A teacher known as “Binyomin Hersh the Beard,” Biała Bielec, Poland, 1920s. Photograph by Alter Kacyzne. The photographer’s inscription: “The longest beard in Biała, which students have more than once nailed to the table while he dozes off. That’s why he has such wonderful, sad eyes.” (Forward Association/YIVO)

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In his autobiography, the philosopher Salomon Maimon (d. 1800) recalled that the concept of beards “especially gave me trouble.” In reading the Zohar and other kabbalistic works, Maimon explored the image of “God’s Beard, in which the hairs are divided into numerous classes with something peculiar to each, and every hair is a separate channel of divine grace.” Maimon later wrote that with all of his efforts, “I could find no rational meaning in these representations.”

Between Kabbalah and Modernity

The Zohar’s attempt to embed the biblical prohibition of destroying the “side-growth of the beard” (Lev. 19:27) in its mythic construction of a divine beard whose hairs were linked with the thirteen attributes of mercy, and constituted conduits of divine grace, yielded few practical results during the Middle Ages. After the Lurianic revolution of the sixteenth century, however, many interpreters of the Kabbalah and their disciples insisted that a truly God-fearing Jew must refrain not only from shaving his beard, but also from trimming even a single facial hair. This view was expressed by Naftali Bacharach, a native of Frankfurt who had studied Kabbalah in Poland, in his Emek ha-melekh (1648), but received perhaps its fullest expression some two centuries later in the writings of Menaḥem Mendel Shneerson, the spiritual leader of Lubavitch Hasidism and grandson of its founder (see especially Responsa Tsemaḥ tsedek, Y.D., 93). The kabbalistic veneration of the beard also led to the custom of preserving facial hairs between the pages of holy books if these hairs fell out during study, a custom opposed by some scholars.

Already in Maimon’s lifetime, one of the demands of Frankists who submitted to the clergy of Lwów the conditions under which they would agree to join the Catholic church, was that they “should be allowed to wear beards and earlocks.” In most parts of Europe, however, beards radically declined in favor during the eighteenth century, among both Christians and Jews. In 1705, Peter the Great of Russia extended a previous prohibition on facial hair, which had originally applied only to aristocrats and senior state officials, to such groups as merchants and townsmen. Peter’s decrees against the beard came on the heels of his return from his West European tour of 1697–1698. The clean-shaven face was regarded as an icon of progressive Western Europe, and Peter wanted to put that face on his (male) populace as a means of hastening their modernization.

Not surprisingly, many Jews also saw the clean-shaven face as a sign of modernity. Male Jews who embraced new ways often sought, either within or without the framework of halakhah, to minimize or even entirely remove their facial hair. Before the end of the seventeenth century, Hillel ben Naftali Tsevi (1615–1690), who was born in Lithuania but spent his last decade as rabbi of Żółkiew (Galicia), prohibited the removal of facial hair by means of pumice stones (Bet Hillel, Y.D., no. 181). And in 1705 the small and relatively new Jewish community of Königsberg (later Kaliningrad) in East Prussia decreed that a Jew entering the city beardless was to be fined 60 thalers. Some seven decades later, the statutes of Königsberg’s prestigious ḥevrah kadisha’ (burial society) stipulated that only those with “a noticeable beard” on their faces could be members of the society; hence, they sought to exclude local Jews who favored the “half-beard”—a thin strip of hair extending discreetly from ear to ear beneath the chin—which may be seen in eighteenth-century portraits of such prominent Jews as Moses Mendelssohn and his older contemporary, the Court Jew Alexander David of Braunschweig (the portrait of David had clearly been painted sometime after he had been asked, in 1744, by Wolf Wertheimer, son of the late Court Jew Samson Wertheimer, to shave his beard and travel to Vienna to intervene with Empress Maria Theresa about the planned expulsion of Prague Jewry).

In 1744–1745, during the violence that accompanied the expulsions of Jews from Prague and other parts of Bohemia, 32 Jews were killed in Böhmisch Leipa (mod. Česká Lipa), including the community’s rabbi, Yonah. According to a penitential prayer composed for the local fast observed thereafter on the fourth of Tevet (in December or January), the martyred rabbi was first “dragged like sheep to slaughter by his hair, while his beard was plucked,” and then led through the streets of the city. There a bullet was shot into his mouth, and his naked body was left in the street. Although others of the dozens of Jews who were executed were shot in the mouth, only the rabbi’s beard was abused. While it is unlikely that Yonah was the only bearded Jew in mid-eighteenth century Česká Lipa, it does appear that as its rabbi, his beard was the longest and most prominent one.

