The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit
Halakha: A Weekly Shiur In Halakhic Topics
Shiur #11: ELECTRIC SHAVERS
Rabbi Yisrael Rosen*
The question of shaving in general and using an electric shaver
in particular is a problematic issue, both with respect to the underlying
halakhic principles and with respect to the application of those principles to
the technological reality of our day.
THE PARAMETERS OF THE PROHIBITION OF SHAVING
First of all, we must distinguish between the prohibition of
"rounding the corners of the head" [hakafat ha-rosh], which we shall not
discuss in this lecture, and the prohibition of "destroying the corners of the
beard" [haschatat ha-zakan].
SHAVING WITH A RAZOR
The prohibition of shaving the corners of the beard appears in
two places in the Torah: in Parashat Kedoshim directed to all of Israel
and in Parashat Emor directed to the priests:
Neither shall you destroy the corners of your beard.
Neither shall they shave off the corners of their beard.
The commandments given to the priests and to all of Israel are
assumed to be identical, and the Gemara applies what it learns from one to the
other. Regarding all of Israel, the prohibition is formulated as one of
"destroying," whereas regarding the priests, it is formulated in terms of
"shaving." Therefore, the Mishna in Makkot 3:5 states:
One who makes a bald spot on his head, or rounds the corners of
his head, or destroys the corners of his beard, or inflicts [upon himself] a
single scratch over someone who died, is liable [to lashes]...
And he is not liable unless he removes [the beard] with a
razor. Rabbi Eliezer says: Even if he removed it with a melaket or a
rahitni [various types of tweezers], he is liable.
The reason that a person is only liable if he shaves with a
razor is that the Torah only prohibited "shaving" that involves "destroying," as
is stated in the prohibition directed to all of Israel in Parashat
The prohibition of shaving applies to five parts of the face.
It is difficult to identify the exact location of these five places. We are,
therefore, stringent about the matter and relate to the entire beard as "corners
of the beard" that may not be removed with a razor, with the exception of the
mustache, which is definitely not a corner of the beard.
As we have seen in the Mishna, Rabbi Eliezer maintains that a
person is liable even if he removes his facial hair with a melaket or a
rahitni. These are instruments used to pluck the hair. The Gemara on this
Mishna states (Makkot 21a):
Our Rabbis taught a Baraita: "[The priests] shall not shave the
corners of their beard" (Vayikra 21:5). You might think that even if he
shaves [his beard] with scissors, he would be liable. Therefore, the Torah
teaches: "You shall not destroy [the corners of your beard]" (ibid.
19:27). And if [it said]: "You shall not destroy," you might think that even
if he removed it with a melaket or a rehitni, he would be liable.
Therefore, the Torah teaches: "They shall not shave." How so? Shaving that
involves destruction. Say then that this means [shaving] with a
The Gemara's basic definition of the biblically prohibited
action is shaving that involves destruction.
SHAVING WITH A MELAKET OR A RAHITNI
The Gemara continues with a discussion of the position of Rabbi
Whatever you wish. If Rabbi Eliezer received the gezeira
shava as a tradition, he should require a razor. If he did not receive that
gezeira shava, scissors should also not be permitted.
In fact, he received the gezeira shava as a tradition,
but he maintains that these too achieve shaving.
The Rishonim explain that according to Rabbi Eliezer the
concept of shaving is not a technical characterization, but rather one is
forbidden to shave with any instrument that is used for shaving. Since people do
at times remove their facial hair with a melaket or a rahitni,
shaving with such instruments is forbidden.
What is the difference between a razor and scissors? Why are
scissors permissible even according to Rabbi Eliezer? The commentary to
Makkot attributed to Rashi (s.v. talmud lomar gilu'ach)
Scissors do not destroy, because they do not cut at the root
like a razor.
Shaving that involves destruction - A razor is ordinarily used
for shaving and [also] destroys. However, a rahitni destroys, but is not
ordinarily used for shaving. And scissors are used for shaving, but do not
"Destroying" involves the removal of facial hair together with
the roots, and scissors do not remove the roots.
To sum up, then, an instrument that removes facial hair
including the roots and is ordinarily used for shaving (like a razor) is
forbidden; an instrument that does not remove the roots (like scissors) is
permissible; and an instrument that removes the roots, but is not the ordinary
way of shaving (like a melaket or a rahitni) is the subject of a
SCISSORS SIMILAR TO A RAZOR
What length of hair is subject to the prohibition of shaving?
