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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 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.]

David and Bathsheba

I have been studying the Book of Samuel and I was really shocked when I read the story of David and Bathsheba (II Samuel 11). How could David, King of Israel, take another man's wife like that?! Wasn't he supposed to be a holy person? Did he really slip so far?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

You are right that the story, after a cursory reading, appears shocking. The Talmud, however, makes a sweeping statement regarding David's behavior: "Whoever says David sinned is only in error" (Shabbat 56a). As critical as the Torah was of David's terrible slip, it was not nearly as bad as it seemed, as we'll see now.

The Talmud explains that it was standard practice for Jewish soldiers to divorce their wives before going out in battle – lest they disappear in war and their wives become permanently unable to remarry. This was the practice throughout Jewish history until as recently as World War II. (The Israeli army considered adopting the practice as well, but decided against it because it would be harmful for the morale of the soldiers. In any event, the possibility of disappearing indefinitely in distant lands is much more remote today.)

As a result, King David technically did not commit adultery. He took an unmarried woman. My teacher R. Yochanan Zweig likewise points out that when Nathan the Prophet afterwards came to criticize David, he depicts David's sin as one of stealing (in the metaphor of the rich man who takes the poor man's one little lamb). David sin was one of taking what he should not have, but not, God forbid, one of actual adultery.

Even so, such behavior was infinitely beneath the king. Bathsheba was hardly a single girl free for the taking. Naturally she would have remarried Uriah had he returned home. And for this God was exceedingly critical of David. For a man as great as he, such an act was tantamount to true adultery. And the Torah, in its typical emphatic style, describes David's sin in such a light – a description we might have taken literally had our Oral Torah not elucidated the matter for us further.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 107a) makes another fascinating statement about David's sin, which sheds much light on the true characters of the people involved. It states that Bathsheba was destined for David from the Six Days of Creation but that he took her as an "unripe fig." David rightly sensed that Bathsheba was meant for him, and in fact, the future King Solomon would eventually be born from them. (The Talmud describes further how she became exposed to him via a fluke – an errant arrow which broke the window behind which she was bathing.) David, with his divine inspiration, knew that Bathsheba was meant for him. (There is a Kabbalistic notion that David was a reincarnation of Adam and Bathsheba of Eve.) But the time was not ripe. He acted too hastily on his correct instincts.

The Talmud elsewhere (Avodah Zarah 4b) writes that David's sin was actually extremely atypical of him. God made the trial unnaturally hard for him. Under normal circumstances David should have withstood it. God ordinarily gives people challenges they are up to handling. But in this case God made it especially hard - and He did this so that David would show the way of repentance for all future generations. David spent his remaining years in an almost constant state of repentance, saying that his sin was before him constantly (Psalms 51:3). (Of course David did have free will and was certainly faulted for failing his test, but God did give him a harder challenge than He normally gives people. Challenges are to make us grow, not to crush us and to (virtually) bring us to sin.)

Finally, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 107a) explains that God did this to David in part because David specifically asked God to test him (Psalms 26:2). David wanted to show his love, that he could aspire to the level of the Patriarchs. From this the Talmud derives that we should never ask God to test us, allowing us to prove ourselves. God knows when the right time for tests are.

So yes, David sinned and the Torah was quite critical of his behavior. But the sin was nothing like the simple reading of the Prophet implied. As always, one can understand the full meaning and import of the Torah only after studying it in light of the interpretation of the Sages.

Genizah (Sheimos) – Burial Procedure

I have some printouts with Torah content which I don’t have use for. Do I have to bury them? I don’t live near a synagogue so I would have to do it myself.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The most proper is to bury all worn out Torah material, including printouts. The process is not difficult. You should first place it in an earthenware (or glass) jar and cover it tightly, so that water and creatures do not ruin it quickly, and then bury it underground. If this is not feasible, it should be wrapped or covered in some form, such as placing it in a plastic bag or cardboard box, before burial. However, items such as Tefillin and Mezuzah’s must always first be placed in containers. In fact, preferably, they should be given to the local burial society (chevra kadisha), to be buried together with a Torah scholar.

There are no further customs or liturgy associated with the occasion. It’s really just a practical expediency, not a religious ceremony.

Note that “genizah” comes from the Hebrew verb “lig’noz” – to hide or store away. The common Yiddish term – “sheimos” = “names” – stems from the fact that one common type of item which must be buried is something containing any of the names of God on it.

See this response for other opinions regarding dealing with printouts.

(Sources: Talmud Megillah 26b, Shulchan Aruch O.C. 154:5, Aruch HaShulchan 5, Mishna Berurah 22, Piskei Teshuvot 154:10.)

Due to limited resources, the Ask the Rabbi service is intended for Jews of little background with nowhere else to turn. People with questions in Jewish law should consult their local rabbi. Note that this is not a homework service!

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