An identifying mark of the Jew has been, and for many still is, his beard. The foundation for this is the commandment in the Torah: “You shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shall you mar the corners of your beard” (Leviticus 19:27).
The Second Book of Samuel provides an early example of the importance of the beard. There, the Ammonite king shaves off half the beards of King David’s messengers to insult David. The messengers are so embarrassed that David instructs them to wait until their beards grow back before returning to Jerusalem.
Medieval biblical commentator Rabbi David Kimchi notes that implicit in the story is the fact that the messengers’ other option – shaving off the other half of their beards – was too humiliating to contemplate.
The beard is also a sign of piousness and the wisdom that comes with age. The Hebrew word for beard and elder is derived from the same root letters of zayin, kuf, nun. In Jewish liturgy, the beard is a recurrent symbol when describing a pious or a wise man.
In modern times, many religious Jews would not shave off or even trim their beards, actions strictly forbidden by chassidic and Kabbalistic teachings.
The Jew’s beard also made an easy target for anti-Semites. In 19th century Poland, then controlled by the Russian empire, a government decree banned Jews from having beards and side-locks. Many chassidic Jews were heroically ready to face prison or exile rather than comply. Fortunately, a group of rabbis and community leaders convinced Polish and Russian authorities to annul the decree.
Despite the significance of a beard for many Jews, the Israeli military has initiated a “war on beards,” as a headline in the major Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot put it, announcing new regulations that restrict the ability of soldiers to grow and keep beards.
Previously, the Israel Defense Forces placed no restrictions on a religious soldier’s right to grow a beard. The old order (Directive 33.0118) states that “a soldier, observing a religious lifestyle, can grow a beard for religious reasons.”
Under the new rules, however, a soldier must obtain a recommendation from the rabbi of his unit and then a permit from a lieutenant colonel.
If the soldier transfers to another unit he must renew his permit in the new unit. And if the soldier shaves his beard or if he is tried for a disciplinary violation of the new regulations, he must wait a year before obtaining a new permit.
In the memorandum sent to all soldiers announcing the new regulations, Lt. Cl. Avishai Azulai explained that growing beards outside the regulations violates the “image of IDF soldiers in the eyes of the citizens of the state.”
These new guidelines place considerable obstacles in the path of a religious soldier wishing to fulfill a precept he considers central to his observance. They violate religious freedom of soldiers. At the very least, they force the IDF to question soldiers’ religious beliefs and pass judgment on religious sincerity.
How will the IDF pass such judgment? For example, if a soldier only recently became religious, how long must he wait to show his religious sincerity before growing a beard? If a soldier observes Shabbat and kashrut but not other mitzvot, is he sufficiently religious to grow a beard? What if a soldier is only traditional?
Having such judgments made by the IDF, in and of itself, requires state intrusion into a person’s belief system.
Further, there are no guidelines for the lieutenant colonel who issues the permit. He, sadly, may be hostile to or have little-to-no understanding of Judaism. As a result, soldiers in different battalions will face different and unfair requirements.
The requirements imposed by the directives are themselves no small obstacles, especially for young and impressionable teenagers. A soldier should not be forced to request official approval for and embarrassingly attempt to prove his religious sincerity to the IDF.
As the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, an Israeli civil rights organization, wrote in a letter of protest to the Chief of the General Staff on March 2:
[A] soldier, especially a young or freshman soldier in a combat unit, does not easily approach an officer of the Lieutenant Colonel rank . . . for any purpose. . . . [T]here is a real concern that religious or traditional soldiers . . . will be afraid to obtain a permit to grow a beard under the stated conditions.
The new directives also provide no exception for soldiers who only refrain from shaving during specific times of the year as prescribed by halacha. Those soldiers will have to go through an arduous process several times a year, and a lieutenant colonel who does not understand or even disdains the halacha may simply reject such requests. The Legal Forum therefore requested that the new directives be clarified to include such exceptions.