When in the throws of grief, one shouldn’t have to worry about making fashion statements or avoiding bad hair days. This may be an underlying reason that not only is there no requirement for a mourner to look kempt but, according to the Talmud, a mourner in fact should not cut their hair.
And for how long is this restriction in place? Well, it depends for whom you are mourning:
When mourning for deceased relatives, a person may cut their hair after thirty days. In the case of one’s father or mother, one may not cut their hair until they are rebuked by their colleagues.
In most cases, the haircutting restriction ends with the close of sheloshim, the thirty days of mourning that follow a funeral. But when mourning the death of a parent, the most intense kind of mourning in Jewish tradition, the period of time for which one forgoes a shave and a haircut does not have a fixed endpoint. Instead, the Talmud teaches that mourners wait until they are rebuked by associates for being unkempt. Thereafter, they are free to visit their hairstylist and clean themselves up.
It might be that the Talmud’s intent is to leave this period of abstaining from haircuts undefined and allow for variance based on context and custom. At some point after sheloshim has ended, a mourner will begin to look eccentric enough that someone they know will be moved to comment. And, once they receive a “hey there, wild (wo)man,” they will know that it is time for them to move on from this ritual.
While some later legal authorities are comfortable with an undefined end date, others are not. Moses Isserless, a 16th century halakhist, reports that: “As to the time limit after which a rebuke should take place, there is a difference of opinion, and the common practice is to wait three months before rebuking.” He not only defines a time frame for hair-cutting, but suggests that close associates of the mourner are supposed to be watching the calendar and making sure they issue the rebuke that will allow the mourner to seek a trim.
The Jerusalem Talmud also contains a version of this rule:
The mother of Rebbi Samuel ben Eudaimon died eight days before the holiday. He came to ask Rebbi Mana about how the holiday impacted his mourning. Rabbi Mana told him: anything connected to the seven or 30 day periods of mourning is interrupted by a holiday. But here, the practice of refraining from cutting one’s hair continues until it becomes wild growth or until his colleagues offer rebuke.
While most other mourning practices come to an end if a major Jewish holiday intervenes, not so for growing one’s hair. The practice runs its normal course.
Did you note the difference between the Jerusalem Talmud’s text and that on our page of the Babylonian Talmud? Instead of saying that one allows one’s hair to grow wild until one is rebuked, it says that one grows one’s hair until it becomes wild or one is rebuked.
The Jerusalem Talmud hands power back to the mourner — permitting them to get a haircut as soon their hair becomes uncomfortably long, without waiting for a rebuke. This gives the mourner full decision-making power independent of the reaction of their peers.
While some legal scholars suggest that the Jerusalem Talmud’s variation is the result of a scribal error, others rely on it to set the standard of practice. And so today there are a variety of practices followed by those who are mourning for the death of a parent.
For those who want to comfort mourners to the fullest extent possible, consider keeping track of when people you know are emerging from sheloshim. If you do, you’ll be well positioned to be the one who gently lets them know that they are ready for a haircut. (And this practice also has the benefit of charging those close to a mourner with staying in contact and keeping an eye on them — quite literally.) How often do you have an opportunity to tell another that they are beginning to look a bit shaggy and get mitzvah points at the same time?
Read all of Moed Katan 22 on Sefaria.