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?
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.