As we shall see below, this is a key question regarding today's electric
A Nazirite is forbidden to shave throughout the period of his
Naziriteship. At the end of his Naziriteship, however, he is obligated to shave
his entire body. Thus the Mishna states in Nazir 39a:
A Naziriteship of unspecified duration lasts thirty days.
Should [the Nazirite] shave himself or be shaved by bandits, thirty days are
rendered void. A Nazirite who shaved, whether with scissors or with a razor, or
who picked [his hair by hand], [even] a minute amount, is liable [to
A Nazirite is forbidden to shave, whether with a razor or with
scissors. Even if he was shaved against his will, he forfeits his Nazariteship
of up to thirty days and must start his count from the beginning. Regarding this
law, the Gemara (ibid. 39b) brings a Baraita that states:
A Nazirite whom bandits shaved, but left on him [hair long]
enough to bend its tip to its root, does not forfeit [any days of his
If a certain length of hair remains - "enough to bend [the
hair's] tip to its root" - the shaving is not regarded as shaving, and the
Nazirite does not forfeit his Naziriteship. The Gemara in the continuation
writes that the Rabbis knew that this length represents seven days of growth.
The Acharonim note that there is nothing "holy" about this length, for we
see with our very own eyes that the rate of beard growth varies from one person
to the next.
The Gemara in the continuation (40a) brings the following
Rav Chisda said: Regarding lashes, one hair; regarding impeding
fulfillment [of the concluding head-shaving], two hairs; regarding forfeiting
[his days of Naziriteship], he only forfeits [days] for most [of the hair on]
his head. And [only] with a razor.
With a razor yes, but not with other things? But it was taught
in a Baraita: From where do we know to include all things that remove [hair]?
Say rather [anything] similar to a razor.
And the Tosafot (ibid. 40a, s.v. ubeta'ar)
Which plucks the hair and destroys it at the
A razor, then, is characterized by plucking very close to the
root of the hair. Therefore, if a Nazirite trims his beard, but leaves a certain
minimum length of hair, he is not liable, nor does he not forfeit his
Practically speaking, as we shall see below, the critical
factor is "similar to a razor." The Shulchan Arukh rules:
A person is only liable for destroying the corners of his beard
[if he shaves] with a razor. But scissors are permitted, even if they are
similar to a razor.
The Rema appears not to disagree with the Shulchan Arukh's
Nevertheless, one must be careful, when shaving [with scissors]
that it is the upper blade that moves, and not the lower one [= the blade that
touches the skin], lest he cut only with the lower blade, it [effectively
working] as a razor.
This law is not mentioned by the Rambam (Hilkhot Avoda Zara
He is only liable if he shaves with a razor. As it is said:
"You shall not destroy the corners of your beard" - shaving that involves
destruction. Therefore, if he shaved his beard with scissors, he is not
Commentators to the Rambam explain that when the Rambam says
"he is exempt," he does not mean to imply that the practice is nevertheless
forbidden, but rather he is exempt and the practice is permitted.
Another Mishna relating to the length of hair that is shaved is
found in tractate Nida (52b):
The two hairs spoken of in regard to the red heifer and in
regard to leprosy, as well as those spoken of anywhere else must be long enough
for their tips to be bent to their roots; these are the words of Rabbi Yishmael.
Rabbi Eliezer says: Long enough to be grasped by a fingernail. Rabbi Akiva says:
Long enough to be taken off with scissors.
The Gemara on this Mishna states:
Rav Chisda said in the name of Mar Ukva: The law is in
accordance with the views of all of them with respect to
It seems that the longest hair mentioned in the Mishna is that
which is "long enough for their tips to be bent to their roots." As for the
shortest hair, this is disputed by Rashi and the Rambam. According to the
Rambam, the shortest hair is that which is "long enough to be taken off with
scissors"; whereas Rashi understands that it is the hair which is "long enough
to be grasped by a fingernail." In any event, the Gemara concludes that one must
follow the stringency of all three opinions.
The main question arising from this passage is whether these
lengths apply to other matters, in addition to the applications mentioned in the
beginning of the Mishna. Does this Mishna have any ramifications regarding a
Nazirite, or with respect to the prohibition of shaving, or the like? If we
answer in the affirmative, we must practice stringency regarding the prohibition
of shaving and a Nazirite. Due to the Mishna's heading, however, many
commentators argue that the Mishna applies only to those realms mentioned in the
heading, the common denominator being that they each require two hairs, which is
not the case regarding a Nazirite or the prohibition of shaving.
