"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.)

Podcast: Episode 5 – Beards, Payot and Tattoos in Torah

Transcript:

Shalom and welcome to another episode of The Okie Hebrew Podcast – this is episode 5. This will be the first of a series of episodes I like to call “mitzvah misconceptions” where we’ll be tacking certain aspects of Torah and Jewish life that have been misunderstood. Most of these misconceptions are an attempt to explain some aspects of observant Jewish life (or a lack of) that have caused division in the religious world. It’s my hope that this series will give you listeners a look at what the Torah has to say about these instead of just that guy giving people a dirty look. In this episode, we’re going to discuss some subjects that have wrongly caused division within the Jewish and Torah-keeping communities: tattoos, beards and payot – the side locks normally worn by some observant Jewish men. Let’s get into it!

So, have you ever seen an observant Jewish person with tattoos on their arms? How about an observant Jewish man with no beard? Though these types of things may seem odd to you, they’re no cause for alarm. They’re actually fine according to both Torah as well as various oral traditions. I know many of you may need to pick up your dropped jaws after having heard that from me, but please give me a chance to explain. It will all make sense shortly. 

Misconception: Having a tattoo is against Torah. 
I’ve heard far too many horror stories about the rabbi or members of the Jewish community who have discriminated against the guy who had an arm full of tattoos. I’m here to say that you should let that guy into your community just as quickly as anyone else – possibly even more quickly. 
The keyword in this mitzvah is “תתנו” – “tetanu”, which means to make or to give. This is an active word which does not entail possessing, such as “נשא” – “nasa”, which means to have, to lift up or to exalt.
So, essentially, there is no sin in having a tattoo – only in willfully acquiring a tattoo. Still, many who have repented and tried to live spiritually observant lives fall victims to prejudice from even religious leaders in their community due to the stigma that a tattoo brings. When it comes to the mindset that is appropriate, a tattoo is a reminder of a past life – a battle scar.  One must also never forget that if every past averah, every trangression were to leave a physical mark on our bodies such as tattoos, we’d all be so covered that we wouldn’t be able to recognize each other!

Misconception: It is a mitzvah to have a full beard or side-locks (payot). 
Many believe the symbol of a righteous Jew is a full beard that takes up their entire face and brims over their collar onto their shirt. Many other righteous Jews are pictured with tightly coiled side-locks that add a sense of piety to their character. Still, it says nowhere in Torah to have a full beard or side-locks.
Most all of the great personalities of the Torah had beards. When many think of Charleston Heston playing Moses in “The 10 Commandments”, they remember the big fake beard he wore atop Mount Sinai. Every artist rendition of any positive masculine figure of the Bible is almost sure to have a beard. Still, the Torah nowhere explicitly states that having a full beard is a mitzvah. What does it say?
Leviticus 19:27:
לא תקפו פאת ראשכם ולא תשחית את פאת זקנך
“You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads nor harm the corners of your beard.”
These mitzvot have nothing to do with having, but rather have to do with not cutting what happens to grow.
While it’s implied that if you don’t cut the hair on the sides of your head or cut the corners of your beard, you will wind up with a very large beard and long side-locks, this isn’t always so. Some men cannot grow good beards or thick hair due to genetics or other reasons. I recently spoke with a Torah-observant man who was ashamed to grow his beard due to some past radiation treatments for cancer making his beard grow back in an odd way.
So, should the thick-full beard and thick payot be the picture of the truly righteous man? No. Even an unrighteous man can look truly handsome with a thick beard. Rather, the picture of righteousness and emunah, faith, is the man who cannot grow a very thick beard, but grows what he can with what he has. A patchy beard for the Creator is a million times more holy than a thick beard as a symbol of one’s own piety. 

This has been episode 5 of the Okie Hebrew Podcast – the first in the series of “mitzvah misconceptions.” I hope this has been a productive podcast for you to you not cast judgments on people sole on their looks. There is always more to learn beneath the surface. I’m Ken Lane, aka Yefet ben Ezra of Okie Hebrew.com. Shalom. 

Leviticus 19 Misconceptions: Tattoo Teshuva & Patchy Piety

Have you ever seen an observant Jewish person with tattoos on their arms? How about a observant Jewish man with no beard? Though these types of things may seem odd to you, they’re no cause for alarm. They’re actually fine according to both Torah as well as various oral traditions.

Misconception: Having a tattoo is against Torah. 

I’ve heard far too many horror stories about the rabbi or members of the Jewish community who discriminated against the guy who had an arm full of tattoos. I’m here to say that you should let that guy into your community just as quickly as anyone else – possibly more so.

Yes, getting a tattoo is against Torah. Leviticus 19:28 clearly states:
ושרט לנפש לא תתנו בבשרכם וכתבת קעקע לא תתנו בכם אני יהוה
“You shall not make any cuts on your copy for the dead or tattoo yourselves; I am the Lord.”

The keyword in this mitzvah is “תתנו” – “tetanu”, which means to make or to give. This is an active word which does not entail possessing, such as “נשא” – “nasa”, which means to have, to lift up or to exalt.

So, essentially, there is no sin in having a tattoo – only in receiving a tattoo. Still, many who have repented and tried to live spiritually observant lives fall victims to prejudice from even religious leaders in their community due to the stigma that a tattoo brings. When it comes to the mindset that is appropriate, a tattoo is a reminder of a past life – a battle scar.  One must also never forget that if every past averah, every trangression were to leave a physical bodies, we wouldn’t be able to recognize each other.

Misconception: It is a mitzvah to have a beard or side-locks (payot). 

Many believe the symbol of a righteous Jew is a full beard that takes up their entire face and brims over their collar onto their shirt. Many other righteous Jews are pictured with tightly coiled side-locks that add a sense of piety to their character. Still, it says nowhere in Torah to have a full beard or side-locks.

Most all of the great personalities of the Torah had beards. When many think of Charleston Heston playing Moses in “The 10 Commandments”, they remember the big fake beard he wore atop Mount Sinai. Every artist rendition of any positive masculine figure of the Bible is almost sure to have a beard. Still, the Torah nowhere explicitly states that having a full beard is a mitzvah. What does it say?

Leviticus 19:27:
לא תקפו פאת ראשכם ולא תשחית את פאת זקנך
“You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads nor harm the corners of your beard.”

These mitzvot have nothing to do with having, but rather have to do with not cutting what happens to grow.

While it’s implied that if you don’t cut the hair on the sides of your head or cut the corners of your beard, you will wind up with a very large beard and long side-locks, this isn’t always so. Some men cannot grow good beards or thick hair due to genetics or other reasons. I recently spoke with a Torah-observant man who was ashamed to grow his beard due to some past radiation treatments for cancer making his beard grow back in an odd way.

So, should the thick-full beard and thick payot be the picture of the truly righteous man? No. Even an unrighteous man can look truly handsome with a thick beard. Rather, the picture of righteousness and emunah, faith, is the man who cannot grow a very thick beard, but grows what he can with what he has. A patchy beard for the Creator is a million times more holy than a thick beard as a symbol of one’s own piety.