What do Jews believe?

June 19, 2023 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi.


Rabbi Raymond Apple

Q. Where (and why) does the Torah say that men must grow beards?

A. Vayikra 19:27 and 21:5 prohibit the marring of the corners of a person’s beard, generally interpreted as the sideburns that link the hair of the head and the hair of the beard.

This law may have been designed to differentiate Israel from other peoples and pagan cults in which shaving was required or customary. The Talmud regards the beard as a symbol of male dignity, and hence it was a mark of shame to have one’s beard removed or shaved.

Some rabbinic authorities insisted that men should grow beards and not shave at all. Others interpreted the law as applying to the means of shaving and not to shaving as a whole, as what the strict law prohibits is cutting the corners of the beard by means of an instrument with one cutting edge.

We have portraits of clean-shaven rabbis from about the 17th century; they must have used scissors or hair-removing creams. These days orthodox men who shave use electric razors, though not if there is a blade that comes into direct contact with the face.

Some authorities say that the permission to shave applies outside Israel, presumably because Jews there constantly mix in general society and should not appear unkempt, but there are a number of leading Yeshivot in Israel where the students are clean-shaven and many modern orthodox Israelis are without beards.


Q. What do Jews believe?

A. Most people would give the answer, “The 13 Principles of Maimonides”. However, a number of alternatives have been proposed, and there is scholarly debate about whether Maimonides’ Principles are really the last word in Jewish theology.

There are authorities who question the whole notion of Jewish articles of belief and suggest that if you live as a Jew, your beliefs are obvious from your actions.

Others wonder how we can separate out certain items from the Torah and not others.

From the practical point of view, this explains why some siddurim (e.g. Nussach Ari of Chabad and the Jerusalem rite found in Siddur HaG’ra) object to saying or singing Yigdal, a poem based on Maimonides’ list.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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