What is Jewish haircut?
Lev19:27: You shall not cut sides of your heads,
neither shall you spoil the sides of your beard
The common translation of p'at as corners is unsustainable;
the word consistently means side – any side, not just left or right.
The next phrase employs et to denote specific sides of the beard. Hair
locks do not fulfill the commandment; at the bare minimum, plait is also
required. Truly, head should not be shaved from any side.
The translation of nkf as round is an
interpretation. The word consistently means, cut off. In Is29:1, for
example, translation of nkf as [let the holidays] come round contradicts
the next verse, "I will distress Ariel." The proper meaning of nkf
in Is29:1, as elsewhere, has to do with ending. The root cell kf has a
sense of rounding, spinning, fidgeting, thus kuf, monkey. Similar
semantic convergence of rounding and finishing is present in the English round
up. The connotation of nkf is full, rounding cut.
The commandment prohibits bowl-cut rather than aesthetical clipping of hair. Nazirites were prohibited even from clipping their hair during the time of their vow; Num6:5 specifically mentions that their hair grows long.
Shaving one's head was so unthinkable that in 2Sam14:26
the author strenuously defends Absalom's shaving on the grounds that his hair
was extremely heavy and even so he shaved only once a year.
Prohibition of shaving (Lev19:27) is unrelated to
mourning rites described in the next verse. Lev19:26-28 and 19:29-31 share a
similar structure: three unrelated commandments followed by the statement,
I am the Lord your God.
Lev19:27 mentions specifically "spoiling the sides"
of one's beard rather than the beard itself. The commandment deals with extreme
grooming, not shaving (which destroys the beard rather than its sides). No
culture groomed (as opposed to shaving) beards as mourning rites. Cutting hair
was also not a part of such rites – rather, they involved shaving one's head
fully (Deut21:12) or in a strip from nose bridge to nape of the neck ("between
your eyes," Deut14:1).
The association of shaving prohibition with mourning
rites in Lev21:1-5 is mistaken. Lev21:1-4 prohibits Kohens from defiling
themselves in mourning rites except on the account of close relatives;
Lev21:5 prohibits shaving one's head. Deut14:1 prohibits the mournful shaving to
all Hebrews in all circumstances. It is inconceivable that the priests
mourning their relatives are permitted the rite which defile even commoners.
Priests followed more, not less stringent rules of purity than laity. Rather,
Lev21:1-4 and 21:5 relate two different rules. In the first set, priests are
enjoined from incurring funerary impurities (likely, by touching dead bodies).
In the second rule, priests – like the other Hebrews – are enjoined from
shaving, whether in mourning or otherwise. The two rules are listed together
because bodily cuts are associated with mourning rites. Num6:6 confirms that the
person is defiled by touching a dead body, not by shaving. Indeed, Nazirite must
shave after he is defiled by corpse contamination.
The hair prohibitions are twofold. Normally, Jews
should not cut off their hair and beard. During mourning, Jews are specifically
prohibited from shaving their heads.
In lepers, hair absorbs the impurity and must be fully
shaved upon healing (Lev14:9). Nazirites must shave and burn their sanctified
hair after the period of their consecration ends. In common Hebrews, too, hair
embodies national sacredness, and is not to be shaved. Hair, thus, is a
receptacle of either sacredness or impurity.
People of many religions do not cut their hair. The name of Esau,
forefather of Semitic enemies of Jews, means hairy,
as does Hebrew root pra which produced
the title pharaoh. Both names of
Julius Caesar relate hairiness. Ps68:21 “God will shatter hairy crown of those
who walk in their guilty ways.” Talmud says, “Before Enoch’s generation,
the faces of people were like apes’ faces.” (Bereshit rabbah 23:9)
Samson’s strength was in his hair. Flowing head hair is unique to humans, and
not encountered in animals.