exploration of the history and customs of peyos and not a halachic clarification of the issues involved.
Delving into why the Torah commands us, “Do not round the corners of your heads” (Vayikra 19:29), the Rambam and Sefer Hachinuch say that this was to distance Jews from the idolatrous practice of rounding the hair on one’s head, which is still practiced by Catholic priests (earning them the name of galachim).
Thus, when a talmid of the Brisker Rav once asked him why people speak of ma- chen peyos (making peyos) when the Torah does not command us to grow them but only not to cut them, the Brisker Rav answered that according to the Rambam, peyos do indeed have a positive function — to separate us from idolaters.
The Rambam (Teshuvos 244) himself held that the required length of peyos is minimal.
“One is permitted to shave off the whole pe’os with scissors and so we do always,” he writes. “That is, we shave the corners of the head with scissors since it is only forbidden to destroy with a razor. We are not commanded to grow the tzeda’im (side hair) as common people think; only a nazir is commanded to grow his hair and therefore if he shaved, he transgressed a positive mitzvah and transgressed a negative mitzvah. But this is not the case with peyos. Rather, it is only a negative mitzvah and therefore one does not need to grow them. One is only forbidden to destroy them.”
Although there is no written record of Jews having long peyos in ancient times, the historical isolation and antiquity of the Yemenite community lends to the claim that their custom of growing long peyos dates back to their exile from Eretz Yisroel. Based on the Yemenites’ tradition that they left Eretz Yisroel before the first churban, the Yemenite dayan, Mari Yosef Kapach (d. 2000) pushes back their wearing of peyos to that early time, writing, “It seems that the custom of growing peyos and twisting them is an ancient custom that our forefathers continued in Yemen as they saw in the Land at the time of the first Bais Hamikdash.”
However, the first unequivocal mention of growing long peyos is found in the kabbalistic writings of the Arizal and his disciples. Rav Chaim Vital discusses how long the Arizal grew his peyos.
“Concerning the peyos of the head,” he writes, “my teacher, the tzaddik of blessed memory.let them grow and did not cut them until they grew so much that they went below, at the place of the actual beard. Then he would cut them to the extent of that place, for from there downwards is not considered the peyah of the head” (Taamei Hamitzvos parshas Kedoshim).
In accordance with this citation, some Chassidim are particular not to cut their peyos below the jawbone and some cut them even shorter. The Darchei Teshuvah (181:15) reports the Shiniveh Rebbe as telling him that the Arizal cut his peyos when they overgrew, as the excess hair might bring down harsh judgments.
But Rav Menasheh Klein of Ungvar reports otherwise.
“We saw with our rabbis, tzaddikei olam and kedoshei elyon, that they did not lay hands on the peyos of their head, and our brothers in Yemen grow their peyos long without limit,” he writes. “In short, I found nowhere that it is forbidden to grow long peyos.״ As for Rav Chayim Vital’s report that the Arizal cut his peyos when they grew into his beard, Rav Chaim was merely indicating that one is permitted to cut them when they reach that length (Mishneh Halachos 4:116, 5:124).
In a similar vein, the prominent American rov, Rav Avrohom Naftoli Gallant (d. 1936) reported that never shortening one’s peyos is a segulah for long life.
“In certain communities there were pious people who held that long peyos are a segulah for long life,” he writes. “It is said that when the Maharsham of Brazhin was still a boy, he once traveled with his father to visit Rav Meir of Pramishlan… who stroked the boy’s peyos and said, ‘Your grandfather, Rav Shalom, never cut his peyos all his life and it was a segulah for long life. Therefore, do the same; do not cut your peyos and you, too, will merit to have a long life” (Moadim Lesimchah).
Based on the Arizal’s custom and other considerations, peyos come in a large variety of lengths and styles. Rav Yosef Kapach writes that the length of boys’ peyos in Yemen often depended on aesthetic considerations.
“We used to anoint the peyos with oil and [when] they were long and curled down to the chest, one’s clothes became soiled from them,” he writes. “Some teachers used to measure their length until the chin and cut off the excess while some teachers forbade cutting off even the slightest amount.”
Behind the Ears
Another debate regarding peyos was whether they should hang straight down or be worn behind the ears. Rav Binyomin Zilber (Az Nidberu 12:37) defended the latter practice.
