"What's With The Sidelocks?" – Hairdos and Tzedekah in Jewish Thought

Some of the content of this was inspired by Rabbi Marc Fitzerman, head rabbi of B’nai Emunah in Tulsa, OK.

payot - jewish sidelocks

I frequently get asked by people outside of Judaism, “Hey Ken, what’s with the sidelocks?” I actually also get asked this by people within my own Jewish circles from time to time because wearing longer “payot” are not necessarily a minhag (custom) of many of the Jews in my community.

There are three answers to this question.
One is straight forward.
Another is more derived from a broader study of Torah.
The third is what I take away from it.
(Just a head’s up: if you’re not as into the Torah specifics and want more of the “bigger picture” of the practice, I’d suggest skipping down to The Sevel HaYerusha.)

The Katuv: Leviticus 19:27

The most on-the-surface explanation for the wearing a grown-out sidelocks (commonly referred to as “pay’ot” or “pay’os” in Ashkenazi communities) comes straight out of the katuv (what is more plainly written) understanding of the Torah. Leviticus 19 is a chapter that has a number of regulations plainly listed. Among these include not rounding off (trimming or shaving) the corners of one’s beard or the corners of one’s head.

You shall not round off the corners of your head or mar the corners of your beard.” – Leviticus 19:27

One interpretation of this verse is to not shave the corners of your beard or your head by taking a razor to the skin. This is accepted by most observant circles, even if this doesn’t necessarily mean growing out long beards and sidelocks.

The Hekeish: Leviticus 19:9-10

The kekeish (an additional understanding for a concept that can be derived from studying other passages in the text) gives the concept of “do not cut the corners” another dimension. The word we get for “corners” or “sides” in Leviticus 19:27 is the same word for another kind of corner found earlier in the chapter.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap the corners of your field. Neither shall you gather the gleanings of the harvest.” – Leviticus 19:9

This seems kind of odd on two levels. For one, why should we not harvest the corners of our fields? Secondly, what the heck does this have to do with those of us who have no fields? The answer is revealed in next verse.

“Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the stranger. I am יהוהyour Elohim.” Leviticus 19:10

We see here that the Creator of the Universe has a built-in system by which the poor and the foreigner/stranger can sustain themselves – by having access to the corners of an Israelite’s field which they are commanded to leave for those in need.

The Significance of Corners in Torah

In addition to the corners or one head or the corners of one’s field having special instructions in Torah, there are a few other places. One of the big ones being the tassels/fringes (“tzitzit”) worn typically by observant Jewish men.

“יהוהsaid to Moshe, ‘Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of יהוה, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. So you shall remember and do all My commandments, and be holy to your Elohim.'” – Numbers 15: 40

While today we affix special fringes called tzitzit or tzitziyot–  a form of knotted or braided tassel to the four corners of a garment, the ancient means of making a fringe on a garment was not necessarily by attaching a new tassel to it, but by leaving the strands that would normally be either woven or cut off of the garment. The remnant of this practice is is still evident on the edges of some prayer shawls in a shorter capacity. That means that, at its core, tzitzyiot are not necessarily what is added, but what is left.

In antiquity, many believe that extra strands (aside from the blue) weren't added, but rather four long fringes were left uncut and then knotted or braided along with an additional strand of blue.
In antiquity, many believe that extra strands (aside from the blue) weren’t added, but rather four long fringes were left uncut and then knotted or braided along with an additional strand of blue. What is circled in red are not tzitzit/tzitziyot but rather simply fringes.


The Sevel HaYerusha: Deuteronomy 15:7

From fields to garments to hair, we see a trend of the command of corners being left in the Torah. What can be derived from this? One idea is that these mitzvot are reminders to us to never forget the corners/fringes of society.

The Sevel HaYerusha(Yoke of Inheritance) ties in a concept found in Torah, but spread across many, many mitzvot (commandments).

“If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which יהוה your Elohim is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother.” – Deuteronomy 15:7

Like a long sidelock typically out of sight but always felt by its wearer, these people within our communities may not be immediately visible, but their presence is felt. They are on the fringes of the world and frequently get overlooked. Like a sidelocks of hair and beards frame our face and the ritual fringes on our garments frame our gait, so these people should frame how we look at the world as well as interact with it. When someone is in need, we should never hesitate to give them whatever help we can offer. This isn’t just a nice suggestion of the Torah, rather it is required of us.

Sidelocks, beards, tzitzyiot – these are reminders to us that we should never cut off the corners that are even more important than all of these: those in need. I do not have a field, thus I have no corners to leave besides services I can offer with my own two hands, monetarily, and a listening ear. The leaving of any physical corners should be as a symbol to one’s own self to leave the corners of their lives to those who need them most.

