Q: Hello Rav,
I was curious, what was the precedent in various Sephardic communities for both shaving and pay'ot? It would seem that only the Yemenites have had a custom of very long side-curls; others I have seen photographs in which even Rabbi's have been clean-shaven, and seemingly at a time before the electric razor. How was this done, and what halakhic precautions were or were not adhered to? Are there differences between the shaving restrictions for different minhagim?
A: Dear Isaac,
The Torah commands us not to "destroy the corners of our beards" and instructs the Kohanim that "the corners of their beards shall not be shaved." Similarly, the Torah teaches that "you shall not round off the edge of your scalps."
The Talmud explains that the two verses regarding shaving actually complement one another. Taken together, they reflect a single legal formula - namely, that one may not shave the corners of the beard in a way that is considered "destroying", i.e., with a smooth razor blade. The use of scissors, however, is permissible.
One question debated in the early commentaries is the precise location of the "corners of the beard." Because of the variety of opinions on that subject, later authorities prohibited shaving any part of the face with a razor. Here is where the tremendous benefit of electric razors comes in.
In the olden days, men who were clean shaven typically used dipilatory creams to achieve that look. This involves no prohibition because it is not considered shaving. Similarly, one may shave the neck area with a regular razor because we are certain that no part of the neck is one of the "corners of the beard" that the Torah describes.
With regard to the prohibition of rounding the edges of the scalp, the Torah makes no distinction between the use of scissors, dipilatory creams and razors - all are prohibited. In other words, unlike the prohibition of shaving in which the method used to remove the hair is of paramount importance, the prohibition of rounding the scalp exists irrespective of the process of hair removal that is used; it is the result that counts, not the process. This means that while the beard can go (by permitted means) the sideburns must remain intact no matter what.
In some communities, the custom developed to allow peyot (sidecurls) to grow in fulfillment of the requirement not to remove the sideburns. Technically speaking, however, as long as the length of the sideburns extends to the cheekbones, they are halachically acceptable.
Incidentally, these commandments apply to men only. Women are not required to observe these laws at all.