I am becoming more observant and am now ready to “tackle” the mitzvah of not shaving the beard with a razor. Can you give me some guidelines for how this works, and what my options are?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
The prohibition against shaving with a razor comes from the Torah, "You shall not round the corners of your head, and do not destroy the corners of your beard" (Leviticus 19:27).
The Talmud (Makkot 20a) says there are five "corners" of the beard – the upper and lower part of each cheek, and the chin where both cheeks come together (Rashi). Being that there are various opinions as to the exact place of these corners, it is not permissible to shave any part of the beard with a razor. (Rema – Y.D. 181:11)
Even shaving off one hair would be a violation of Torah law.
One may also not shave the neck with a razor. However, one may use a razor on the back of the neck. Further, it is permitted to shave the mustache with a razor, as it is not a "corner." (There are some authorities, however, that forbid using a razor on any part of the body.)
This mitzvah only applies to men. Women, even if they have facial hair, are allowed to shave.
From the word "destroy" in the verse, the Sages understood that the prohibition of shaving only includes something that "destroys," i.e. a razor that levels the hair until the skin. Rabbi Moshe Heinemann of the Star-K explains that the hair shaft grows under the skin as well as above the skin. When one shaves with a razor, the skin is pulled taut actually exposing the hair growing below the skin. The razor runs against the hair grain in the opposite direction of the pulled skin lopping off the exposed hair. When the taut skin relaxes, the hair is actually cut below the skin. That is the definition of “destroying the beard” which is forbidden by the Torah.
It is permitted to remove facial hair with scissors, which generally do not have the ability to cut the hair close to the skin.
Prior to the advent of electric shavers, the most practical method of kosher beard removal was the use of a depilatory – a shaving powder or cream.
Early-generation electric shavers consisted of a vibrating head and screen. The beard passed between the cutting edges of the screen and the vibrating head, and was cut off in a scissor-like cutting fashion. The shave was closer than manual scissors since the shaver cut the beard close to the skin, yet it never effectively gave a smooth shave because they were not as powerful as they are today.
As shavers got more sophisticated, some models with stronger motors made the head vibrate faster and cut the beard closer. The “lift-and-cut” shaving systems that evolved claimed to shave as close as a razor. As the skin was held taut, the shaver alleged to cut the beard below the skin like a razor.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein permitted electric shavers, with the exception of shavers that use blades that are too sharp. Today, according to many rabbis, most electric shavers utilize sharper blades than in the past and are thus problematic.
How close is "too close"? Rabbi Ivon Binstock of the London Bet Din is quoted as giving the following test: If one spreads powder on his palm, and the powder is scraped off in the process of "shaving," then it is not permitted for shaving the beard.
According to many opinions, the only widely available shaver that is permitted is the Norelco Lift & Cut model – but only after making it "kosher" by removing the lifts. A website called koshershaver.org provides instructions for how to remove the "lifts" without damaging or decreasing the shaver's effectiveness. Or you can mail them the 3 "heads" (i.e. combination of the 3 blades together with the 3 combs), and KosherShaver will mail back the modified shaver heads – as a free public service.
[Additionally, because the verse says, "You shall not round off the corners of your head," the sideburns should not be plucked or shaved even with a permissible electric shaver. The sideburns are defined as extending to underneath the cheekbone opposite the nose, about the mid-point of the ear.]