My beard is a constant source of conversation (especially with my mother). So when I saw an article in Commentary titled “Why Beards?” you can bet my interest was peaked. In the article, Meir Soloveichik examines the Jewish beard, from its biblical origins to modern America.
Wherever we look, writes Kass, “we see in Egypt the rejection of [bodily] change and the denial of death.” Shaving was a key element in this rejection. “No shaggy outlines or blemishes mar the perfectly smooth look. What appears to be an unveiling [of the human face] is actually also a veiling of age and disorder.” With this in mind, it begins to seem no accident at all that the Hebrew Bible, which steadily sets itself against pagan practices of every kind, should have positively enjoined the opposite practice—that is, the wearing of beards—thus visibly and deliberately repudiating the false blessing of eternal youthfulness and underscoring the fact of our eventual and inevitable mortality.
Soloveichik explains the halachic reasons many men are able to keep their faces clean shaven (electric razors), and moves on to the parallels between ancient Egypt’s obsession with youth to modern America’s – even as far as the practice of rising for the bride and groom at Jewish weddings:
The affluence is without question a great blessing, but within it there can be found a loss and even a potential curse—one that is nowhere more evident than at an Orthodox wedding. Typically such events are lavish and expensively catered affairs, and why not: Judaism stresses continuity, and a wedding is the happiest moment in a Jewish life. But inevitably there comes a moment when the groom and his extended family, followed by the bride’s family and the bride herself, proceed down the aisle, and the crowd, having remained seated and chatting away as grandparents in their seventies or eighties have walked haltingly to their places, rises reverently before the young couple, beautiful and handsome, young and radiant.
While there may be a good reason for this relatively new practice, standing up for the bride and groom is not required by Jewish law; standing for the elderly, at any time, and any place, is a biblical obligation. The same chapter of Leviticus that instructs male Jews to grow a beard insists that we “rise before the aged, and glorify the face of an elder.” Is it possible—or probable—that even traditional Jews, whose very appearance ought to teach them to revere the aged, have forgotten why weddings are so special to Judaism: because we plant for those who come after us, just as those who preceded us planted on our behalf?
I find his approach fascinating – saying that a Jewish man wearing a beard in modern America is in some sense bucking the system – saying “I don’t buy in to your culture of perpetual youth.” That being said, I prefer the holy Ari’s take on beards: “It is fitting that a man not uproot any hair from his beard at all, for the beard hairs are channels of divine spiritual abundance.” (Source)