Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Unravelling Peyot

Whether you call them corkscrews or curly-wurlies, the strongest identifying feature of many Chassidim and Yemenite Jews is their long peyot (side curls).

The origin of this hairstyle is Leviticus 19:27: ‘do not round off the corners (peyot) of your head,’ which the Talmud understands to prohibit levelling the hair at the temples with the hair behind the ears so that a continuous line of hair encircles the whole head. As the verse also refers to shaving the beard, it is clear that it only applies to males. It is forbidden to shave the hair in front of the ears as well as a little above them.

While shaving the hair with a razor is clearly forbidden, the Talmud discusses the use of tweezers, scissors and depilatories. One is not required to leave the hair long, yet may not remove it completely. A common view allows the hair to be cut with scissors or electric clippers, but the peyot must be left long enough so that the remaining hair can be grasped between thumb and forefinger. For the aficionado, this equates to about a ‘number 2’, certainly no shorter.

There are numerous Minhagim (customs) and Hidurim (enhancements) associated with peyot. Some mystical sources attribute great significance to the hair and demand that the peyot (and beard) are left untrimmed. If the Torah forbids shaving the peyot, it may follow that growing them long would constitute a preferred observance of the Mitzvah. So the ‘short back and long sides’ haircut is distinctly Jewish! These ideas have resulted in many variations on the peyot theme. In some circles, peyot are grown no longer than the rest of the hair. In contrast, there are those who never cut their peyot and allow them to grow long (straight or curled), tie them up, wrap them around their ears or even twist them into small buns. Other variations include small, thin peyot behind the ears (Lithuanian Yeshivish), trimmed, very thick peyot (Brisker school) and simply growing slightly longer hair in front of the ears (German rabbinical).

The Torah does not give a reason for the prohibition of cutting the peyot, although Maimonides, in common with other mediaeval thinkers, suggests that it is a law associated with idolatry. As idolatrous priests would cut their hair above the ears in a kind of ritual tonsure, Jews are exhorted to do the opposite to eliminate any memory of their practices. The great 19th century German leader, Rabbi S.R. Hirsch offers a novel alternative. He notes that the growth of peyot removes the externally visible division between the front and back parts of the head, coinciding with the cerebrum and cerebellum respectively. This expresses the concept that the sanctification of life is based on the higher dignity of the moral intellectual life to which the animal drives and needs must be subordinated. Keeping the animal factor in the background is the defining human experience. As such, the hair at the temples reminds Man of his higher calling.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.