(Just a post script to this piece: nowhere in Torah is a commanded to grow out long sidelocks. This is just a custom of some Jewish movements and communities for the reasons mentioned above and not mentioned here. I personally grow mine for the above mentioned reasons [a form of personal spiritual discipline], but never advocate judging anyone else for not growing or growing out payot – sidelocks. It’s a very personal choice.)

My Lutheran Upbringing & Why I Don't Drive On Shabbat

If you go through most Jewish communities on a Saturday, you’ll probably notice Jewish families walking to and from synagogue and each other’s homes – usually dressed to the nines and never carrying anything. The reason for this is because it is Shabbat: the Jewish Sabbath. During Shabbat, there are things Jews should and should not do. Work and commerce are the big no-nos, but included with that is driving or riding in a car.

What does driving a car have to do with work?

There is a command in the Torah not kindle a flame during Shabbat as well: “You shall kindle no fire in all of your dwelling places/habitations on the Sabbath.” – Exodus 35:3. When the ignition is engaged, this causes a spark which ignites fuel.

While this is the primary reason I do not drive a car on Shabbat, there is a much more selfish reason why I don’t: I simply don’twantto.

I grew up in a traditional Lutheran household in Oklahoma. We attended church every Sunday and Wednesday. I was extremely active in the youth group as well as the boy scout troop that met there every Monday night. Though I have since converted to Judaism by way of the Modern Orthodox movement, I still think back on those times fondly. When I think back specifically about what I specifically liked, most of those times are actually some of the most Jewish aspects of that Lutheran life: the proximity of the spiritual community.

The church we attended was immediately across the street from our neighborhood. Even though we attended the church for over a decade and all of us were always in attendance, I can’t count on one hand the number of times we all went together and left together. Usually a few of us would go early for some reason, some would come late, some would stay late to help with something, and some of us would go home. The church was the hub we were spokes on a wheel. All the while, most of this was while I couldn’t drive. Most of the time, if my parents didn’t have their own Sunday school classes to attend, I would walk there by myself. If they had a committee meeting to attend and couldn’t give me a ride home, my brother and I would walk home. Many of the families that attended the church lived in the surrounding neighborhoods and their kids would do the same.

This brings me back to modern predicament: driving on the Jewish Sabbath. When some non-Jewish friends and co-workers hear that the Torah doesn’t allow for the kind of actions that would be required to drive on Shabbat, the comments are usually in the vein of, “Oh, you can’t drive on Shabbat? What a drag.” What a drag? No way! I love it. Why? Because I don’t think about it in terms of “can’t do” but rather I use the main purpose of Shabbat – a time to rest – and look through that lens to everything expected of me on Shabbat. I can’t drive? No, I don’thave todrive. I can’t work? No, I don’thave towork. I’m free from it all.

Growing up so close to my spiritual community spoiled me when it comes to modern Jewish life. I looked forward to the walk to church. As a kid, I didn’t have any ID, rarely had any cash on me, and certainly no cellphone. These days, when I walk somewhere on Shabbat, the same is true. No wallet. No phone. No worries. I feel like a carefree kid again even if just in 24-hour increments every week.

Another reason I love not driving on Shabbat is that it makes my spiritual community that much closer. After we moved from my childhood home to a lake town about 45 minutes away, we used to continue to make the drive back to our old church just because couldn’t bring ourselves to detach. Even with the families we loved still there, it proved to be way more stressful than it was worth. I remember my father getting stressed out by the traffic and it ruining his whole Sabbath vibe. When the church was around the corner, there was no such thing as traffic. When we were done with services and hanging out with friends, we’d all want to kick off our Sunday bests and relax. After a 45 minute drive, we were on edge and the free feeling of the entire day was shot.

There is another command in the Torah in regards to Shabbat:
“…Everyone is to stay where they are on the Sabbath day. No one is to go out from his place.” – Exodus 16:29
While this can sound like the no one is supposed to leave their house, the word for house is not used – rather the word translates closer to “positions” or “areas.” The same word “ממקמו” is used in Joshua and Judges in terms of geography. While this was usually in reference to walled cities or areas with some form of a boundary, many understand these days to mean a neighborhood, district, or a section of city with a man-made barrier. While I don’t think the ancient Israelites knew that not being able to kindle a flame would mean that their fire-driven animal-free wagons (automobiles) would not be able to operate on Shabbat, they certainly understood not traveling beyond their own sections of town on the Sabbath.

While I am a traditional Jew in my observance and I wouldn’t even start my car on the Sabbath, it is a pleasure to not even think about driving on Shabbat. I look forward to the time every week when I can leave my car keys in the drawer and not have to worry about getting stuck in traffic or potentially have to mess with any auto maintenance issues. For that day every week, I’m happy to be a care-free 12 year old.