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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

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.]

Number 176

I was looking through my Jewish library and noticed something really incredible: The longest chapter in Psalms (chapter 119) has 176 verses. The longest parsha in the Torah, Naso, has 176 verses. And the longest tractate in the Talmud, Baba Batra, has 176 pages. What is the connection between all these?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

You are very observant! Here are a few answers to this interesting phenomenon:

Chapter 119 of Psalms has 176 verses because it follows a pattern whereby the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet are used to begin 8 verses each. That is, 22-times-8 equals 176.

Which of course raises the question: What is the significance of 22 and of 8?

22 is a number of completeness, because it is the full representation of the 22 letters of the Alef-Bet - i.e. everything from A to Z (from Alef to Tav).

As for the number 8: We know that 7 represents the "natural realm" - i.e. 7 days of the week, 7 notes in the musical scale, etc. But 8 represents completeness beyond nature - a completeness in the spiritual realm. That is why Brit Milah is held on the 8th day of a boy's life. This also explains why God first commanded Abraham to perform circumcision with the words, "Walk before Me and be complete" (Genesis 17:1).

The product of two "complete" numbers, "22-times-8," is therefore the ultimate completeness. That's why 176 is used to demonstrate the supernal perfection of our holy Torah.

In the Image of God

Maimonides' 13 Principles of Faith states: "I believe with perfect faith that God does not have a body. Physical concepts do not apply to Him. There is nothing that resembles Him at all."

What, then, is Genesis 1:27 referring to when it states: "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him." Is this a "spiritual" image?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Does God have ears because it says, "God heard the sound of your words" (Deut. 1:34)? Does God have a mouth since it says, "God spoke to us" (Deut. 1:6)? Does God have an arm since it says, "I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm" (Exodus 6:6)? Does God have a hand, as it says, "I raised My hand to give it to Abraham" (Exodus 6:8)?

Nope!

So why does the Torah use human terms to describe God?

Because the human mind is limited, and therefore lacks the ability to conceive of God who is perfect. So the Torah describes God in familiar terms, in order that we should grasp aspects of God's character. For example, we can appreciate that God has the power of communication (mouth), the trait of kindness (right hand), etc. This is a very deep subject and is the basis of volumes of Kabbalistic work.

As for the specific verse you cited in Genesis, what does it mean to be "in the image of God"?

Humans are like God in the sense that we have free will. Free will does not mean picking chocolate over vanilla. That's simply a preference, just as a cow chooses to eat hay instead of grass.

Rather, "free will" refers to decisions which are uniquely human: a moral choice to do right or wrong. This stems from the divine soul that is unique to all human beings.

There are times when you know objectively that something is good for you, but your physical desires get in the way and distort your outlook. The animal soul within us wants to choose the easy path, which may not be the morally correct choice. Sometimes we can actually hear ourselves fighting it out. Here's a conversation you may have had with yourself:

Divine Soul: "Let's get out of bed early today and really accomplish something meaningful!"

Animal Soul: "Leave me alone, I'd rather sleep."

Divine Soul: "Come on, let's be great!"

Animal Soul: "Relax, what's the big deal if we wait till tomorrow?"

What's going on? Are you schizophrenic? No, just battling opposing sides within yourself. And that's what makes the human being so unique. Of all God's creatures, only humans can become elevated through choice, as we are not bound in our decisions by any pre-ordained laws. That's truly divine!

To learn more about free will, go to www.aish.com/sp/f/48965061.html