THE DISCUSSION IN THE ACHARONIM
Thus far, we have dealt with the Mishnaic and Talmudic sources
dealing with our issue. The main discussion found in the Acharonim
revolves around a number of responsa relating to the topic. The primary
discussion is between the Noda Biyehuda and the Chatam Sofer.
The Noda Biyehuda was asked (Yore De'a, mahadura
tinyana, no. 80) whether it is permissible to shave in two stages: first, to
remove the bulk of one's beard with scissors so that the remaining stubble is
too short to be classified as hair, and then afterwards remove that stubble with
a razor, for the stubble that remains is not called hair. The Noda
Biyehuda writes that this question was already raised in Responsa Besamim
Rosh, and the conclusion there is that the practice is allowed: The first
stage was performed with scissors, and the second stage is not considered
shaving (because the hair is not long enough to be considered hair). The Noda
Biyehuda himself disagrees with the Besamim Rosh, but for a side
reason. According to him, there is no minimum length for hair with respect to
the prohibition of shaving, so that there is no such thing as hair "that is not
called hair" with regard to shaving. The Noda Biyehuda has his doubts
about this assertion. He writes that he does not wish to treat the matter at
great length, for the allowance is liable to lead to all kinds of
Over and beyond what the Noda Biyehuda says, there seems
to be a practical difficulty with what the questioner had proposed, for it is
exceedingly difficult for a person to remove all his facial hair with scissors,
in such a way that there remains not a single hair long enough to be classified
The Chatam Sofer vigorously attacked the Noda
Biyehuda. It was clear to him that the proposed practice was absolutely
forbidden, and not merely for side reasons. In effect, the Chatam Sofer
disagrees with the Shulchan Arukh, and says that the scissors similar to
a razor are forbidden. When the Gemara says that scissors are permitted, it is
referring to scissors that do not "destroy" the hair at all. According to him,
therefore, already at the first stage of the proposed practice, when the person
trims his beard with scissors leaving hair of extremely short length, he
violates the prohibition. The Tzemach Tzedek also discusses the issue at
length, saying that the Shulchan Arukh's ruling is subject to
SHAVING ON CHOL HA-MO'ED
What drove the Chatam Sofer to deal with this question
was the issue of shaving on Chol ha-Mo'ed. In another responsum, the
Noda Biyehuda permitted shaving on Chol ha-Mo'ed for those who
have a great need to shave, for example, a person who must appear before
non-Jewish officials, or the like. He permitted shaving on Chol ha-Mo'ed
by way of a poor person who has nothing to eat, provided that the person
receiving the shave did not enter the holiday unshaven. Some have explained the
Noda Biyehuda's allowance with the fact that the people who had dealings
with the non-Jewish officials were accustomed to shave with a razor. The Noda
Biyehuda, therefore, permitted them to shave every day - even on Chol
ha-Mo'ed - in order to prevent them from violating a Torah prohibition: If
they shave every day, they never violate a Torah prohibition, because the hair
never grows long enough to be subject to the prohibition of shaving with a
razor. The Chatam Sofer absolutely disagrees, arguing that even in such a
case they violate a Torah prohibition.
Rabbi Tzvi David Hoffman, author of Responsa Melamed
Leho'il, was asked about a sick person who was told by his doctors that he
must shave every day with a razor. Is he permitted to use the allowance found in
Responsa Besamim Rosh? Rejecting what the Chatam Sofer had said
about the Besamim Rosh, Rabbi Hoffman inclined to allow the ailing
patient to rely on the latter's position.
Let us summarize by saying that according to the Chatam
Sofer and his camp, shaving one's beard is forbidden, even with scissors.
Obviously, then, any type of electric shaver is forbidden, and the use of such a
machine may well involve the violation of a Torah prohibition.
The Jewish community at large has not accepted this ruling.
Hungarian Jews who accepted the rulings of the Chatam Sofer were
accustomed to leave a short, bristly growth of beard on their faces and not to
give themselves a clean shave. Most people, however, follow the Shulchan
Arukh, with whom the Chatam Sofer disagrees, and allow shaving with
scissors that are similar to a razor. Therefore, the main question that we must
deal with concerns the definition of "scissors similar to a razor" that are
permitted. How are such scissors different from a razor that is forbidden?
