Is it okay to shave your face with a razor instead of an electric shaver? I understand the electric shaver acts more like scissors than a blade, but I also understand the Halachah (Jewish laws) pertaining to this custom is intended to avoid a pagan practice. I used a razor for years, and changed to the electric shaver - the razor was much more efficient. Can you explain this, and comment on why it is so - what is the reason for this practice in Judaism, and is it universal?.
Tradition has it that it is prohibited to shave with a razor. This razor prohibition has been interpreted to imply two interrelated considerations.
1. The shaving process entails the destruction (cutting)of hair roots below the surface of the skin with a single blade.
2. The prohibition relates only to a normal process of shaving.Both features are prevalent when shaving with a razor.
The electric shaver , however, does not cut the hair roots beneath the skin.In addition, its mode of cutting hair is like a scissor. Namely a dual edged instrument that traps the hair but does not cut roots..Some rabbis contend that this is not the normal practice of shaving. A tweezer, for example would be permitted to utilize for shaving of a beard. It does cut(or destroy hair roots beneath the skin) but it is not the normal mode of shaving.
While the Jewish tradition has for centuries forbidden shaving with a straight razor, the reason for the taboo is somewhat unclear. The prohibition is at least as old as the Bible, where it is banned in Leviticus 19:27, 21:5, and Deuteronomy 14:1; yet the Torah frankly does not offer a transparent reason for the prohibition. The 13th Century sage Rabbi Jacob ben Asher argues, “we do not need to understand the reason for all the commandments. They are the commands of the King upon us, even if we do not know their reason” (Arba’ah Turim, Yoreh De’ah 181).
That perspective has not kept generations of authorities from seeking a more satisfying answer. Maimonides, for example, regards shaving with a straight razor as an idolatrous practice (Laws of Idolatry 12:1). Consequently, Jews must refrain from shaving as a way to differentiate themselves from their idolatrous neighbors.
Other scholars argue that, in antiquity, shaving was a sign of mourning. Some people tore out their hair upon learning of a death, either as an offering “to strengthen the ghost in the nether world,” as a way of assuaging “the ghost’s jealousy of the living,” or as an act of “self-punishment expressing feelings of guilt” (Jeffrey Tigay, comment on Deuteronomy 14:1). From this perspective, the Torah is possibly seeking to guide people away from misguided notions about death and the afterlife, or to forbid extreme and self-destructive behavior. One beautiful interpretation, by the medieval Spanish commentator Abravanel, is that Jews “should not perform extreme rites of mourning when bereaved because, as God’s children, they are never totally orphaned” (Jeffrey Tigay, comment on Deuteronomy 14:1).
Perhaps the most compelling approach is that of the 11th Century French commentator Rashi. Rashi contends that the Torah’s command is about our relationship with God: “You are God’s children, and you deserve to be beautiful.” Not shaving is a way in which we make ourselves beautiful, which grants us the dignity we deserve as Children of the Sovereign.
At first blush, this might sound counterintuitive. If beauty is the objective, one might think we ought to be allowed to tinker with our bodies as much as we want. In our culture, where we are constantly bombarded with messages – some subtle, some overt – about how naturally ugly we are, and how much we need external remedies to make ourselves more attractive and presentable. The Torah offers another way of thinking: we are actually perfect just the way we are. We ought not mess with our natural beauty too much, or we will mess up a good thing.
In this line of reasoning, a man’s facial hair reflects his natural beauty; after all, a man’s beard will naturally grow out if left alone. The Jewish legal tradition (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh De’ah 181:3, et. al.) thus comes to teach us that we may modify that natural beauty slightly (i.e., with scissors, which trim but cannot fully remove), but we must not radically alter it (i.e., with a straight razor, which comes as close to fully removing the hair as is possible).
True, a straight razor is much more efficient than an electric razor. But efficiency is not the value the Torah seeks to impart here. Instead, it is reminding us of our natural beauty and dignity as God’s children, and our responsibility to see ourselves through the eyes of our loving heavenly Parent.
The halacha seems to come from the verse in Leviticus: You shall not round off the side-growth on your head, or destroy the side-growth of your beard. (Lev 19:27). From this, the issue of what is considered 'shaving' is debated. There is even a website dedicated to this issue (www.koshershaver.com). The issue seems to be founded upon not copying the practices of the Canaanites and the Israelites did everything they could to avoid doing the same. This encompasses tatoos, piercings, bodily mutilation and shaving.
There is no consensus. Many traditional Jews will never bring a blade of any kind to their face while there are many Orthodox rabbis who are clean-shaven.
From my persepective as a Reform rabbi, I find the halacha about shaving to represent a prohibition that is simply outdated. We don't do things or avoid things to be unlike the Canaanites. There are no more Canaanites. There may be value in keeping alive a tradition just for the sake of keeping alive a tradition and one can make the argument that its ethical and moral foundations can still teach and inspire a resistance to assimiliation.
In my opinion, it is a custom that has no meaning for the vast majority of modern Orthodox, Conservative or Reform Jews.
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