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 Talmud understands that the prohibition of shaving is limited to a razor, which "destroys" the hairs by cutting them down to the skin, and excludes scissors, which do not fully cut facial hairs. The Talmud also permits, based on a different inference, removing facial hairs, even fully, through other means such as by plucking them out.

How would we classify electric shavers? Are they razors? Scissors? Or something else?

Many authorities equate today's electric shavers, which afford a perfectly clean shave, to razors and forbid their use. Some, however, permit them for one of two reasons. One is that the blades of an electric shaver, since they are covered by a mesh, by definition do not go directly against the skin. Thus, an electric shaver is not identical to a razor, but more resembles scissors – where the upper blade does not cut against the skin but against a lower blade.

Rabbi Moshe Heinemann of the Star-K explains further 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.

One means of gauging how close a shaver is cutting has been suggested by Rabbi Ivon Binstock of the London Beit Din. 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.

Based on the reasoning above, one would not be permitted to use a shaver which employs "lift-and-cut" technology. Such shavers allege to lift the hairs up, cutting them below the skin, and so function precisely as a razor and not as scissors.

A different rationale for permitting electric shavers is quoted in the name of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. He understands that when the Talmud forbade razors and excluded scissors, it was even if the scissors work just as well. The distinction between the two is not based on how well they work but in how they cut. Scissors are fundamentally different from razors in that a razor consists of a single cutting blade while scissors cut only by the two blades working together. Electric shavers are comparable to this in that the spinning blades cut only by pressing against the mesh cover.

This, however, depends on how sharp a shaver's blades are. If they are sharp enough to cut a beard hair outright, without needing to press against the cover, then they are operating as razors and not scissors. Many rabbis will test a new shaver for the sharpness of the blades, to ensure they are not sharp enough to cut hair directly and function like a razor.

It has also been noted that "lift-and-cut" models would be problematic even according to this approach. The "lift" mechanism consists of blades sharp enough to cut the hairs directly, while they do the lifting and before the second blade arrives, and by doing so they function as razors.

Based on all the above, there is room to be lenient with electric shavers which do not include lift-and-cut technology (or which have had that technology disabled), so long as the blades are first examined by a rabbi that they are not too sharp.

An alternative method, permitted according to all authorities, is the use of a depilatory – a chemical which burns off the hairs. Today this is readily available in the form of a cream, and many in Israel use this method regularly.

[Note that based on "You shall not round off the corners of your head," (the beginning of the verse we have been discussing (Levit. 19:27)), 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, at about the mid-point of the ear.]

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