Makkot 20a-b - Jewish hair styles

June 24, 2010

Among the negative commandments in the Torah, we find that Jewish men need to be careful about the way that they cut their hair. According to the Torah (Vayikra 19:27) - lo takifu pe'at roshkhem ve-lo tash'hit et pe'at zekanekhah - a man cannot round off the edges of his head, nor can he destroy the growth of his beard. The Mishnah on today's daf (=page) teaches that the prohibition against rounding off the edges of one's hair applies to the two sides of his head, while the prohibition regarding the beard relates to five different points - two on each side and one on the chin. The former forbids cutting the hair at the temples so that the back of the ear and the forehead are "evened out"; the latter forbids the points on the face where there is an accumulation of hair.

It should be noted that these are among the few negative prohibitions in the Torah that do not apply to women. The Gemara in Kiddushin (daf 35) notes the juxtaposition of the hair of one's payot with the hair of one's beard in the abovementioned passage in Vayikra (19:27) and argues that the law that applies to the beard also applies to the payot, and since women do not ordinarily have a beard, the prohibition against shaving one's beard does not apply to them, thus the prohibition against cutting payot does not apply to them either.

With regard to men, the Gemara in Kiddushin concludes that since the Torah used the term lo tash'hit (do not destroy) with regard to cutting one's beard, the prohibition regarding shaving one's beard would only be with a razor, which is mash'hit (destructive), but mispara'im ke-en ta'ar - a scissor-like cutting action that removes hair - is permitted. Based on this, most rishonim permit shaving one's beard if it is done using that method, but they still prohibit cutting one's payot against the skin even mispara'im ke-en ta'ar, since regarding this halakhah the Torah forbids the very act of hakafah (rounding the "corners".) The Rambam, however, disagrees, apparently because he takes the juxtaposition of bal takif and bal tash'hit very seriously, concluding that all of the laws of one apply to the other, as well. Thus, just as one's beard can be cut with a scissors, so one's payot can be cut with a scissors. [Note that in the famous portrait of the Rambam he does not appear to have payot.]



This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud. To learn more about the Steinsaltz Daf Yomi initiative, click here.

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