This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Your Roots Are Showing *

In one of their typically theoretical academic discussions, the rabbis of the Talmud speculated about the physiological process of hair growth: Does it proceed from the tips or from the roots?

The question had some obscure application to the biblical regulations related to the Nazirite vow, and the rabbis approached it with their characteristic thoroughness by citing proof-texts the Mishnah and other authoritative religious works.

However, none of these citations was able to resolve the matter to their satisfaction. In the end, faced with the inconclusiveness of the literary evidence, the rabbis appealed (as they so rarely do) to empirical data, referring to a phenomenon that was presumably a familiar one: When old men dye their beards, it is the roots that turn grey, and not the ends. This demonstrated irrefutably that the new growth issues from the scalp.

I find that their choice of example is quite remarkable. When called upon to come up with an everyday instance of dyed hair, the first case to pop into the rabbis' minds was not the stereotypical one of a beauty-obsessed woman, but that of a grey-bearded man trying to conceal his age. Evidently, cases of the latter sort were frequent and familiar.

Now, if we were to judge purely from the official pronouncements of the biblical and Talmudic sources, we would have expected such phenomena to be extremely rare, if not non-existent. The sources demonstrate clearly that the ancient Jewish sages disapproved of men who attempted to improve their appearance cosmetically or acquire synthetic youthfulness.

Undoubtedly, those rabbis would have recoiled at our society's relentless advertising campaigns intended to persuade men to reverse the irreversible, whether by restoring lost hair, darkening its colour, or otherwise eliminating the visible signs of natural maturing.

According to an interpretation found in the Talmud, the Torah's prohibition "Neither shall a man put on a woman's garment" extends to any use of cosmetics by males. Some commentators even go so far as to prohibit the removal of scars and scabs, if the purpose of the procedure is esthetic rather than medical.

Indeed, the Midrash (in a well-known comment quoted in Rashi's commentary to the Torah) took young Joseph to task for exhibiting the frivolous behaviour of a vain adolescent: "He would fix his hair and play with his eyes, in order to appear more attractive."

Rav Assi went so far as to declare that "when the evil inclination observes a man making up his eyes, fixing his hair or lifting his heels, it declares: "Such a one is in my clutches."

In spite of the sages' general antipathy towards expressions of male vanity, there are several passages in the Talmud that suggest that not all men were able to resist the temptation to look more youthful.

One intriguing passage relates to a ruling in the Mishnah that prohibits sellers from misrepresenting their merchandise by "painting men, cattle or utensils." As an illustration of what it means to "paint a man," the Talmud relates a charming anecdote about a resourceful slave who ventured to enhance his market value by dying the hair of his head and beard in order to make himself appear younger. He was eventually hired by Rav Pappa bar Samuel.

This unservile servant (it is not clear whether or not he was Jewish) was clearly cut from the same cloth as those impertinent slaves in the comedies of Plautus, Menander or "A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to the Forum." When Rav Pappa ordered him to perform menial services appropriate to a young man, the slave conveniently washed out the hair colouring and appeared before his employer in the full dignity of his hoary hair and beard, berating him for not showing proper respect for his seniority: "See, I am older than your father!"

At that point, Rav Pappa realized he had been hoodwinked.

In more recent times, the male concern for embellishing one's youthfulness and attractiveness has been attested by questions that have been posed in the Responsa literature concerning the halakhic implications of toupees.

Among the diverse topics dealt with by rabbinical authorities like Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, we encounter such puzzlers as: Does a man fulfill the obligation of covering his head by wearing a hairpiece?

Though Rabbi Yosef strongly discourages the practice, he reluctantly permits it as a last resort--more readily so if the rug is so crude as to be easily identifiable.

Similar doubts were raised with respect to the donning of tefillin on a toupeed head. Since Jewish law normally insists that there be no foreign objects interposed between thetefillin and the head, would the wig have to be removed prior to commencing the morning prayers?

Rabbi Yosef indeed requires that the hairpiece be removed; but he stipulates that if this will occasion embarrassment to the worshipper, then he should at least recite the relevant prayers with uncovered pate in the privacy of his home, before proceeding to the synagogue.

For purposes of our current discussion, the learned halakhic decisions are of less interest than the very fact that such questions were raised in the first place. They demonstrate that, in spite of Judaism's official assertions that concern one's physical appearance is unmanly, not all Jewish men have been able to maintain such a high-minded approach.

Whether their motive was to enhance their market value, their attractiveness, or their self-esteem, it is clear that there have always been men who felt it necessary to improve on their natural endowments.

As for the rest of us mid-lifers, we are perfectly content in our conviction that nothing becomes a man more than the mature dignity of a grey beard and a receding hairline.

Of course, these look more attractive in a shiny red sports car.

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A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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