As we have been moving through Vayikra, we have gradually been moving from learning to be “pure” to learning to be “holy,” and this week we are far enough along that our parashah is called קדשים. Like a number of other parshiot we have seen, it discusses the appropriateness and inappropriateness of various behaviors, and we would do well this week to choose one to discuss. As Monday this week was the yahrzeit of Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, we shall pick one in his honor.
We are told in this parashah: “You shall not round off the corners of the hair of your head and you shall not shave off the corners of your beard.” “Even when the purpose of our activity concerns our outward appearance,” writes Rav S.R. Hirsch, “and we treat our hair and beards to make a pleasing impression on others, the mitzvah of holiness cautions us.”
It is interesting to note that different sects of Jews treat the “corners of the head” (the “peos”) very differently, but let us focus on beards this week. The mishna discusses not whether one who shaves is liable to lashes (everyone agrees that he is), but how many sets: Rabbi Eliezer, for example, holds that removing all the corners of one’s beard in one action makes one liable only to one set of lashes; Rambam, going with the opinion of other Tannaim, holds that one receives lashes for each corner.
Where those “corners” are is a topic of intense debate, and the mishna in question is not very helpful: “Two here, two there, and one on the bottom.” Between Rashi, Rosh, Rabbeinu Hanan’el, Rambam, Meiri, and various seemingly contradictory gemaras, one can get very confused, but is unlikely to gain much clarity. “The duty of conscientiousness,” writes Rav Hirsch, “therefore dictates that we refrain from השחתה of the beard on the whole of the cheeks and chin,” and this is consistent with tradition.
On the other hand, the mishna holds that this only applies to shaving with a razor. Rabbi Eliezer disagrees, saying that the punishment applies for shaving with other implements as well. While the gemara acknowledges Rabbi Eliezer, and the possibility that any method commonly used for something approximating shaving could be considered shaving, it does not present this as the primary viewpoint, and Tosafot say this applies only in the case of a razor, and the Shulchan Arukh goes with this view—while noting that there are those who forbid using scissors as well, and one should pay attention to them.
This is a fairly sensitive topic in some circles. After all, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha says that the beard is the glory of the face.
Very illustrative is the story of the messengers with gifts whom King David sends to Chanun, the king of Ammon. Chanun’s advisers suggest that the messengers are spies, so Chanun shaves off half of their beards, cuts their garments halfway down, and sends them away. The men are so embarrassed to return that David tells them to stay in Jericho until their beards grow back.
The Radak asks why David does not simply have the men shave the other half of their beard, and answers that it was not the custom then to cut the beard even with scissors, and was considered an abject disgrace. The Radak, who lived in western Europe, 1160-1235, notes at the end of that comment that shaving is the custom in the lands where he lives.
As we move closer to modern times, the topic becomes more sensitive than ever. With the advent of the haskalah, maskilim egged on leaders such as Russia’s Nicholas I to legally mandate Jews to shave. There is a story that in the 1830 Polish rebellion against Russia, the Jewish volunteers refused to shave, and formed a special 850-man bearded regiment.
Add to this that there are kabbalistic sources associating a beard with chesed, and that some believe that therefore a beard should not ever be touched, while many electric razors are often held halachically not to qualify as razors, and therefore held to be permitted; and we begin to find communities of Jews that strongly differ on this topic. This issue gets even more pointed during sfirah, a period when we are not supposed to cut our hair.
Enter Rav Lichtenstein. First and foremost, regarding sfirah, he held that in an age of commonplace daily shaving, the distant aveylus of sfirah does not override the honor of Shabbos—and therefore that not shaving during sfirah may be appropriate during the week, but that one should shave on Fridays. It was not that he was lenient; he strongly felt that today, one should shave, and present an image of a sharp-looking, well-put-together orthodox Jew.
This raises a very important general question: how much do we need to worry about how we look to the rest of the world? Most views appear to be that in certain cases, Jews looking bad to the outside world constitute a chillul Hashem; it is only a question of where the boundaries are. Should one wear a mask at times when he believes it is silly and pointless, when many others are not wearing them, to avoid giving the impression that Jews flout the rules? Should one make a scene on a delayed flight, asking to be let off the plane, if the delays create a possibility that the flight would arrive after the start of Shabbos?
This question gets serious fast. In the Jewish Daily Bulletin from December 2, 1930 (first page, bottom right), on the 100th anniversary of the 1830 Polish uprising against Russia, one can read about Polish Jews working hard to show off their patriotic credentials, and a monument to the uprising being unveiled in what is soon to be the center of the Warsaw Ghetto. While we are at it, on Page 3, top center, we see Jews donating a synagogue to German Catholics, nine years before the blitzkrieg into Poland. How well did these efforts to look good to non-Jews pay off? On the other hand, two articles below, the Egyptian Jewish community (for there was one back then) ends up with its infighting on public display; does that work? When certain Jewish communities today leave trash lying around in quiet, clean towns—towns that sometimes have bear problems exclusively because of the Jewish population there—is that helpful to our ultimate mission to be a light unto the nations?
The fact is that there is no quick and easy way to locate the proper boundaries here. It is a question that each community must answer for itself, and, in some cases, each of us for himself.
In our bracha after meals, we say ונשא ברכה… וצדקה… ונמצא חן ושכל טוב בעיני אלקים ואדם. Next time we say this, let us have the kavanah to find goodwill in the eyes of both God and other people—but God first.
 Vayikra 19:27
 Makot 3
 Hilchot Avodah Zarah 12:7; it is also notable that in Hilchot Sanhedrin 19:4, he lists 168 infractions that are not punishable by karet but are punishable by lashes, and shaving one’s beard is #141.
 Top of Makot 21a
 Shevuot 2b
 Yoreh Deah 181:3
 The Rama, on Yoreh Deah 181:10, says that with scissors, one should be careful to use the top half, as using the bottom half only would essentially constitute using a razor.
 while exchanging insults with a eunuch, Shabbat 152a
 Shmuel II 10:1-5
 The Radak adds that cutting the mustache was OK, and, centuries after the Radak, the Ari, who did not cut his beard, would cut his mustache when it got in the way of him eating.
 The information on Rav Lichtenstein’s position is from Rav Simcha L. Weinberg.