"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.)

VIDEO: How to Tie Karaite Jewish Tzitzit

The Monday after the 2015 Shavuot Gathering in Daly City, CA, some of the North American Karaites were hanging out in the Mission District of San Francisco, CA. After eating some lunch, Matthew Rolland and Azriel Kowtek decided to show the rest of us the traditional Karaite Jewish method of tying tzitzit. I just happened to have a camera and a phone on me to document it. I apologize for the poor sound, as we were in a restaurant. I will try and provide subtitles soon.

Building Bridges of Jewish Unity, One String At A Time

 

The Torah can be an extremely peculiar text. In some sections, it goes into painstaking detail about the observance of how to keep the mitzvot – the holy instructions for living. In other sections, it is quite vague and provides an avenue for self-expression on the part of the Torah keeper. One of my favorite examples of this pocket of expression in regards to tying style of tzitzit – the ritual fringes worn on the four corners of one’s garment in order to remind them of the holy instructions found in the Torah. As background, the wearing of tzitzit is instructed in two separate sections of the Torah.

1. Bemidbar/Numbers 15:38-40

ויאמר יהוה אל־משה לאמר
דבר אל־בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם ועשו להם ציצת על־כנפי בגדיהם לדרתם ונתנו על־ציצת הכנף פתיל תכלת
והיה לכם לציצת וראיתם אתו וזכרתם את־כל־מצות יהוה ועשיתם אתם ולא־תתרו אחרי לבבכם ואחרי עיניכם אשר־אתם זנים אחריהם
למען תזכרו ועשיתם את־כל־מצותי והייתם קדשים לאלהיכם
 “יהוה said to Moshe, ‘Speak to the people of Israel and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and a petil (cord, ribbon, string, or lace depending on the context) tekhelet (of blue) on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all of the commandments mitzvot (instructions) 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 to do all my mitzvotay (instructions) and be holy to your Elohekem (Deity).” 
2. Devarim/Deuteronomy 22:12
גדלים תעשה־לך על־ארבע כנפות כסותך אשר תכסה־בה
“You shall make yourself tassels on your arba kanfot (four-cornered garment) with which you cover yourself.” 
With the exception of other mitzvot that instruct Israel to not mix certain fibers together and traditions surrounding the material for the tzitzit itself as well as the origin of tekhelet used, even the most strict Jewish movements will admit that there is no single prescribed style in which to tie or knot these tassels worn on “על־ארבע כנפות כסותך אשר תכסה־בה” – the four-corned garment we use to cover ourselves. Because of this, different Jewish movements have their own styles for tying tzitzit – and each way has a particular meaning behind it. So, what happens when you enter one Jewish community wearing a starkly different style of tzitzit?

Building Bridges With String

I pride myself at being a Jewish bridge-builder between movements. Even if that bridge at the moment is nothing more than a tightrope, I feel it’s better than nothing. I’ve prayed in Orthodox Jewish minyanim – groups of 10 or more halakhically (official according to tradition) Jewish men. I’ve fully-prostrated, shoeless, on rugs in traditional Karaite Jewish prayer services. I’ve prayed in Conservative Jewish synagogues with no mechitza – division of women and women. Jewish unity is something of which I am quite passionate. Though I consider myself mainly a Karaite in my observance, before I am anything, I am a Jew. With this in mind and appreciating the respect given to me by these diverse Jewish groups, I desire to respect their customs when I am on their turf – whether that be in their homes, their synagogues and at their events. In this way, I strive to jive with their style of doing things where Torah allows. For example, if I’m at a Rabbinic Jew’s house, I wouldn’t put cheese on my burger – mainly because I’m a vegetarian, but also out of respect for their custom of separating meat and dairy. If I attending an ultra-Orthodox event, I would make sure to dress as modestly as a member of an ultra-Orthodox community. The same goes with my tzitzit.

Man of Many Tzitzit, Even Though Only “Arba”

jewish tzitzit karaite rabbinic ashkenazi sefardi
Some of my tzitzit.

As of now, I have three different styles of tzitzit – Karaite (my main go-to), Rabbinic Ashkenazi and Rabbinic Sefardi. Depending on the synagogue I am attending and the people I am praying with, I will wear both on my arba kanfot/tallit katan (the small pancho-like four-cornered garment I wear under my main shirt) and my tallit ha’gadol (my prayer shawl) with the appropriate tzitzit. Some of you may be saying, “Yefet/Ken, you’re a Karaite Jew. Be proud of being a Karaite no matter where you’re praying!” My reasoning is this: There are certain places I will proudly wave the Karaite Jewish flag and other places where I will strive to simply blend in with the congregants. If I am attending an event in which a diverse array of Jews are present, I have no problem representing Karaite Judaism by wearing traditional Karaite Jewish tzitzit. However, if I am attending a synagogue service where I am most likely the only Karaite there, the focus is not about diversity – it is about praising the Creator of the Universe. It is never my desire to distract anyone from their own worshipful experience in any way, shape or form. I am yet another Jew in the room along with my fellow Jews – studying the Torah, praying and enjoying each other’s company.

Unity Through Listening

This post really have very little to do with tzitzit. This post is about unity. Unity occurs when we put our differences aside and learn to respect each other’s cultures. You are certainly allowed to completely disagree, but actually attempt to listen to each other – hear someone out rather than either waiting for your chance to tell them how their wrong or not listen at all.

