"If men be judged wise by their beards and their girth, Then goats would be the wisest creatures on Earth."With the High Holidays approaching one of the more interesting attributes which takes a more prominent position is that of shaving or facial hair. Of course, prior to any Shabbat or Yom Tov, one is supposed to shave and take a haircut. Yet, for the High Holidays, there is a special emphasis on facial hair. One of the attributes that the Hazan should have is a beard. Although a beard is not the only qualification for the Hazan, nor is it the dispositive one, it is still mentioned. The importance of the beard is mentioned in the Hazan’s prayer prior to the Mussaf prayers. In that prayer, he lists some of his possible faults including his lack of a full beard (זקן מגודל). [As an aside, this prayer is public and a general one listing in a general manner the various shortcomings everyone really has, Artscroll has that one should say silently some of the faults which seems to belie the fact that every hazzan says this thus removing any individual stigma. Yet, were I pray most years, the Hazzan goes one step further and says half if not more silently. I don’t know if this is due to his immense piety or in fact all those things are applicable to him or perhaps he doesn’t think any of those are applicable and is really just skipping them.]
While the Torah prohibits shaving one’s face with a razor, according to most, one can still remove facial hair. There is a long and tortuous debate about what exactly one can use to remove facial hair, however, putting that aside, it is assumed that there are permissible methods of removal. Now, aside from the straight halakhic (Jewish Law) debate there is another issue that is implicated in removing one’s beard – kabbalah. Some hold that although one is not prohibited from shaving according to a strict reading of the law, one must still be cogent of the kabbalah, which they argue, prohibits any trimming or shaving of the beard.
While some claim kabbalah prohibits shaving, there are others who question this. This debate while ostensibly centered around the interpretation of kabbalah texts, instead revolves around the practice of a single person, R. Menachem Azariah of Fano (Rama m’Fano).
The Rama m’Fano was considered one of the greatest kabbalisits of his generation. He authored many important works on kabbalah and was considered, among many, the heir for Lurianic kabbalah. Thus, his practices regarding shaving can shed light on whether kabbalah really advocates for a beard or if one can still conform with kabbalah and be clean shaven.
R. Shabbtai Baer (d. 1674) in his Be’er Esek was asked whether kabbalah mandates that one keep a beard. He replied by first discussing all the relevant texts and in the end makes the argument that perhaps in the Diaspora kabbalah doesn’t mandate growing a beard. He then gets to the crux of what would become the debate for the next 300 years – the practice of the Rama m’Fano. R. Baer states that he attempted to find out exactly what the practice of the Rama m’Fano was in this area. He learnt that every Friday, the Rama m’Fano would trim his beard or shave his beard “as is the custom in Italy.” And in fact, his students, including R. Baer’s father in law, followed in the practice of their teacher and also shaved. As R. Baer correctly points out, someone of the stature of the Rama m’Fano, obviously is extremely telling for whether kabbalah mandates keeping a beard. From his evidence, R. Baer concludes that kabbalah can not mandate keeping a beard.
Yet, R. Baer’s testimony regarding the Rama m’Fano did not go unchallenged. R. Yosef Ergas, in his Divrei Yosef claims R. Baer got it wrong. Specifically, R. Ergas investigated the practice of the Rama m’Fano as well. R. Ergas came to contrary conclusion than that of R. Baer – the Rama m’Fano had a full beard and he never shaved. R. Ergas’s evidence is based upon a portrait of the Rama m’Fano. In this portrait the Rama m’Fano has a full beard.
This debate continued on to the 19th century with R. Moshe Sofer (Hatam Sofer) and R. Eliezer Shapiro (Munkatcher Rebbe). R. Sofer was asked the very same question as R. Baer was, whether one shouldn’t shave based upon kabbalah. After first professing that “we do not follow kabbalah” and that “he does not occupy himself with that which is hidden” he then goes on to discuss the Rama m’Fano. He uses, as did R. Baer, the Rama m’Fano to demonstrate that kabbalah does not mandate a full beard. Instead, R. Sofer points out that based upon testimony the Rama m’Fano did not keep a beard.
R. Shapiro in his Minhat Eliazer takes strong issue with R. Sofer. He notes that R. Sofer’s evidence must be based upon the Be’er Esek and R. Shapiro argues that R. Ergas’s portrait of the Rama m’Fano has settled this issue and R. Shapiro alleges that had R. Sofer been aware of R. Ergas’s evidence R. Sofer would never have said what he did.
So, in the end, it seems in part this hinges on the portrait of the Rama m'Fano. Well in 1904 in a biography on the Rama m'Fano, the author included a portrait of the Rama m'Fano. In this portrait it is clear as day the Rama m'Fano has a full beard. In fact the author of the biography, devotes a chapter to the beard of the Rama m'Fano. He claims, however, with his publication of the portrait this issue is truly settled. What the author neglects to mention is how in the world do we actually know this in fact is the portrait of the Rama m'Fano. Although the author does provide how he obtained the portrait, no where on the portriat does it actually state this is the picture of the Rama m'Fano. Now, if you will recall, even R. Joseph Ergas testimony regarding the portrait was rather late - close to 125 years after the Rama m'Fano died. R. Baer, in fact, was actually much closer, at least in time, to the Rama m'Fano, and had his father in law who studied under the Rama m'Fano personally to talk to. Thus, it would appear that although the author with the publication of this portrait deemed this issue settled, in fact it is far from settled.
This was not the only (possibly) erroneous portrait to be brought into the debate about beards. The famous portrait of Maimonides was also discussed in the beard context. There are those who claim based upon their reading of Maimonides that using scissors on the beard is prohibited. The question then becomes, the portrait of Maimonides clearly shows a trim beard. The issue with this line of inquiry is that the portrait doesn't necessarily depict Maimonides at all. This portrait was first published in 1744 and was allegedly based upon a medallion - a medallion which was never produced or seen by anyone other than the one who published it. You can see this portrait as well as the page from the book it originally from here (scroll down half way).
Finally, it is worth noting that Jews, even important Rabbis were far from universal in their facial hair. R. David Nieto is a good example. In this portrait, he has a wig and is sporting a stilleto beard which one assumes was the style of the times. R. Joseph Baer Solovetchik during the 1950s had a goatee.
Sources: Shu't Be'er Esek no. 70; Shu't Divrei Yosef, no. 28, Shu't Hatam Sofer, Orah Hayyim no. 159; Shu't Minhat Eliezer, vol. 2 no. 48; see also, Elliot Horowitz, "The Early Eighteenth Century Confronts the Beard: Kabbalah and Jewish Self-Fashioning," Jewish History 8 (1994):95-115; and by Horowitz as well, "On the Significance of the Beard in Jewish Communities in the East and in Europe in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times," Pe'amim (1994):124-148 [in Hebrew].
There is much more on this topic, however, I can't right now provide a complete bibliography.