In the Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 7B, we find: “Customarily, a man who knows that he is on trial wears black and wraps himself in black, and lets his beard grow, for he doesn’t know how his trial will turn out. But Israel is not thus, rather they wear white, and wrap themselves in white, and shave their beards, and eat, drink and rejoice. They know that the Holy One, Blessed be He, does for them miracles.”
א»ר סימון כתיב (דברים ד) ומי גוי גדול אשר לו חקים ומשפטים צדיקים וגו’ ר’ חמא בי ר’ חנינה ור’ הושעיה חד אמר אי זו אומה כאומה הזאת בנוהג שבעולם אדם יודע שיש לו דין לובש שחורים ומתעטף שחורים ומגדל זקנו שאינו יודע היאך דינו יוצא אבל ישראל אינן כן אלא לובשים לבנים ומתעטפין לבנים ומגלחין זקנם ואוכלין ושותין ושמחים יודעין שהקב»ה עושה להם ניסים.
ירושלמי מסכת ראש השנה דף ז,ב פרק א הלכה ג
This is also quoted in the Tur, Orach Chaim 581.
As you can imagine, this passage has long caused some consternation in certain circles and raised some eyebrows (not to mention some intense scholarly beard pulling). Although halacha allows shaving sans razor, it seemed unexpected, to say the least, that the rabbis would prima facie endorse the practice.
The famous rabbinic scholar Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein (1860-1941), who is best known for his Torah compendium “Torah Temimah,” brings a textual variant in the name of the 12th-century Provencal sage, Abraham b. Nathan, whereas the text is supposed to read ומגלחין שערם, which refers to a haircut.
Yet another textual variant has the words reading ומתקנין זקנם, which means a simple beard trim (still problematic for some but not nearly as shocking as shaving).
The Rebbe of Munkacz, Chaim Elazar Spira (1868-1937), devoted an extensive discussion to this in his responsa, where he is insistent that it simply cannot refer to beard shaving.
Rabbi Moshe Wiener, a contemporary chasidic rabbi in New York, wrote a book called הדרת פני זקן where he entertains the possibility that the word מגלחין appears either as a result of a careless mistake or inserted on purpose by a trouble maker (!).
Most MS do have מגלחין, which is enough to convince me that this is in fact the correct version. Most importantly, is it really so surprising in the context of the time and place that the Jerusalem Talmud—and the earliest midrashim—were written in? The residents of the Land of Israel were no strangers to Greco-Roman modes of dress and culture (even representations of the zodiac found its way into many a synagogue of that time).
The following, for instance, are representations of biblical figures as they were imagined by the Jews of fifth-century Huqoq, a village located in the Galilee. This astounding site was recently excavated by Dr. Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Let me take this opportunity to wish everyone—bearded and the beardless alike—a happy sweet new year.
Rosh Hashana greeting card from New York. The text is side-by-side, in both Yiddish and Ladino, and calls for unity and brotherly relations between Sepahrdim and Ashkenazim in the city.
All of us Ashkenazim are united with all the Sephardic Jews who do not speak our “jargon” but rather Spanish, Greek, Arabic, Turkish and French, etc., and we extend a brotherly hand and pledge to continue to fight for our common Jewish ideals and mutually aid each other in all circumstances.
We extend this wish for the new year:
A Year for Jewish Unity.
The author is the founding director of Channeling Jewish History and can be reached at [email protected]