“When I arrived from chutz la’aretz in 1933,” he writes, “I found a sefer in the yeshiva called Chatzvah Amudeha Shivah that sharply criticized this custom and a few other things besides. I was amazed, for why should Hashem care? Many people came from chutz la’aretz with peyos on their ears and in any case it is only a matter of chassidus (extra piety). There is no denigration in doing this. because the peyos are clearly visible. It
does not denote embarrassment; rather, people are accustomed to this and more comfortable, especially when traveling by car and suchlike. They feel more comfortable than those who do not keep their peyos on their ears and constantly twist and turn them.”
Indeed, there are those who explain that the peyos should be kept separate from the beard due to certain kabbalistic concepts.
But according to the Rav Chaim Kanievski (Orchos Yosher chapter 5) the Chazon Ish encouraged people to be proud of their peyos and not hide them behind their ears.
“The Chazon Ish… was not comfortable with people putting peyos behind their ears,” he writes. “He said it appeared as if they were ashamed of the mitzvah and that one should not do this. My father [the Steipler Gaon] also said one should not do this. In chutz la’aretz people were afraid of non-Jews who mocked us… but here in Eretz Yisroel where the generation has taken a turn for the better and there are many bnei Torah, there is no reason to take this lightly.”
The sefer Orchos Rabbeinu (ch. 3 pg. 137) even reports an unusual pesak hal- achah in this regard. “A Yemenite bachur with long peyos once came to the Steipler Gaon and said that because he played with and twirled his peyos on Shabbos as he did during the week and hairs were pulled out, he wanted to shorten them. Rav Yisroel Kanievski answered that he should not shorten them; if he wanted he could cover them with his kipah.”
Long peyos were less prevalent in Sephardi communities. This is reflected in a discussion of the Ben Ish Chai (Ben Ish Chayil p. 30) regarding peyos, where he explains that peyos are called simanim due to their important function in differentiating Jew from non-Jew. He illustrates this concept with a story.
When the Muslims were conquering Eretz Yisroel and slaughtering local idolaters, a Muslim leader once came across a large group of idolaters with a Jew in their midst. To save his life, the Jew raced towards the general grasping his peyos in his two hands and yelled in Arabic, Shuf ya sidi! Ana Yehudi vehadula Sahudi! I am a Jew and these are my witnesses.
“Therefore,” the Ben Ish Chai writes, “how careful we should be of these two faithful witnesses that stand at the right and left and crown you with the diadem of Judaism. I will not burden you to have thick, long peyos like our brothers, the Ashkenazim. I only ask that you keep them a size that is noticeable to everyone; not like tiny, newly sprouted wisps of grass that are barely visible.”
With a play on words he concludes, “Just as a katan is disqualified to give testimony, so these [tiny peyos] are disqualified to give testimony [that one is a Jew]. Only a gadol may give testimony. I have already spoken about this many times.”
It is worth noting that in the Crimean region, local Tatars distinguished between Krymchaks (regular Crimean Jews) and the Crimean Karaites by calling the former zulufli gufutlar (Jews with peyos) and the latter zulufsiz gufutlar (Jews without pe’os).
One of the great indications of how peyos distinguish the Jew from his non- Jewish environs was during times of persecution when the classic way to humiliate a Jew was to remove his beard and peyos forcibly.
To give one example out of thousands, Rav Menasheh Levertov, chief Rabbi of Krakow, wrote what happened when the Nazis entered his town.
“When the Germans took over Krakow they started seizing Jews for work,” he reported. “They drove across the city during the day and at night and one could see how they capture Jews with beards and peyos and they pull and cut and rip out. It was dangerous to go out with a beard and peyos and thousands of these Jews did not go out on the streets and did not see daylight, in order to protect their beards and dress, because the Germans also cut the long Chassidic coats (bekishes).”
Another famous example of anti peyos sentiment was when Czar Nicholas I included peyos in his infamous 1845 decree against Jewish garb.
We can safely conclude that whether reaching past the shoulders, thrust behind the ears, reaching the earlobes, or wound around the ears, peyos are proud witnesses to the Jew’s identity and help set him apart as a member of am hanivchar.
(Sources: Collection of sources by Aryeh Lebovich – Be ’inyan Pe ’ot Harosh. Rav Levertov’s testimony: http:// www. levertov4ever. com/testimonyineng- lish.htm)