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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

What is Torah?

What is the literal meaning of the word Torah? Some I’ve asked have conjectured it means “The Book” or Hebrew for the Greek “Bible.” Someone else thought it meant tradition. Are these correct?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Although “Torah” does refer to the Five Books of Moses, or the Bible, and at times it refers to the combination of the written and oral laws, this is not the literal meaning of the word.

The accurate meaning of “Torah” is twofold. Firstly it comes from the word “hora’ah,” which means teaching. More precisely it means “teaching with direction,” i.e. the type of teaching which enables and empowers one with a direction to proceed. The same word could be used in Hebrew with such teachings both in spiritual and secular realms.

The second meaning is from the word “orah,” which means light. One example of this reflected in the verse which states, “A mitzvah is a candle, and Torah is the light” (Proverbs 6:23). This can be understood on multiple levels:

One thought is that the Torah is the source of spiritual illumination in the world. Besides it being the source of Judaism, through it and its teachings we serve as a light unto the nations. As such the Torah serves as the foundation of much of Christianity and Islam.

The Torah also, more importantly, serves as the source of illumination for our own lives. Like the Clouds of Glory which guided the Jews for 40 years in the Desert, providing illumination and direction at night, the Torah lights our paths and provides the Jewish people with direction throughout our long period of exile, even through the darkest of times.

The Torah also provides direction in each Jew’s personal life. In business, family life or interaction with others, the Torah offers the ethical and moral compass by which to navigate the most complicated and tempestuous, thorny issues.

So whether in regard to individual guidance or the entire Jewish people, the two meanings of Torah – teaching with direction and illumination – form the centrality of Jewish life.

In the deeper, Kabbalistic writings, we find a more profound meaning of Torah and its connection to Light. Torah is not simply compared to light, it actually is a type of light. At its source, it is like a flaming spiritual fire. Its light provides the spiritual source of the physical light of the sun and all the constellations of the entire universe. All those lights will be dwarfed by the eventual unmasking of the hidden spiritual light to be revealed in the World to Come.

This is the reason the Torah was transmitted on Mount Sinai through fire. This was not only to create an effect – it revealed the essence of the Torah as a spiritual fire, a brilliant Light. Our souls and the Torah, both dazzling lights, were created from the same Source, and reconnect and ignite each other when a Jew deeply studies the Torah. When the Jewish people light up our souls with the fire of Torah, they we truly become a “light unto the nations.”

Electric Shavers

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.]

Parental Guidance

We have three children, ages 14 to 19. We see so many Jews marrying non-Jews, and we want to prevent that from happening in our family. What can we do at this stage?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Someone once went to a rabbi and asked, "At which age should I begin my child's Jewish education?"

"How old is your child?" the rabbi asked.

"Age 5."

"Well, you should have started about 10 years ago."

But that is all past history.

Once the child has become an adult, it is obvious that their chances are great of meeting and marrying a non-Jew, if for no other fact than that non-Jews comprise 98% of the American population.

So what can you do? The most effective method – as a pre-intervention strategy – is to make a commitment to infuse your life with Jewish energy and joy.

It is never too late to demonstrate in actions and thoughts your commitment to Jewish calendar and traditions. You can build a sukkah and invite your children to spend an evening with you. You can invite a rabbi to your house to give a class on Passover, etc.

And even if your child doesn't attend, he will hear you talking about it, see your commitment, and realize that any relationship with a non-Jew will be distancing himself from you in a profound way. And that will give him many reasons to think twice.

Having said all that, you should also realize that marrying the right person is largely based on the effort we make. Inquire about Jewish singles programs in your town, or have him post a profile on www.jdate.com. Network for him. Encourage him to date Jews. Show him that he can "have it all" – a wonderful committed relationship, and a Jewish life, too.