Reprinted with permission from Louis Jacobs, The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
The verse: “Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard” (Leviticus 19:27) is understood by the talmudic rabbis not to mean that it is wrong for a man to be cleanshaven, but only that facial hair must not be removed with a razor. The standard code of Jewish law, the [16th-century work by Rabbi Yosef Karo,] Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah, 181:10) rules that it is permitted to remove all facial hair with scissors even when this is done as closely as if with a razor. On the basis of this, many Orthodox Jews shave with an electric razor on the grounds that technically this machine, with its two blades, is not to be treated as a razor.
The reason for the prohibition of shaving is not stated in the Bible, but [the 11th-century Spanish/North African sage] Maimonides understands it as a protest against idolatry, conjecturing that the heathen priests shaved their beards. Others have seen it as a means of distinguishing between males and females. Neither of these reasons would explain why the distinction is made between shaving with a razor and by other means, but this distinction still holds as a matter of law, although some later authorities do invoke both reasons not as a matter of law but of piety.
Consequently, it has been the practice among many Jews to wear a beard and sidelocks (pe’ot). The Talmud describes the beard as an “adornment of the face” and implies that a beardless man cannot be said to be handsome.
In the kabbalah [mysticism], the beard is said to represent on earth the “beard of the Holy Ancient One” on high, that is, the stage in the unfolding of the sefirot [divine emanations] at which the divine grace, symbolized by the strands of the beard, begins to flow throughout all creation. In kabbalistic circles the beard becomes a sacred object and some kabbalists would not even remove a single hair from their beard. The statement that, according to the kabbalah, there is no need to wear a beard outside the Holy Land, is unwarranted. Hasidism follows the kabbalah and all Hasidim wear long beards and sidelocks.
Most westernized Jews do not wear beards, including many Orthodox rabbis, who shave with an electric razor but sometimes sport a small goatee beard as a bow in the direction of the tradition. Yet it can be observed that the wearing of a full beard is coming increasingly into fashion among the Orthodox. Reform Jews do not consider the prohibition on shaving with a razor still to be binding.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.