This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Well-Groomed Torah Groom*

In many Jewish communities it is customary on Simhat Torah to ascribe special prestige to the ceremonial reading of certain key passages from the Bible. Because the festivities mark the conclusion of one Torah-reading cycle and the beginning of a new one, it is natural that members of the community are especially eager to be chosen for the  aliyyot at the end of Deuteronomy and the start of Genesis. The honourees are known respectively as the "bridegroom of the Torah" (hatan Torah) and the "bridegroom of Genesis" (hatan B'resehit).

Different Jewish communities evolved diverse mechanisms for assigning these honours. They were often the subjects of auctions, in which the bidding wars would serve to beef up the public coffers while confirming the class distinctions between the wealthy and the needier citizens. In some Italian towns, the more democratic procedure was adopted of holding a lottery in order to determine who would be privileged with the readings of those special sections of the Torah reading.

And so it happened one year in the early eighteenth century, that the honour of being appointed hatan B'resehit fell to the lot of a certain gentleman whose identity was discretely concealed by the official records under the generic epithet "Reuben" (the rabbinic equivalent of "John Doe"). Unfortunately, at the beginning of the Sukkot festival, Reuben had been suffering from a vexatious skin ailment that prevented him from shaving his beard. 

Now, according to the law set down by the ancient rabbis, it is forbidden to shave during the intermediate days of Sukkot or Passover. This was ordained originally as a preventative measure, lest people intentionally postpone their visit to the barber until the arrival of the holiday week, and thereby commence the festival in an unkempt state. Nevertheless, the Talmud had made allowances for some exceptional instances when unavoidable circumstances prevented people from shaving before the holiday; and Reuben's physicians had explicitly declared that, as he was on the verge of recovery at that time, premature shaving was likely to cause a relapse of his medical condition, and at any rate he would be unable to withstand the resulting mental and physical anguish.

Happily, Reuben did recover from his disease in time for Simhat Torah, and he was eager to participate in the festivities. He therefore sought rabbinic guidance as to whether he was allowed to shave in order to honour the ceremony with an appropriately decorous appearance. His inquiry was supported by detailed letters (in transliterated Italian) submitted by his doctors.

Little could Reuben suspect what a volatile controversy would be ignited by this innocent-looking question about a religious ritual. The query generated a considerable volume of rabbinic responsa. Most of the Italian scholars who were consulted, such as Rabbis Shabbetai Del Vecchio, Raphael Levi of Finale and Isaac Lampronti could find no serious grounds to forbid the shaving, since the extenuating circumstances were very similar to those recognized by the Mishnah.

However, a shockingly different position was advocated by Rabbi Moshe Hagiz of Amsterdam. In a lengthy responsum, he accused Reuben and his doctors of barefaced mendacity, and invoked the collective opinions of the rabbis of Amsterdam and Venice who indignantly rejected any hint of permissiveness in the matter. The enactment that was issued by the Venetian rabbis had stated explicitly that appointment to be Hatan Bereshit should not be deemed an acceptable reason for allowing shaving during the festival.

Hagiz's indignation takes on a clearer significance when we note that his discussion of festival shaving was included in the context of a chapter whose main topic was supposed to be the imbibing of non-Jewish wines. In the easygoing and open society of early modern Italy, these two practices were linked together as key indicators of excessive laxity in the maintenance of community religious standards.

Indeed, the presence or absence of beards could become a portal to numerous contentious issues in Jewish society and theology. True, the Torah's prohibition against trimming "the corners of your beard" had been interpreted narrowly by the Talmud to include only cutting with a razor, while allowing scissors or depilatory lotions. However, by the eighteenth century, the teachings of the Kabbalah had established themselves solidly in European Judaism; and the Zohar attached a supreme mystical purpose to the human beard as a reflection of the sublime divine beard that acted as a symbolic conduit for the transmission of spirititual blessings from the metaphysical realms down into our world. God's tresses were mapped out meticulously so as to trace the course of the thirteen attributes of divine mercy. In terror of the possible spiritual catastrophe that might result from cutting those supernal locks, the disciples of Rabbi Isaac Luria forbade tampering with even a single hair on the chin of a Jewish male.

The kabbalistic promotion of facial hair ran into a headlong conflict with the prevailing aesthetic sensibilities of Italian society with which most Jews of the time identified wholeheartedly. At around this historical era, the beard was being expelled from the fashionable circles of several European lands, reduced at most to a discreet Van Dyck goatee (which at least one Jewish traditionalist condemend for its visual resemblance to a cross!). In this respect, the urbane Italians, Jews and Christians alike, formed a stark contrast to the norms of the Turks whose Islamic traditions required cultivation of beards on all self-respecting males. Each culture viewed the other's conventions as utterly bizarre and repulsive.

The conflict between cultures came to a head in the early 1720s in the Ottoman port of Thessalonika, where the colony of Italian merchants ("Francos") had traditionally been allowed the special privilege of following their native practices, which included trimming their whiskers, while living in an unshaven Levantine environment. Now, however, a new generation of intolerant religious leadership was calling for the termination of that arrangement. This dispute generated its own spate of partisan responsa in which the rabbis grappled with the subtleties of local custom, kabbalistic interpretation, economic concerns and textual interpretations.

To cite one notorious controversy of that age, when calls were issued for the excommunication of the charismatic young mystic Moses Hayim Luzzatto of Padua, suspected of sympathies for the failed Messiah Shabbetai Zvi, several of Luzzatto's detractors pointed to the incongruity between his mystical pretensions and the smoothness of his jaw; and his defenders were at a loss to respond.

Pious Italian Jews were at pains to find justifications for their deviations from recognized kabbalistic practice. Rabbi Shabbetai Baer suggested unconvincingly that the Zohar's policy had only been directed to the residents of the holy land, or to individuals who occupy themselves exclusively in religious study, but who were not involved in mundane commercial activities.

As for our friend Reuven--as far as I am aware, the documents do not tell us explicitly whether or not he carried out his Simhat Torah honour that year with unkempt whiskers or a clean-shaven jaw--though it seems very likely that he did manage to shave before becoming aware of what a heated debate he had precipitated. I hope that the ensuing controversy did not dampen the elation that all Jews ought to have when they gather to celebrate the Torah.

This article and many others are now included in the book

For Signs and for Seasons
For Signs and for Seasons

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