It may be argued that practically speaking all electric shavers
are permitted, because there is something that intervenes between the blade and
the skin. Rabbi Tzvi Pessach Frank, in his Responsa Har Tzvi, put forward
such an argument in passing. He was asked whether using an electric shaver is
regarded like cutting with one's hands. He answered in the affirmative, despite
the fact that it is the electric motor that performs the action. In the course
of his discussion, he mentions the principle mentioned above. This, however,
cannot be considered a clear halakhic statement on the part of Rabbi Frank; the
responsum does not deal directly with the permissibility of shaving with an
Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Ma'ale
Adumim, in his book, Melumadei Milchama, deals with this issue. He allows
all electric shavers, arguing that they should be treated like a melaket
and a rahitni. According to him, these instruments are characterized
by the fact that that they cut each hair separately, as does an electric shaver.
This stands in contrast to a razor that cuts off many hairs at the same
It is difficult, however, to rely on this argument with respect
to biblical prohibitions, for the Rishonim understood that a melaket
and a rahitni are permitted because they are not designed for
shaving, and not because they cut each hair separately. It goes without saying
that it is difficult to argue that an electric shaver should not be regarded as
an instrument designed and intended for shaving.
Another possible distinction between a razor and scissors is
based on the fact that scissors cut the hair using two blades, whereas a razor
cuts it with a single blade. If this is the distinction between scissors and a
razor, we must then deal with a practical issue: Does an electric shaver cut
with a single blade or with two blades (i.e., the blade and the protective metal
One might have expected that since an electric shaver cuts the
hair through the protective screen, it should leave stubble in the length of the
screen's thickness. The fact, however, is that no hair remains. The biological
explanation is that hair is flexible, and that in the course of shaving, it is
pulled into the machine and then afterwards the remaining hair sinks back into
the skin. This phenomenon raises a question: Do we follow the physical results
that a small length of hair is left uncut, or do we follow the visible results
that no unshaven hair remains?
Furthermore, we must consider two additional factors which may
be relevant to the decision-making process:
1) Does the blade touch the skin? If the machine pulls in the
hair, perhaps the skin is also pulled through the openings in the screen.
2) Does the machine cut the hair solely with the blade like a
lawn mower, or with a scissors-like action, the protective screen functioning as
a second blade?
These technical issues must be clarified, and only then can the
Halakha be decided.
Rabbi Shabtai Rappaport, in Techumin 13, maintains that
the main issue is the second question: Does an electric shaver remove the hair
solely with the cutting action of the blade, or with the combined scissors-like
action of the blade and the screen. He argues that a simple test may be
performed to determine whether a shaver is "kosher" or not: does the shaver work
without the screen? If the blade cannot cut the hair without the screen, then
the shaver is permitted. Even if the blade can cut without the screen, the
shaver may still be "kosher," for it is possible that when the screen is in
place, the blade cuts together with the screen. It is also necessary to discuss
the first question raised above.
Another question must also be addressed: What is the law if
most of the hairs are cut through the combined action of the blade and the
screen, but some of the hairs are cut by the blade alone?
In the past, Machon Tzomet would test different types and
brands of shavers, and publish its conclusions regarding which of them were
permitted for use, following the criteria proposed by Rabbi Rappaport. If the
shaver was unable to cut the hair without the screen in place, it was permitted.
In recent years, Machon Tzomet has ceased dealing with this issue, because
close-up photographs taken by the Phillips Company have revealed that even with
respect to shavers that had been declared "kosher," the blade usually cuts the
hair even before it touches the screen. Thus, we are once again faced with the
basic question: Either all shavers are kosher or they are all forbidden. Rabbi
Rappaport, however, remains firm in his position, and continues to test shavers,
just as he had done prior to the publication of the photographs.
Let us conclude by saying that the posekim of our
generation accept the fact that the community at large is inclined to be lenient
on the issue, but they have difficulty finding clear justification for such
(Translated by David Strauss)
*This lecture was delivered in the Yeshiva in Shevat 2002
 Responsa Besamim Rosh is attributed to the Rosh
(Rabbenu Asher ben Yechiel), but there is widespread disagreement whether the
work is authentic or a forgery. The Chatam Sofer (cited below), who
disagrees with the Noda Biyehuda, referred to it as Kizvei ha-Rosh
(Lies of the Rosh). Indeed, it is very strange that the Rosh should permit a
circumvention of the law that is liable to lead to forbidden shaving.