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The Symbolism of The Jewish Beard

The Symbolism of The Jewish Beard

Since ancient times many Israelites preferred not to shave, but to wear a beard. Males from the western culture, especially since Roman times, preferred to shave off their facial hair. And we have countless images and depictions of people from the Greco-Roman times to confirm such grooming trends.  In fact, beards are a very culturally-inculcated look. Even in modern days, many Jews, religious or secular, for fashion reasons or out of some other considerations, opt to wear beards. It is an ongoing cultural choice.  And there is a particular commandment in the Bible that prohibits Jews from harming the corners of their beards.

“You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads nor harm the edges of your beard.” (Lev 19:27).

But why? This is such a strange commandment. It regulates hair grooming. There is probably a number of good reasons why God gave this rule. One of them is probably the symbolism of beards in Jewish culture. Beards say something. Let me illustrate it by reminding you of one biblical story…

The book of Samuel and Chronicles tell the same story of how the Ammonites did something strange to provoke a war with King David. The King of the Ammonites died and David sent a party from Israel to express his condolences to the family. The men of the court told the king’s son that David did not send this delegation to bring condolences, but rather to gather intelligence, so he could conquer them. The prince reacted in anger.

“So Hanun took David’s servants and shaved off half of their beards (וַיְגַלַּח אֶת־חֲצִי זְקָנָם), and cut off their garments in the middle as far as their hips, and sent them away. (2 Sam 10:4 NASB)

The men of the delegation returned to David with this odd look and were very embarrassed. David told them to remain in Jericho until their beards grow back. Why did Hanun do this to David’s servants? He wanted David to know that he perceived the ill motives of the delegation. He shaved only half of their hair to suggest that David was not entirely genuine in his intentions towards Ammon. Why were these men embarrassed about the way they looked? Because Jews did not shave their beards in antiquity. They looked like foreigners, like pagans among their own people. They were deprived of their beards and their dignity. Besides their robes were cut so short that their buttocks were showing. And we have to keep in mind that men did not wear underwear in those days. This was truly humiliating.

But let’s return to the beards of these Israelites. A “beard” in Hebrew is זָקָן (zakan). The word can translate as “chin” sometimes, but the Bible usually means the “hair which grows from the chin”. The noun “beard” is related to זָקֵן (zaken) which means “to become old”. The same word means “an elder” (man or a woman). And זִקְנָה (ziknah) or זְקֻנִים (zekunim) means “old age”  in Hebrew. The root of these words expresses not so much the idea of age, but rather “maturity”. Young men who did not have beards were deemed as not fully mature. Thus is זָקָן  (zakan) – a “beard” is a sign of “maturity” in ancient Hebrew.

So yes, the beards were symbolic for ancient Israelites. Maturity always demands respect and for Jews being clean-shaven was a cultural display of the lack of maturity. For ancient Israelites shaving off one’s hair, or beard and eyebrows was an action symbolic of death itself. There is another symbolism behind the action of cutting or shaving. Shaving off all hair is what leper did as a part of his cleansing ritual at the Temple (Lev 14:9). A Nazarite Jew who ended his vow also shaved his hair and his beard. (Num. 6:19). Such actions symbolically represented death and a new beginning. They make sense in situations with lepers, Nazarites or someone who became defiled and wanted a “new beginning”.

“The beard is hair that grows down from the head to the rest of the body. It is the bridge between mind and heart, thoughts and actions, theory and practice, good intentions and good deeds…”  -Hasidic Rabbi Aron Moss

And Jews have influenced countless others with their notions of beards. Take Islam, for example. The Quran does not mandate that Muslims should wear a beard. But the Hadith (the traditional teachings) say Muhammad ordered his followers to wear beards. “Differ from the polytheists: let your beards (grow), and trim your mustache,” the Hadith reads. Many Muslims believe that the beard is an expression of manliness which distinguishes men from women and some feel it is absolutely required.

Christians have had an “off and on” relationship with the beard over the ages. Some see it as holy others do not. Franciscan Catholics, for example, equate the beard with Jesus’ example – “The Friars shall wear the beard, after the example of Christ most holy…” But around 1000 A.D., the Canons of Edgar expressly forbade clerical beards, declaring “Let no man in holy orders conceal his tonsure, nor let himself be misshaven nor keep his beard for any time if he will have God’s blessing and St. Peter’s and ours.” The Eastern Orthodox priests wear beads as a sign of devotion to God. They also wear long hair for spiritual reasons, citing Num 6:5 as an explanation of such consecrated look.

“The beard signifies the courageous; the beard distinguishes the grown men, the earnest, the active, the vigorous”, wrote St. Augustine.

The Amish and Mennonites consider the beard a sign of manhood. Only married Amish men wear beards. The Amish respect old traditions, refusing to recognize changing fashions. Nonconformity to the world has spiritual significance for them, thus they shave their mustaches, preserving the beards. Yes, beards carry deep symbolism, not for Jews alone. Regional culture and communal beliefs can be very powerful. And no doubt the same dynamic existed for ancient Israelites as well.

There is a fascinating connection in the Hebrew text of the Torah between a commandment for Israelites not to destroy the edged of one’s beard and a commandment not to harvest the edges of the fields, leaving some crops for the poor and needy.

“You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads nor harm the edges of your beard.” (Lev 19:27) “When you reap the harvest of your land, moreover, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field nor gather the gleaning of your harvest; you are to leave them for the needy and the alien. I am the Lord your God.’” (Lev 23:22)

The Hebrew word for the “corner” of the filed in this verse is פֵּאָה (peah). It can mean an “edge”, “border”, “boundary”, “side”, “corner” and can even mean “forehead or temple” because it is considered the “edge of one’s face”. This is what we see when we look deeper at the Jewish cultural practice of not shaving or cutting the פֵּאֹת (peot) the “corners or edges of the beard”  This may seem like a very strange commandment which focus on styling hair (Lev 19:27) but it pertains to the “edges” of beards specifically.  Symbolism can go deep and it can remain unnoticed. What if cutting the corners of the beards is only one matter, which is pointing to a bigger principle, to a broader attitude of “cutting corners” and disregarding God’s ways. That takes it far beyond fashion and grooming.

The Prophet Jeremiah describes some people as “all who cut corners” כָּל־קְצוּצֵי פֵאָה (qol kitzuei peah) in Jer. 9:26, 25:23, 45:32. And whatever he means by that it is something very negative, a behavior for which they are punished. Many English Bibles add the word “hair” to those verses to clarify the text, but “hair” is actually absent in the original Hebrew. Is this about cutting hair or “cutting corners” in some other way?

My hunch tells me the hair is not the issue here. Hair has its own symbolism in the Bible, but the beards and corners of beards seem to have special significance as the wording of the commandment reveals.  I am certain there is much more to this, so let’s keep thinking and seeking the context together.

Pinchas

I am an educator, researcher, a faculty member and an avid believer in online education. My specialties are Sacred Texts and Cultures (Second Temple period, early Judaism and nascent Christianity). I am passionate about meaning, context, and cultural transmission of ancient texts. My preoccupations with history, ancient languages and contextual interpretation often find expression in my blog posts. Every human has a pretext, every message has a context. Context changes everything! Enjoy reading.


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