As a child, I always wanted to know what my father’s chin looked like. But I never got to see it. From the time I was born until the time he passed away 28 years later, the Dayan’s chin was always covered with a beard.
The Torah forbids a man to destroy the corners of his beard – lo tashchit et pe’at zekanecha. The Talmud informs us that the lo tashchit prohibition applies only to shaving with a ta’ar, a razor blade. This is because a razor blade has the propensity to destroy hair at its roots and prevent its re-growth.
There are two principle reasons offered for the prohibition. The first, offered by the Tur, is that it is God’s wish – Mitzvot Melech – which we are bound to respect whether we understand it or not. According to the Rambam, shaving off one’s beard was a practice followed by idol worshipers, and similar to other idolatrous practices prohibited by the Torah, such as drinking blood, practicing occult magic, and basing one’s actions on a soothsayer’s predictions.
Five corners of the face frame the area of the beard to which the lo tashchit prohibition applies. The two upper corners of the beard are on each side of the face at the protruding ends of the lower jawbones located below the ears; the two lower corners are at the opposite ends of the lower jawbones near the chin; and the fifth corner is the chin itself. Accordingly, a violation of the prohibition involves five separate violations, for which one is liable for five sets of forty-nine lashes (malkot) each.
In addressing the question of which devices may be used to remove one’s beard without violating the Torah prohibition, halachic literature focuses on the extent to which these devices function like a razor blade.
Clearly, scissors do not and they are therefore permitted. Then there are devices that produce a close shave, approaching the smoothness of a razor blade, although they are not razor blades per se. These devices are referred to as ke’ein ta’ar, similar to a razor blade. Although the Shulchan Aruch permits shaving one’s beard with a ke’ein ta’ar, there is much debate among the Acharonim, the modern halachic authorities, about what degree of sharpness of the blade and its proximity to the skin transforms a device from a ke’ein ta’ar to a ta’ar.
What about modern electric shavers? Do they classify as the forbidden ta’ar or the permitted me’ein ta’ar? Halachic literature answers this question with two different approaches, the empirical and the scientific.
The empirical approach considers the electric shaver a ta’ar if, after shaving with it, you run your finger over your face and you feel no hair, only smooth skin.
The scientific approach studies the likelihood of the moving blades coming into direct contact with the skin. The modern electric shaver head consists of a series of moving blades covered with a protective shield. The shield, which is perforated with crevices, is placed directly on the skin of the face. As a result of the pressure of the shield on the face, hairs penetrate the shield and are cut by the moving blades just below the shield. The thinner the shield, the wider the crevices, and the heavier the pressure exerted, the greater becomes the likelihood that the device will be considered a ta’ar.
The thin line between a ke’ein ta’ar and a ta’ar was of such great concern to the Minchat Yitzchak, Dayan Weiss, that he wrote letters in 1966 to Remington, Sunbeam, and Schick asking them to evaluate for him the likelihood of the blades coming into direct contact with the skin. The answers he received ranged from within 0.003 inches from the skin, to never touching the skin, to no guarantee that they would not touch the skin.
In his responsa on the matter, the Minchat Yizchak recounts an experiment conducted by the Chazon Ish in which he soiled his hand with ink and then ran an electric shaver over it. The Chazon Ish found that the shaver removed some of the dry ink and this convinced him it more resembled a ta’ar than a ke’ein taar. Although the Minchat Yitzchak was reluctant to condemn a widespread practice among God-fearing Jews, he was clearly unhappy about it.
Other poskim are less concerned. Rabbi Pesach Frank writes that the presence of the protective shield is sufficient basis to classify modern electric shavers as ke’ein ta’ar and to permit them.
People of exceptional piety, including mystics, do not shave their beards at all. And so I am left with the eternal mystery of my father’s chin.
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Raphael Grunfeld’s book “Ner Eyal, a Guide to Seder Nashim, Nezikin, Kodashim, Taharot and Zerayim” (2016) is available for purchase at https://www.amazon.com/dp/057816731X and “Ner Eyal, a Guide to the Laws of Shabbat and Festivals in Seder Moed” (2001) is available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/0615118992.