This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Return of the Grey Roots*

The Talmud tells the story of a rabbi who faced an audience, half of whom wanted to listen to a technical discourse on religious law, while the others were eager to enjoy an edifying and entertaining sermon.

The rabbi likened his predicament to that of a gentleman who had two wives, one young and one old. The former was in the habit of plucking out her husband's grey hairs, and the latter his dark ones. The upshot of this situation, he lamented, was that between the two of them, he came out completely bald!

This anecdote came to my mind some time ago, when I published an article in which I collected some odds and ends from the Talmud, Midrash and miscellaneous rabbinic writings, that attested to the persistent desires of Jewish men to make themselves appear more youthful, whether by dying their hair or by donning hairpieces.

Since that time, I have stumbled on a surprising number of additional sources dealing with that topic. Most of these take the form of written inquiries that were posed to rabbis over the generations, as collected in the volumes known as "Responsa" literature. These texts have revealed to me that the phenomenon is much more widespread than I had previously imagined, and was an ongoing concern of rabbinic decision-makers for centuries.

As we shall see, the variety of questions that were posed to the rabbis give us valuable insights into recurring traits of human nature, and about the adaptation of Jewish tradition to changing circumstances and sensibilities.

The sages of the Talmud declared that the selective plucking out of grey hairs by a man was considered effeminate behaviour, equivalent to cross-dressing, and is therefore forbidden by the Torah. Maimonides ruled that the removal of even one hair in this manner is punishable by lashes. The same prohibition would apply to the dying of a single hair in order to satisfy one's vanity.

In a typical example from the Responsa, we find an inquiry from a thirty-four-year-old Jewish labourer whose beard had turned prematurely white. His aged appearance constituted a barrier to finding employment. The question was raised as to whether, in addition to the previously mentioned stigma of effeminate behavior, the individual might also be guilty of fraud if he were to misrepresent his appearance by artificially darkening the colour of his beard.

The rabbi who was consulted about this question ruled that since the labourer was a contractor who was being paid by the job and not by the hour, and since the colouring actually caused him to appear more like his actual age, the issue of fraud was not applicable here. Because of the extenuating circumstances of the case, the rabbi permitted the dying of the beard, provided that it was done by a gentile.

Another intriguing question was posed to Rabbi Joseph Saul Nathanson of Lemberg (1808-75), regarding a young man, half of whose whose beard had turned white. His bizarre appearance became a target of ridicule among the rabble, and a focus of disruptive chatter in the synagogue.

After sifting eruditely through the vast literature of previous discussions on the topic, Rabbi Nathanson suggested several strategies that he deemed to be acceptable by halakhic srtandards. These included: colouring the dark half of his beard white (since the biblical prohibition only covered the darkening of one's hair, but not lightening it); leaving a token portion of the beard uncoloured; employing a non-Jewish barber; or using a depilatory lotion to remove the beard.

In one responsum, the rabbi was approached by the leaders of a synagogue who had recently hired a new cantor for the High Holy Days. It was the tradition in that congregation to insist on an individual with high standards of piety and learnedness, and they were convinced that they had reached an agreement with a person who satisfied their demanding criteria.

It was only after they had hired him that they learned that their new cantor dyed his beard!

In their distress, the synagogue leaders turned to the rabbi to find out whether such a departure from traditional standards was significant enough to warrant his dismissal, without making them vulnerable to a lawsuit for breach of contract

The rabbi replied in no uncertain terms that this cantor had transgressed a commandment from the Torah, and theoretically was deserving of lashes. By colouring his whiskers for reasons of pure vanity, he had betrayed the expectations of his employers, and had therefore forfeited any further claims on the congregation.

In the 1940's, a similar question was posed to a prominent American Orthodox rabbi by a thirty-eight-year-old cantor and ritual slaughterer whose hair had turned prematurely white because of the stresses and strains of a difficult life. In addition to the now-familiar problems of trying to alter his natural appearance, the case introduced several features that were distinctive to the twentieth-century American scene.

The cantor claimed that his hoary beard had served as an impediment to finding employment, since American congregations had a preference for clean-shaven "modern" rabbis (or, to be precise, those who removed their whiskers in halakhically acceptable ways, with scissors or lotions). This esthetic preference extended to the hiring of other religious functionaries as well.

The diffficulties created by the presence of the beard were further compounded by its colour, to the point where he was convinced that it was depriving him of a respectable livelihood, and threatening his family with starvation.

The distressed cantor was heartened to find, in a journal devoted to Torah scholarship, an advertisement for a beard dye. He naively assumed that the editors of the respected periodical would not have consented to publish the advertisement if they had not been satisfied with its halakhic permissibility. However, he was quickly reminded that previous rabbinical authorities had objected strenuously to the practice; and so he was now desperately looking to the rabbi for explicit guidance.

The reponding rabbi tried his utmost to steer a delicate course between compassion for the questioner's predicament and faithfulness to the requirements of Jewish religious law.

While the intricate reasoning behind the rabbi's ruling might prove fascinating to some of my readers, I suspect that many others would be tempted to skip over the argumentation as overly dry and technical.

Given the diversity of my readership, I choose to omit the details. At my age, I can hardly afford to emerge--even metaphorically--with all my hair plucked out

This article and many others are now included in the book

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

published by

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