In my quest to study and make sense of the 613 commandments, there are few as confounding as the question of beards. More specifically trimming of beards, the exact wording generally translated “not to harm the edges of your beard”. Most commandments are easy to categorize and apply or disallow for modern life, but I’m on the fence with this one.
One only needs to look around your local congregations to see that few judeo-christian people in America take this prohibition to heart, so why is it there? Context is king in this case. The people of Israel where to be very meticulous in avoidance of anything pagan. In this case, the surrounding people made it a habit to shave their hair and beards into distinctive shapes to honor their gods. For example, they would shave their hair so that it would resemble sun rays around their face or make their beards square.
So why am I on the fence? This scripture is an immediate neighbor to the prohibitons to cutting yourself for the dead, and tatooing. Both cutting and tatooing were pagan practices of the Canaanites. I believe our bodies are to be dedicated to the Lord, so cutting or tatooing seem in direct violation. So how can I recommend avoiding tatoos and cutting while in the same breath say it is okay to shave your beard? It is partially personal: I don’t like beards. Obviously that is not a good enough defense.
A better defense is to point out that our current society has few pagan religions that use shaved heads as a defining charcteristic. The only example that comes to mind is members of Hare Krishna who shave all of their hair except for a small tuft at the top of their head.
So I say cut your hair and shave your beard, just not in that pattern. If you want to have a beard that’s okay too. At any rate, it is no longer the common custom in either Christian or Jewish circles.
I suspect I am re-evaluating work done by some other historic saint, but it is quite eye-opening to evaluate the 613 and attempt to organize them into general concepts. I know there is a whole series of books on the thoughts of the Rabbis on the mitzvot. As a Christian and a Jew in our modern world, I have to make sense of them for myself. I am only about a third of the way through. It is more than a days work and some mitzvot have given me sufficient pause to qualify for their own blog.
That said there are some general categories that take care of large groups of the law. It’s no surprise that my own grouping matches up with that of the writer’s of the Talmud. The surprise is that the majority of Christian actually follow the law, despite the frequent statements to the contrary.
Following the numerical listing provided on-line by Chabad, I found these general categories:
1-12 are about Loving God
13-21 expound on how we are to treat others
22-23 have to do with studying and teaching the scriptures (Torah)
24-55 delineate all the ways idolatry, false prophets, and the occult can creep into our lives and how to keep them out
56-67 go on to caution us to avoid idolaters and those who practice the occult (people give up those horoscopes!)
139-161 are about sexual immorality and align with the thinking of most Christians.
136-138 and 169-175 have to do with the priesthood and sacrifices that cannot be kept at this time because the Temple was destroyed.
So there we have not just 10, but 105 that are commonly considered ideal to Jews and Christians alike.