Lag B’Omer: Matisyahu Tops Noteworthy Jewish Shaving Stories
For the first 32 days of the Omer period between Passover and Shavuot, many men in the Orthodox Jewish community refrain from shaving and getting haircuts as one of the signs of mourning to mark the death of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students (who, according to the Talmud, died for not showing proper respect to one another) over the same number of days during the Omer.
On the 33rd day of the Omer, then, comes the Lag B’Omer (the numerical value for the Hebrew letters of the word “Lag” is 33) holiday, to celebrate the end of the students’ deaths—and suddenly, scores of clean-shaven faces re-emerge in the Orthodox Jewish world, as the ban on shaving is lifted.
In honor of Lag B’Omer 2013, which falls on April 28, JNS.org recounts five famous shaving stories from Jewish history, past and present—or, in some cases, stories revolving around the lack of shaving.
On Dec. 13, 2011, Matisyahu stunned fans from around the world by shedding his signature beard and posting photos of his clean-shaven face on Twitter, accompanied by a transformative declaration: “No more Chassidic reggae superstar.”
Men from some Jewish movements like Chabad-Lubavitch—with which Matisyahu formerly associated—refrain from cutting beards altogether, even outside of the Omer period. For Matisyahu, a lengthy beard was a hallmark of his image and lent him a novelty factor in the entertainment sector, but also represented a significant part of his Jewish journey. On that fateful 2011 day, Matisyahu said Orthodox Judaism started as a “natural and organic process” for him, but turned less natural over time.
“I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules—lots of them—or else I would somehow fall apart,” he posted on Twitter. “I am reclaiming myself. Trusting my goodness and my divine mission.”
King David experienced a number of hairy situations involving his sons, among them an ordeal with Absalom, who rebelled against his father following the rape of his sister Tamar by Amnon, his half-brother.
Absalom sent his servants to murder Amnon and later took things a step further by seeking to take over David’s kingdom. In the fateful Battle of Ephraim Wood, however, Absalom was undone by his notoriously long hair, which caused him to get stuck in an oak tree while his mule rode beneath it. Joab, David’s general, proceeded to slay the hanging Absalom with three spears.
Also known as Shimshon, the third-to-last protagonist in the Book of Judges was a Nazirite, meaning he abstained from alcoholic beverages and promised not to shave or cut his hair. Samson’s brute strength led to feats such as wrestling a lion and slaying an entire army with the jawbone of a donkey as his only weapon. But Samson eventually revealed to Delilah (approached by the Philistines to seduce him and discover the source of his power) that his strength would vanish with the loss of his hair.
Delilah asked Samson’s servant to shave his seven locks, constituting a breach of his Nazirite oath. On cue, Samson lost his strength and was captured by the previously unsuccessful Philistines, who stabbed out his eyes.
In line with the biblical prohibition of shaving with a blade against the skin, most Orthodox men refrain from the use of razors. Luckily for them, Belgian-born Jewish engineer Alexandre Horowitz invented the Philishave shaver in 1939—the first rotary electric razor. Contemporary halakhic authorities reason that electric razors function as scissors, trapping hair between blades and a metal grating, thereby cutting facial hair in a biblically permissible manner.
Rabbi Menachem Stern
A Chabad rabbi, Rabbi Menachem Stern was sworn in as a U.S. army chaplain in December 2011 following the resolution of a lawsuit that challenged the army’s “no-beard” policy on constitutional grounds (saying the policy violated the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause).
The army had refused to budge on its policy for several years, and in accordance with Chabad tradition, Stern could not compromise on his facial hair. But backed by prominent attorney Nathan Lewin, Stern settled his case and was permitted to enter the army with his beard—joining Col. Jacob Goldstein, who has served as a bearded army chaplain for more than 30 years without being challenged, due to a special letter he received from Gen. Bernard W. Rogers that constituted a lifetime exception to the no-beard policy.
“Bizarre as it may sound, the army was saying, ‘We’ll allow you to be a religious mentor in the army only if you violate your religious convictions,'” Lewin said.