April 8, 2024
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Are Jewish Men Permitted To Shave Their Heads?

A talmid in his late 30s called and asked me if he is permitted to shave his entire head in what he calls a “preemptive strike” against his increasing baldness.

While shaving most of the head is not a problem, shaving the head’s corners runs into the Torah prohibition for a Jewish male to round out the corners, or peyot, of his head (Vayikra 19:27). Fortunately, my older son Binyamin and I have prepared a soon-to-be-released book dealing with this topic at great length. The book is titled “Halachic Haircutting Handbook: A Breakthrough Exposure of an Obscure Mitzvah.”

How Low Can You Go?

In much of the Orthodox community, it is accepted to trim one’s peyot. The question is to what extent men may cut them. Rambam (Hilchot Avodah Zarah 12:6) rules that it is only forbidden to use a razor to trim the peyot. However, one may trim the peyot with a “misprayim k’ein ta’ar,” scissors that cut as close or nearly as close as a blade. Our book clarifies that almost all electric shavers operate as a “misprayim k’ein ta’ar,” and men are permitted to use them to shave their beards. The Rambam thus allows using an electric shaver even to shave one’s peyot.

Tosafot (Shavuot 2b s.v. Chayav) disagree and forbid even the use of misparayim k’ein ta’ar on the peyot. According to Tosafot, one may trim the peyot only as far as regular scissors can cut. The question of shaving the head depends on whether we follow the Rambam or Tosafot.

The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 181:2) cites both opinions. It presents Rambam as the primary opinion and relegates Tosafot to the secondary view. Usually the halacha follows the primary opinion given in the Shulchan Aruch. However, in this case, the Shulchan Aruch adds that one should be concerned with the view of Tosafot.

While the Shulchan Aruch does not fully embrace the view of Tosafot, it does partially endorse their opinion. None of the commentaries to the Shulchan Aruch challenge this view, and the Chochmat Adam (89:16), Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (170:1), and Yalkut Yosef (Yoreh Deah 181:4) adopt the approach of the Shulchan Aruch.

Common practice follows this view, as observant Jewish men do not trim their peyot with an electric shaver as they would their beards. The Chochmat Adam notes the cogency of Tosafot’s view since the Torah prohibits the rounding of the peyot in contrast to the prohibition of destroying the corners of the beard. The act of rounding extends beyond the total removal of hair.

Some are strict and abide by the Chatam Sofer, who requires men to leave the peyot long enough to fold over. According to this view, males should not trim their peyot lower than a “2” setting on an electric shaver.

Baseline Sephardic and Ashkenazic halacha permit trimming the peyot as long as some stubble remains. My son Binyamin, an experienced “yeshiva barber,” reports that men with thick hair should not trim their peyot lower than at a “1” setting, but those with thin hair will have stubble remaining even if they use a “half” setting.

Lower and Upper Limits of the Peyot

Baseline halacha requires both Sephardic and Ashkenazic men to extend the peyot only to the bottom of “the bone” (the zygomatic arch”) on the side of the ear. Some scrupulous individuals continue the peyot to the top of the earlobe, and some even extend it to the earlobe’s bottom.

Regarding the upper limits of the peyot, there is considerable debate. Rav Yisrael Belsky (Shulchan Halevi page 122) reports that some say that the upper limit begins at the highest point of the hairline as it arches over the ear and extends in a slightly curved line across to where the forehead’s hairline turns sharply downward towards the sideburns. All the hair from the imaginary line that connects these two points and below comprises the peyot ha’rosh.

Rav Belsky reports that others believe that the peyot do not extend above the ear’s upper cartilage at all. According to this tradition, the imaginary line extends horizontally from the point in the hairline above the foremost part of the ear almost until the frontal hairline angles’ downward slope is back toward the ear.

The Chazon Ish is quoted (Orchot Rabbeinu, p. 100), stating that the upper boundary is the “part.”

It is difficult to identify a commonly accepted practice in terms of the upper limit of the peyot since Orthodox men typically do not shave their heads.

Conclusion

Chasidic men who shave their heads leave a considerable portion of hair at the corners of their heads to avoid the Torah prohibition for a Jewish male to round out the corners, or peyot, of his head. However, this is not typical male grooming in our segment of the Orthodox community.

Accordingly, Orthodox men should not use an electric shaver to shave their heads. Using an electric shaver on the head runs considerable risk regarding the prohibition to round the peyot.

The sefirah period is a perfect time for those men who shave their heads to upgrade their practice and leave at least some stubble. Doing so avoids violating a severe Torah prohibition.


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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