I have come to the conclusion that Jews have a hang-up with hair. Think about it: first there’s Samson, then there’s women’s head coverings, and there’s the Hassidic men with beards and side curls. What is up with all of this attention to hair and its presentation?
You raise an intriguing issue. In response I offer you “Hair Apparent: A Guide to Jewish Hair.” In addition to the hair manifestations you mention, I will help you to explore a number of additional hair phenomena.
The Power of Hair: The Samson Syndrome
Our first inkling of a notion that hair might be of significance in a person’s spiritual life is in the Book of Bamidbar. Here we learn of the Law of the Nazarite; a person, male or female, who has elected to take upon themselves additional stringencies — for them, 613 is not enough!
For a self-determined amount of time — at least 30 days — they must not come in contact with the dead, indulge in wine or strong drink, nor cut their hair. All the while they are a Nazarite they are kodesh, holy to God. After the fulfillment of the vow they are instructed to go to Jerusalem and offer sacrifices.
The most legendary of all Nazarites is the last judge, whose story is told in the Book of Judges. While he is in the womb, Samson’s mother is instructed by an angel to dedicate her son to God. She too must observe similar Nazarite-like restraints and, once born, Samson must be a lifelong Nazir. He will grow his hair long and abstain from strong drink and wine. The ordinance to not come in contact with the dead is waived, as it will impede on a large part of his job description.
The mystery of Samson’s superhero strength is in his hair. When Delilah discovers this, she shears him of his locks and hands him over to the enemy. He dies dramatically, empowered anew with a fresh growth of hair on his head; then he collapses a Philistine arena down upon them, and himself.
Why must the holy Nazarite desist from cutting his hair? Does it indicate his letting go of self-involvement? It may be that this distancing oneself from the day-to-dayneed to primp invites a holy devotion to God.
Hair Allure: The Wigs and Whys of Women’s Head Coverings
Some cover with a wig, some with a hat, some with a wig and a hat, some with a scarf, and some with nothing at all. Some love it, some resent it — but all of us have ancestresses that covered their hair.
But why and from where do we have a practice of covering the hair of a married woman? Though it hangs on a mighty thin thread — or in this case carefully spliced hair — it is based on a Biblical verse describing the humiliating ordeal a suspected wife goes through. One stage of her testing procedure, the details of which may be found in Bamidbar, is “the disturbance of her head,” understood as the uncovering of her hair.
Jewish legal literature concludes that if it is a humiliation for hair to be uncovered, it must be that the norm is for a married woman to cover her hair; tresses being a beauty reserved exclusively for husband. Ironically, a novel with no Jewish content makes this practice understandable. In The Girl with the Pearl Earring, the young woman, soon to be robbed of her innocence, is rendered in her own mind violated as soon as her attacker has stripped her of her headdress.
Mournful Hair: Let It All Grow
Traditional Jewish practice is quite detailed when it comes to mourning practices. Those who are of the seven intimate relatives of one who has died: mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter, or spouse are official mourners. They are to observe shiva, seven days of mourning, and to refrain from joyous behaviors for 30 days. They are expected not to cut their hair, and for parents there are additional restraints.
What is this mournful hair growing? As in the Nazarite, it indicates the letting go of self-involvement. One who mourns can barely muster the strength for normal human hygiene, so immense is their pain. The long uncut hair says, I am beyond thinking of myself — I am inconsolable.
Beards and Side Curls: The Face of Hair
This one is simple, yet emotionally charged. The Book of Vayikra enjoins upon men not to cut the corners of the head nor their face; not to use a razor to shave the face or the side curls. Though electric shavers, whose mechanics are more scissor-like than razors and therefore permitted, are used by some, others do not shave any facial hair whatsoever.
Like it or not, on t-shirts, in cartoons and in lots of Jewish kitsch, the beard has been taken as emblematic of the Jewish male. This hair makes a statement.
Three Years Old and never been trimmed!
Having been privileged to recently celebrate our grandson’s “upsherin” — first hair cut, I come somewhat predisposed to the charm of this far from universally observed custom.
The growing of a young boy’s hair until he reaches the age of three is compared to the mitzvah in regard to trees, whose fruit is not harvested until the fourth year —the year of holiness. The fruit of the tree is taken to Jerusalem to be eaten there; similarly, the youngster, having begun his fourth year, is initiated into Torah study with the honey-laced Aleph-Bet.
Hair is the most visible symbol of growth human beings possess. Once grown, we remain fairly stable organisms — a pound or two here and there notwithstanding. Hair indicates the unique human capability to change and to renew ourselves; it becomes a vehicle for our self-image. No nuance of our humanity is lost on our Maker; in Judaism hair matters. In the words of the famous Broadway show:
Hair! (hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair)
Flow it, Show it;
Long as God can grow it, My Hair!