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.

OKC Thunder Hebrew

Getting ready for the next NBA basketball season, fellow Okie Hebrew Paul Monroe Cunningham sent me a pic of his dual team (OKC Thunder + B’nai Yisrael) spirit tziziyot in the team colors of the Oklahoma City Thunder. I wonder if any Oklahoma City Jews will rock these.

Shalom and THUNDER UP.

I Still Miss Pork Rinds

There are many rabbis I’ve heard talk about how we should make our will conform to the Torah. I’ve heard Christian pastors say similar things about believers. While I see some value in keeping organizations together, I find that this kind of thinking makes it where the Torah isn’t that much different from the world. It doesn’t feel as fresh. If the Torah’s laws are completely my own will, then the Torah is no more meaningful to a law that I don’t have the possibility of breaking. I’ll do my best to explain. 

Any converted Jew who says they hate the taste of ham, of REAL bacon, or some fresh shrimp is lying to themselves on some level. Yes, I’m making a very broad statement because there could have been people out there who didn’t like any of these things even before they started keeping kosher. But the point is, once you hit the mikvah or make a covenant with God, this does not turn off your love of things that you no longer than do. 

With full confidence and without shame, I can say I wish I could still do these things: 

  • Eat pork rinds – I loved pork rinds. 
  • Eat fried shrimp – I ate fried shrimp at every seafood restaurant I would go to. 
  • Take a bite out of a big fresh ham – FRESH ham, mind you; that low quality ham has always been gross. 
  • Play gigs on Friday nights – not every Shabbat, of course.
  • Shave…when it’s convenient (job interviews, etc), even though I don’t think I ever would. Just the idea that I could would be nice. 
  • Go out without wearing tzitzit. I get weird looks – especially being in Oklahoma.
  • Get some tattoos – I’ve never had a tattoo, but if they were ok according to Torah, I’d probably have quite a few. 

Is it wrong for me to still want to do these things? Not at all – as long as I don’t do any of them. That’s actually something I really love about the Torah; it’s so much bigger than me. I loved these things, but I love God more. The Torah can definitely be inconvenient when it comes to my own fleshly desires and that’s why I cherish it; it lets me know that not everything is about me. I don’t try and justify doing these things just because I want to do them and I feel that really makes the Torah so beautiful.

When Your Tzitzit Come Untied: More Than a Blog About Fringes

There is a Jewish tradition of making a brakha (blessing) over the ritual fringes that are commanded in the Torah: 

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 

The verse continues to explain why Israel is commanded to wear fringes with cords of blue in them: 
You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the Lord, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by going after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes. Then you will remember to obey all my commands and will be consecrated to your God.” – verses 39 & 40. 

That was just a little background on tzitzit (tassels/fringes). Now, I will get to the subject matter of the post. 

Anyways, like I was saying; there is a tradition of making a blessing to God for giving us the opportunity to wear these fringes everyday so that they might serve the purpose for which they were intended. That blessing goes like this: 
בָּרוּך אַתָּה ה’ אֱ-להֵינוּ מֶלֶך הָעוֹלָם אַשֶׁר קִדְשָנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָנוּ עַל מִצְוַת צִיצִת

“Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us regarding the commandment of fringes.” 

There is another tradition that accompanies the first one; examining the tzitzit to make sure the fringes are suitable to be worn. This means checking out the strands of the fringes to make sure they are tied and that the strands are not overly frayed. In many instances, these fringes can be metaphors for one’s spiritual life. I had an encounter with this recently. 

Though I’m devoted to Torah observance, my practice of certain traditions that surround different mitzvot (commands) of Torah isn’t all that strong. I don’t always kiss a mezuzah when I pass it, I don’t always make a brakha before I eat, and I don’t always check my tzitzit. 

Lately, I had been pretty immersed in things going on at work, things going on with my band, my friends, hobbies, and additional activities to the point of it cutting in on my prayer life and my study of Torah. I was very stressed out about a whole number issues going on in my life one morning, when I went to don my tzitzit, I noticed that the double-knot in the bottom of a few of them had come completely untied. These were not easy knots to untie and I know my cat had not been in my room, they must have been coming untied over the course of a few days.  Instead of just immediately stopping to tie them, I sat on the edge of my bed, held them in my hands, and just stared at them for a couple minutes. 

A rush of shame washed over me. No, not shame of a couple knots that weren’t tied correctly (the Torah makes no law about how exactly tzitzit should be tied, so that part of it has been left up to the wearer’s discretion), but about myself. I had been so wrapped in my life that I had it took God causing my tzitzit to become untied to get my attention. In that instant, my tzitzit were me. They were starting to come untied just like I was letting stress and other activities make me begin to unravel. 

It took me a second to gather up my thoughts, make a blessing to God for my tzitzit, and get to work, but the thought stuck with me the entire day. Wearing tzitzits has been one of the weirdest experiences of my life, but also one of the most rewarding. Just like these strands of white and blue are never far from me, this helps me remember that God is never far from me either. 

Because we can’t see God just like we can’t see the wind, God instructed B’nai Israel to wear these weird fringes on the four corners of their garments so that we can begin to see the good that He brings to the world everyday. They are a reminder that He is always there. Baruch HaShem (Blessed be The Name [of God]).

Shalom. 
– Ken