May 18, 2024
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A critic responded at length [in an unpublished letter] to our challenging the widespread assumption that the Chafetz Chaim forbade electric shavers. He acknowledged that the Chafetz Chaim did not prohibit electric shavers. But, he thinks that the Chafetz Chaim banned hair clippers (used, in its time, on the hair and face and described at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hair_clipper), which function like scissors. He cites Rav Aharon Kotler and the Steipler Gaon (both of whom learned in European Yeshivot during the Chafetz Chaim’s lifetime), who infer from the Chafetz Chaim forbidding hair clippers that he certainly would forbid electric shavers.

Our Response

1) It is of great significance that the critic acknowledges that the Chafetz Chaim did not directly forbid electric shavers. Typically, learned Jews think that the Chafetz Chaim banned electric shavers. They believe the “Mashinka HaChadasha, the new [shaving] machine,” the Chafetz Chaim addresses in his Likutei Halachot, refers to an electric shaver. The critic puts this persistent rumor to rest. Instead, the critic writes that two great rabbanim who infer from the Chafetz Chaim’s ruling that he forbids electric shavers. That is a far cry from the Chafetz Chaim directly banning them.

2) The Wikipedia article states that the hair clippers were invented approximately in 1855. Accordingly, why does the Chafetz Chaim in the Likkutei Halachot, written in 1922, call it a newly developed machine? Safety razors, which became popular during World War One, are more aptly viewed in 1922 as a “new machine.”

On the other hand, the critic could respond that the perception circa 2023 in the West of new differs from what was perceived as new in Poland circa 1922.

3) The critic writes that manual hair clippers leave some stubble. This assertion fits Wikipedia’s report that today these clippers are sometimes used as hair trimmers. Hair trimmers do not produce a clean shave.

However, in his Likutei Halachot, the Chafetz Chaim describes the “Mashinka Chadasha” as not leaving any hair. A safety razor, by contrast, leaves a clean shave and better fits what the Chafetz Chaim concludes.

Moreover, Rav Eliashiv (Kovetz Teshuvot 1:32) permits electric shavers that leave some of each facial hair, based on the Chafetz Chaim ruling in his Likkutei Halachot. However, according to the critic, the Chafetz Chaim forbade such shavers. Thus, the critic, who cites this teshuva of Rav Eliashiv, contradicts this great posek. According to Rav Eliashiv, the critic misunderstands the Chafetz Chaim.

4) The critique does not account for the Chafetz Chaim in the Biur Halacha (251:1 s.v. afilu misapar yisrael), requiring men to leave only a bit of hair on the peyot harosh (edges of the head—the peyot). This ruling implies that regarding the peyot hazakan (the face), it is permissible to leave a clean shave as long as one uses a scissors-like device and not a razor (such as the safety blade or the type of mechanical shaver Rav Belsky describes). The Chafetz Chaim—in his Machaneh Yisrael, Maamarim 13, Nidchei Yisrael 26:1, and the beginning of Tiferet Adam —explicitly permits a “misparayim kein taar,” a device which cuts in a scissors-like fashion, on the beard, unlike on the pe’ot harosh, where it is forbidden.

The Chafetz Chaim is even clearer in Nidchei Yisrael (26:1), where he writes that, strictly speaking, it is sufficient to leave a “bit of a bit” of hair at the peyot harosh where a misparayim kein taar is forbidden. The Chafetz Chaim implies that a clean shave on the peyot hazakan is allowed. This view is not shocking since the Chochmat Adam, Aruch Hashulchan, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch and Rav Moshe Feinstein share this view.

5) Finally and most importantly, Rav Belsky, Shulchan HaLevi page 127, writes, “Recently, a model of a mechanical shaver from the Chofetz Chaim’s time was discovered, and it appears that the device in question cut the hair in the manner similar to that of a razor rather than that of a scissors. This was attested to by an expert in the field, who examined the machine carefully. It is, thus, quite likely that the Chofetz Chaim’s opinion concurred with Rav Moshe (Feinstein, who permitted using modern electric shavers even if they leave a clean cut as they cut more like scissors and not like razors).”

Rav Belsky’s assessment is based on expert inspection. By contrast, Rav Aharon Kotler and the Steipler Gaon’s evaluation of the Chafetz Chaim’s “Mashinka Chadasha,” do not mention consultation with an expert.

Conclusion

After all the dust settles, an honest appraisal leads to two indisputable points: First, the Chafetz Chaim did not directly forbid electric shavers. Second, we cannot clearly identify Chafetz Chaim’s Mashinka Chadasha. Without clarity, we cannot honestly include the Chafetz Chaim on the list of great poskim who forbid electric shavers.

It is undoubtedly correct that many great poskim, led by the Chazon Ish, forbid using all electric shavers that leave a clean shave. It is also clear that it is ideal for a Jewish male to sport a beard. However, it is a distortion of Halacha to deny that many great poskim permit such electric shavers.

With warmth and respect,

Rabbi Haim (Howard) Jachter

Dayan (Rabbinic Judge), Beth Din of Elizabeth

Rabbi, Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck

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