Ask the Expert: Shaving During the Omer
Can I shave my bikini line?
Question: I know that during the counting of the Omer observant Jews don't get haircuts, but I was wondering if it's okay to shave your legs, or, um, your bikini line?
--Davida, New York
Answer: I'm glad you asked this, Davida, because I have secretly been wondering about this exact issue for years, and your question gave me an excuse to do some real research.
Let's begin with the laws pertaining to the Omer period, specifically those having to do with tisporet, or hair cutting. The weeks between Passover and Shavuot are considered a mourning period because it was during these weeks that 24,000 of Rabbi Akiba's students died. The Talmud records that they were struck with a serious affliction because they did not respect one another (Yevamot 62b).
In the geonic period, some Ashkenazic communities decided to commemorate the death of Rabbi Akiba's students by not allowing couples to get married during the Omer period, and by prohibiting live music during this time as well. This mimics two of the prohibitions that apply during the year of mourning after a person's parent dies. Later, after the Crusades, other Ashkenazic communities took on the custom of not getting haircuts during the Omer. This is also drawn from the prohibitions for the year of mourning, or avelut (Arukh haShulhan, Orah Haim 493:1-3).
Maimonides, in his digest of the laws of mourning, ruled that a man was prohibited from cutting the hair on top of his head during the year of mourning, and wrote that shaving any hair on the body was a valid extension of that prohibition (Hilkhot Avel 5:2).
However, Maimonides recognized that in some cases beards and long hair could be construed as inappropriate or disrespectful. Therefore, he included a provision, noting that if a man's friends begin to scold him and tell him his hair is too long, then he is permitted to get it cut, because he is not doing it as a vanity or a luxury, but in order to appear respectable to his friends (Hilkhot Avel 6:3). Some mourners and people not shaving or getting haircuts during the Omer do still wait to be admonished by their friends before they get haircuts or shave, but many will just tend to the issue when they think they are beginning to look unruly.
After I reached this point in my research I consulted with Rabbi Adam Cutler, a Conservative rabbi at Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, to see what he thinks about the laws of mourning, the Omer, and women shaving. Rabbi Cutler pointed out that the expressions of mourning that we observe during the Omer are public, not private. He said, "A man not shaving his face and Jews not cutting their head hair were always public signs of mourning. Leg shaving for women was historically private (as their legs were not visible) and eyebrow plucking, though public, was not associated with mourning. The prohibition of shaving/hair cutting is tied to the notion of public mourning. It is a sign to be unshaven." Rabbi Cutler therefore believes that there isn't a problem with cutting or shaving any hair that is not generally associated with mourning.
I also consulted Rabba Sara Hurwitz, of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. Rabba Hurwitz found that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein allowed women to shave their body hair, arguing that it is bothersome to some women, and that it sometimes makes a woman unattractive to her husband. Additionally, Rabba Hurwitz wrote to me that all rabbinic authorities agree that during the Omer it is acceptable to shave hair that is usually shaved before going in the mikveh. So, if you usually shave your legs before going to the mikveh, shave away!
So it looks like there's no halakhic problem with a woman shaving her legs, or armpits, or bikini line during the counting of the Omer. You know, if you're into that kind of thing.
Have a question for the Expert? Ask away!