Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Mandatory Matisyahu Post: Must Jewish Men Have Beards?

I guess I have to be like everyone else and weigh in on the Matisyahu Beardgate 2011. In case you don't have access to any news source, Facebook, Twitter, etc...Chassidic singer Matisyahu shaved his beard. GASP! Shock! Disbelief!

This is ridiculous. My initial thoughts on the news: "Oh. Interesting." And then I moved on to doing something else. I think I was the only one.

Facebook blew up. Twitter blew up. The news outlets blew up. Even the Maccabeats' "Miracle" YouTube video's counter probably blew up.

I meant to get to this topic before, but I'm not knowledgeable enough for a full discussion. I'm sure someone can chime in on the comments and enlighten us of the details. Are Jewish men required to have beards? There are some groups that say yes, especially chassidic groups, but orthodox Jewish men often don't have beards. And it's fine.

My understanding is that the hair can't be cut with a regular razor (think straight razors and Gillette-like razors). However, there is a "halachic way" to shave. Primarily using electric razors.

So why all the fuss about Matisyahu if Jewish men are allowed to be clean-shaven? In the chassidic world, beards seem to be a given. In addition to not shaving, there is no trimming the beard. So that untrimmed beard is a key "marker" that someone is chassidic.

Shaving his beard is a symbolic statement. However, no one knows what that statement is. And that's the problem. Without him giving a clear statement about his life, everyone else feels the need to weigh in on what he might be saying. But at the end of the day, we don't know. Maybe he's modern orthodox, maybe he's affiliating with a "beardless" chareidi/litvish/yeshivish/whatever group, maybe he's "just plain orthodox." He has already refuted claims that he has gone "off the derech" (another phrase I have to get around to one day on the blog). He appears to be saying that he's still orthodox, despite what people are speculating. The most offensive? The Washington Post even titled their article "Has Matisyahu Left Judaism?" That's a big leap for just shaving a beard.

He refuted these claims through Twitter:
"For all of those who are being awesome,you are awesome.For all those who are confused:today I went to the Mikva and Shul just like yesterday"

So who knows? Why do we care? Good on him for finding his derech. Too bad for him and his family that it has to be so public.


  1. People are particularly upset that he shaved his entire sideburns off, which is a biblical transgression according to all opinions. (Even with an electric shaver.)

  2. ...and sometimes we shave off our beards because they itch, That's what I did in college...

    1. Once it's long enough, it doesn't itch, especially if you wash it every day.
      People with short beards must have another kind of skin.

  3. You were not the only one who simply went on to other things! I love Matis. I've been to several concerts. He's deeply spiritual and his music is me anyway. But then everyone went crazy...

    It's natural for someone just becoming religion to go a bit (or sometimes a lot) overboard. After some time, they have to take a few steps back to find their true hashkalfa. He got famous in the meanwhile - I applaud his courage to change and constantly re-examine his faith.

  4. I think a lot of the confusion came not from the actual shaving (at least in our Conservative community), but from Matisyahu's own statement, "At the break of day I look for you at sunrise When the tide comes in I lose my disguise." He's a role model as well as a celebrity and his actions deeply affect his fans, especially when they're school-aged, like my son and his friends.

  5. I'm pretty much over hearing about it. Matisyahu (Or Matthew Miller) is a real life person and not just a celebrity. I realize people in the public eye have a duty to the public, but the first duty is to themselves. Well, I suppose there is some leeway there is it's official public servant--but a rapper?? come on people. Move on. If Matisyahu is the reasons some decides to become or leave frummy life, well then that's not so solid a reason to be there in the first place.

    ok so there is my obligatory comment on your obligatory post ;)

  6. re: "For all those who are confused:today I went to the Mikva and Shul just like yesterday"

    I thought going to mikva every day was specifically a Chassidish thing... Or am I way off and other frum Jews have this custom too? If the beard shaving was supposed to signify a move towards MO/yeshivish and daily mikva is Chassidish, then it would be kind of incoherent to not only continue the daily mikva but to davka tweet about it in response to people's confusion at the initial announcement. So maybe he still wants to be Chassidish privately, just not a posterboy for it, wearing the uniform.

  7. This is one of the most nuanced and respectful posts I've read on the subject.

    Thank you for writing it.

    This Good Life

  8. Peyos, shmeyos. If you look at him in the Youtube interview ( ) it's pretty clear that he has standard, run of the mill, short sideburns, which is sufficient to avoid violating the biblical prohibition. He looks like thousands of other Jews in good standing. What bothered people, evidently, is that he signified which team he does not play for.

    In any case, in the interview he clearly indicated why he grew it in the first place, why he was apprehensive about removing it for a long time, and why he finally overcame his apprehension.

  9. Re: S. If you look at his face in the pic he posted and at the beginning of the video (0:03 - 0:06) you can see he has shaved his sideburn up to the top of his ears. Above the point where the skull meets the jawbone. So sadly, he has transgressed the biblical prohibition even according to the most lenient of opinions. We should be dan lekaf zechut (judge favorably) that he may not realize he has done so.

  10. For an extensive explanation, see the interview with Rolling Stone linked below.

    To quote my favorite line:
    "...The idea that if I cut it off, I’m cutting off my Brachos, well that’s just not true. Because the symbol is just a symbol and not the thing itself.",pwdHE1MzojxFnI8nH9mKkMEPxEpndgIC

  11. Originally posted: December 15, 2011 at 9:59 PM

    Re: the sidelocks. That's a good point, but can you see that in the picture? I couldn't, and I even looked again to be sure. Not much is required, and they could be tucked behind the ears.

    Re: the mikvah. That was my first thought too. It may not be literal, and it doesn't necessarily mean daily. If memory serves me correctly, there are some non-chassidic groups where men go weekly (or another frequency of time) to the mikvah. I also think there are some chassidic groups where they don't go daily or weekly. If for no other reason than there isn't a male mikvah or the community doesn't open the women's mikvah to the men except before Yom Kippur. And if nothing else, maybe that's a practice that really spoke to him and he plans to continue it. But your last point was a good one, very interesting.

    TGL: Thank you! It was just a simple late night rant :D

    S: Thank you for the clarification and the link!