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.

Beautifying Mitzvahs – Celebrating the Commandments of Torah

Celebrate What You Love 

Most anyone who knows me knows that when it comes to the Scriptures, though I love them (and by “love” I really mean “commitment” and not “love” like I love falafel and anything vivace orange), I tend to be pretty straight-forward with them. I usually don’t like to read things into the text or shoe-horn in theology that I don’t think exists plainly in the Hebrew. With that being said, I do enjoy celebrating the mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah by going all out/above and beyond (where it is allowed, of course). This is referred to as “beautifying” a commandment. Let me elaborate. 

Tzitzit: Express Yourself. 

The Torah, which can be extremely specific in some cases, leaves a good amount of room for an individual’s interpretation on how to carry out a mitzvah in many instances. One of my favorite examples is tzitzit. Here is what the Torah says about the mitzvah of tzitzit: 

דבר אל־בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם ועשו להם ציצת על־כנפי בגדיהם לדרתם ונתנו על־ציצת הכנף פתיל תכלת
“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.”
– Numbers 15:38

 In another section of Torah, it says to put them on the four corners of your garments, but it really doesn’t say much more about them at all. Many people have asked me how to tie tzitzit. Really, there are so many different answers to this question. You can tie them Ashkenazi, Sefardi, Karaite, with the bunny going around the tree in and down the rabbit hole, or any other way you really want to as long as you include a strand of blue and no forbidden materials (no blood-soaked or pig-skin tzitzit, please). In all actuality, you could just have pieces of blue string hanging off the corners of your garment and it would fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit. You could even have tzitzit with one strand of orange to cheer on your favorite NBA basketball team (as long as you also have the blue)! Still, it’s up to you. Some choose to beautify this commandment with different knots and numbered wraps that represent different aspects of Scripture. These people aren’t doing anything wrong, but rather they’re just choosing to beautify the mitzvah of tzitzit. 

Sidelocks and Coffee Mugs

One of my favorite rabbis of all time is a rabbi I met in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) in 2009 by the name of Yom Tov Glaser. Rabbi Glaser talked about beautifying commandments in this way: 

“(Talking about peyot/peyos – the locks that many observant Jews grow long from the temples of their hands in keeping and beautifying the commandment to not shave the hair from the sides of one’s head🙂 You don’t have to grow them long. The reason I grow mine long – and you’ll see many hasidim and other types of people who grow them long – Yemenites grow them long – is our way of saying to G-d, ‘thank You for this opportunity to serve You by not shaving the sides of my head…’
…Kiddush (sanctifying an event with wine) – all I have to do is drink grape juice. You can grab a coffee mug – a plastic coffee mug. But what do I do? I take a $140 silver cup, a beautiful silver cup, handcrafted, and that’s what I make kiddush out of. That’s my way of saying ‘thank You’ to G-d for having given me that mitzvah. That’s what these are (points to sidelocks). Normally, we beautify a positive commandment. These are the rare case where we’re beautifying a negative commandment. It’s says don’t shave, so I grow.”

Mitzvot as My Security Blanket

ken lane side locks peyot

Being that I’m currently in a major life transition right now (recently divorced, trying to figure out life again, etc.), I’ve taken Rabbi Glaser’s advice and have been growing my peyot out long again just as another means of, like he said, beautifying a commandment. Does this mean that all Torah observant people need to grow out these long side-locks? Of course not. All the Torah says is, “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard (Leviticus 19:27).” So, as long as you’re not shaving your temples, that is all that is asked. The reason why I am growing mine out longer than the rest of my hair is largely because my current situation has left me feeling vulnerable and I personally feel the need to celebrate Elohim’s Torah in any way I can. Will I ever trim them? Possibly, but for right now, the mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah are just like a secur
ity blanket and they comfort me. I usually put my side locks behind my ears because they’re for me and the Father – not for anyone else. They are never, ever meant to be a symbol of piety. If anything, for me, they’re a symbol of weakness and need for help from the Father. Still, first and foremost, they are a “thank You” to my Heavenly Father for giving me the Handbook for Living: His Torah.

Torah: Customization Comes Standard

The beautiful thing about beautifying commandments is that it’s optional. Like Rabbi Glaser said, you can sanctify the Father’s Name with a plastic coffee mug. You can just wear blue pieces of yarn on the four corners of your garment. Still, I personally feel the the reason why so many of the mitzvot of the Torah are incredibly vague and open-ended is because the Most High wants to see us apply this commandments to our lives in a way that fits our own personalities. Maybe you like the traditional Ashkenazi style of tying tzitzit over the Karaite style or you prefer short hair on your temples over long – it’s your decision. When people talk about how restrictive the Torah of the Most High can be, I always want to show them how much room for personalization and growth exists within the Torah itself.

The Kosher Mohawk

As many of you know, I am a big James Harden fan. If you don’t know who James Harden is, he is probably the only guy you’re going to see playing basketball with giant beard unless you’re watching the Haifa Heat. Known even more for his skills as a shooting guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder than for this facial hair, Harden is also known to sport a mohawk-style hair cut as he helps carry the Thunder through the NBA finals.
In celebration of the Thunder’s success, my wife has given me a mohawk hairstyle as well. I will admit, this is the most radically different hairstyle I’ve ever had as I have been told I typically have the fashion sense of a man 40 years my senior. Some of you might be saying “But Ken; isn’t a mohawk hairstyle one worn typically by pagans who violate the Torah by trimming the hair on the sides of their heads?” In reply to that, I would say “Go back and study your Torah more in depth!” 
While there is section of Torah that specifically prohibits a certain hairstyle, when studying Torah, it is one of the only aspects of life where it is, in fact, GOOD, to split hairs. You see, the passage in Leviticus 19:27 reads like this: 

לא תקפו פאת ראשכם ולא תשחית את פאת זקנך
You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.”

Where there is a prohibition against harming/trimming the corners of one’s beard, the prohibition does not extend to the temples or the sides of one’s head. In this instance, the term “פאת ” refers to a complete removal of hair down to the skin and is used to prohibit the shaving of the hair completely clean from the sides of one’s head, but the beard is not to even be “תשחית“, or harmed. 


So while this is laudable, yet not completely necessary in order to fulfill the mitzvah (picture below)…


…this (below) is prohibited according to the Torah. Besides that, I personally think it looks pretty stupid.



But a mohawk, as long as the hair is not completely shaved from the skin, is, in fact, a kosher hair style and does look pretty sweet with a kippah. 


Shalom. 
– Ken