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