Hair: His and Hers

Postcard depicting a family on its way to a synagogue. The grandfather is bearded and traditionally dressed, while the next generation wears modern clothes and the man is beardless. (Publisher unknown, printed in Germany.) (YIVO)

By the late eighteenth century, some European rabbis, including Volf Boskowitz (1740–1818), who had served communities in Moravia and Hungary, argued that it was permissible to use a razor to remove facial hairs that remained after one had closely cropped a beard with scissors, but this opinion was dismissed by their older and more respected contemporary, Yeḥezkel Landau of Prague (Responsa Mahadura tinyanah, Y.D., 80). Landau himself had earlier issued a controversial ruling permitting shaving by means of a depilatory cream during the intermediate days of a festival if one had already shaved on the festival’s eve. This ruling was originally made during the 1760s for the benefit of a coreligionist, likely a court Jew, who needed to present himself before prominent non-Jews during the festival’s intermediate days. Rabbi Landau understood that for such a person “it would be physically uncomfortable to let his facial hair grow, and also would make him the object of scorn and derision among those of prominence” (Mahadura kama, O.H., 13). After the publication of his responsum in 1776, Landau responded to critics who feared that it would be utilized as a wider warrant for shaving in ways or on days that were prohibited (Mahadura tinyanah, O.H., 99–101). His son and successor Shemu’el (d. 1834) reiterated Hillel ben Naftali’s earlier prohibition of shaving by means of a pumice stone, but unequivocally permitted the use of depilatory creams (ibid., no. 81).

Although Hasidic Jews wore beards consistently, in Volozhin, Mir, Slobodka, and Telz—the elite Lithuanian yeshivas—virtually all students were clean-shaven while the faculty was bearded. Nevertheless, the dichotomy between the full beard, often accompanied by side-locks (peyes; pe’ot), and the neatly trimmed one was frequently used in nineteenth-century Jewish literature as a means of distinguishing between Jewish men who were planted firmly in the past and those who, though still traditionally observant, were more forward looking. In the fragmentary autobiographical novel Limdu hetev (1862) by S. Y. Abramovitsh (Mendele Moykher-Sforim) the protagonist returns to his shtetl after years of study in Berlin, and finds that “boys saw me and gaped, and the aged arose and stood up. . . . One pointed at my short jacket, another at my beard and side-locks, shorn contrary to Jewish custom. . . . In their eyes—even in my own eyes—I was no better than a criminal.” In his Yiddish story “Dos kleyne mentshele,” published shortly afterward, a traditional (and presumably full-bearded rabbi) comments charitably about the maskil (follower of the Jewish Enlightenment) Gutmann: “As long as he is an honest man his trimmed beard does not bother me. Better a Jew without a beard than a beard without a Jew.”

In Simḥat hanef (1872), an early novel by Abramovitsh’s younger contemporary Perets Smolenskin, the shaven face is even more emphatically the mark of a maskil; in an unnamed city “the shaven ones are considered a separate party, regarded with aversion by the Hasidim and lauded by their opponents.” A young woman of Hasidic background who had studied French had no choice but to marry one of the “shaven ones.”

During the nineteenth century, the hair of a married Jewish woman, and the degree to which it was covered or revealed, carried no less cultural meaning than the beard of a man. In 1839, after decades of struggle against modernizing trends in Jewish life, the arch-traditionalist Mosheh Sofer of Pressburg (Bratislava) ruled, under the influence of both the Zohar and local practice (minhag), that married women must cover their hair with at least a kerchief indoors, and with a hat on top of a kerchief in public (Responsa, O.H., 36). Several decades later, Ḥayim Halberstam, the founder of Sandz Hasidism, ruled that even a wig alone was not sufficient covering for a married woman in public (Divre ḥayim, Y.D., 59).

Thus, in ultra-Orthodox circles the faces of men were covered as thoroughly as were their wives’ heads. In more modern circles, in which Western European standards were followed, more was seen of both men’s faces and women’s hair. After immigration from Eastern Europe, however, much could change. In her autobiography Out of the Shadow (1918) Rose Gallup Cohen, who arrived in New York from Russia as a young girl in 1892, recalled a neighbor telling her before her departure that “the first thing men do in America is cut off their beards and the first thing women do is to leave off their wigs.”

Modern Antisemitism and Its Memories

The beards and side-curls of Jewish men, and to a lesser extent the head-coverings of Jewish women, were favorite targets for antisemitic attack during the Polish–Soviet war of 1920, and again during the Holocaust. In March 1920, one rabbi reported seeing “50 Jews with cut-off beards” in a Polish railway station. Two months later, soldiers from General Józef Haller’s army “accosted some Jews in the streets of Częstochowa and began to cut off their beards.” Isaac Babel, who rode with the Russian First Cavalry through eastern Galicia during the summer of 1920, arrived with his Cossack comrades in Zhitomir after Polish troops had been there for three days. “There was a pogrom,” he wrote in his diary; “they cut off beards, that’s usual, assembled 45 Jews in the marketplace, led them to the slaughter yard, tortures, cut out tongues, wails heard all over the square.” Later that summer Babel was in Dubno, where he noted the Jewish “hatred of the Poles, who pluck their beards.”

The beards of pious Polish Jews also drew the attention of Babel’s older contemporary, the German Jewish writer Alfred Döblin, when he traveled through the country in 1924. In the Warsaw shtibl of the Gur Hasidim on Yom Kippur, he came to a sudden realization of “what their beards mean.” For Döblin, who had lived in Berlin since 1911, the beard was a sign of the Jewish link with their Middle Eastern origins: “You understand the beard when you see these men standing there in their big wide prayer shawls, which they have drawn over their heads. These are Arabian heads, these are men of the great sandy desert.” In Łódź, Döblin was impressed by the “powerful gray beard” of the former rebbe of Strzegom (Striegau) in Silesia.

German police or soldiers forcibly shaving the beards of Jews, Zawiercie, Poland, 1940. (YIVO)

Fifteen years later, those beards attracted the notice of German occupying forces in Eastern Europe, who like the Polish troops of Haller’s army often targeted the facial hair of pious Jews for purposes of perverse pleasure. After the Nazis entered the Galician town of Mielec in September 1939, a former townswoman testified at the Eichmann trial, “a motorcycle with a sidecar would sometimes come through, and they used to catch Jews with beards, or they used to drag them out of their homes for shaving.” The shaving, however, would always be done in an abusive manner, either by leaving half the beard intact, or by intentionally removing “bits of flesh” along with it. Later in 1939, according to another witness at the same trial, German troops seized bearded Jews in Hrubieszów, in Lublin province, and dragged them off to the local synagogue, where they began removing their beards “with knives, sometimes to the point of drawing blood.” Afterward, “they compelled those Jews to shave others. Whoever did not want to do so was beaten.”

In the Warsaw ghetto, elegantly dressed young Jewish women were sometimes by forced by the Nazis to shave the beards of Jewish men. The historian Shim‘on Huberband reported that his own beard, as well as that of a friend with whom he was walking, was removed in this manner on the eve of the Ninth of Av, 1940. He also reported that David Bornstein, the Sokhachever rebbe, was forced by the Germans to cut his own beard.

During the pogrom in the Polish town of Jedwabne in July 1941, shortly after the German occupation, “local hooligans armed themselves with axes and chased all the Jews into the streets,” according to the postwar testimony of Szmul Wasersztajn. He further recalled that “beards of old Jews were burned.” Like other aspects of the anti-Jewish violence that took place in Jedwabne, the local populace evidently required neither instruction nor encouragement from the Germans.

In October 1941 the wearing of beards was prohibited by in the Łódź ghetto by its Judenrat, headed by Khayim Rumkowski. Several months later, bearded Jews were rounded up by the (Jewish) ghetto police and taken to be forcefully shaved. One Hasidic Jew who managed to keep his beard until he was caught in June 1943 was reportedly willing to die rather than have his beard entirely removed. His request was not honored by the Judenrat’s police. By contrast, when the Jewish men of Rawa Mazowiecka were rounded up by the Gestapo in 1939 and forced to have their beards shaved, the town’s rabbi, Yeraḥmi’el Rappoport, who was in mourning for his son, was allowed to keep his long white beard, after the intervention of a local Christian clergyman. In return, however, the rabbi had to undergo 100 lashes. He fainted before the fortieth, and died soon afterward.

Memories of the abuse of Jewish beards in Eastern Europe are embedded in such works of fiction as Philip Roth's 1987 novel The Counterlife. Roth portrays two elderly Jews from Newark, New Jersey, at a funeral, discussing Israel’s foreign policy: “‘Bomb ’em,’ Shimmy said flatly, ‘bomb the Arab bastards till they cry uncle. They want to pull our beards again? We'll die instead!’”

Suggested Reading

Michael J. Broyde, “Hair Covering and Jewish Law,” Tradition 42.3 (2009): 97–179; Louis Ginzberg, “Beard,” in The Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 2, pp. 611–615 (New York and London, 1903); Elliott S. Horowitz, “The Early Eighteenth Century Confronts the Beard: Kabbalah and Jewish Self-Fashioning,” Jewish History 8.1–2 (1994): 95–115; Moshe Wiener, Hadrat panim zakan, 3rd ed. (New York, 2006).