It should first be pointed out that, contrary to the common misconception, leaving sidelocks (peyot) is not just a “chassidic” thing; it’s a Jewish thing.

The Torah states, “Do not round off [the hair] at the edges of your heads.”1 The Talmud explains that the term “edges” refers to the hair between the ears and the temples. “Rounding out the edges” refers to removing the sideburns so that there is a straight hairline from the forehead to behind the ears.2

This prohibition applies only to males.3

Reason for the Prohibition

Like many laws in the Torah, the verse does not spell out the exact reason for this prohibition. Nevertheless, some commentaries explain that since this mitzvah is placed among other prohibitions related to idolatry, and since many idol-worshipers used to cut off the hair on the sides of their heads while leaving the hair on top to grow, we are required to maintain a physical appearance that distinguishes us from idol-worshipers.4

Others, however, are of the opinion that the prohibition of shaving off the sideburns is included in the category of mitzvahs called chukim, decrees, and the exact reason for this mitzvah has not been revealed to us.5

What Mustn’t Be Rounded?

Now that we’ve established that fact that not shaving off one’s sideburns is a mitzvah, we can turn to what most probably prompted your question to begin with—the various lengths and styles of peyot.

It is generally accepted that the width of the peyot area extends from the forehead to behind the ear, including the temple. As for the length of the peyot area, it is a matter of dispute. Some hold that it extends until below the ear, while others hold that it extends to the side of the ear,6 i.e., “the place where the upper and lower jawbones meet.”7 (As with any halachic dispute, one should consult with his rabbi as to which opinion he should follow.)

How Long Must They Be?

Some authorities rule that it is forbidden to cut the hair close to the skin, even if one uses scissors.8 Others rule that the prohibition applies to shaving off the hair with a razor, but using scissors is permitted, even if it is almost like shaving.9 The Code of Jewish Law rules according to the latter opinion, but adds that one should show deference to the first opinion and not cut too close to the skin.10

Beyond the Letter of the Law

Although one is permitted to trim the peyot, some, especially in certain chassidic circles, have the custom of never cutting their peyot. One of the sources for this custom is a directive that the chassidic master Rabbi Meir of Premishlan gave to Rabbi Sholom Mordechai ha-Kohen Schwadron (Maharsham) when he was a young boy: that he should never cut his peyot, and would thereby merit long life.11

However, it is not clear that this instruction was ever meant to be anything more than a personal directive. Additionally, it is known that for Kabbalistic reasons, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (Arizal) would make sure to trim his peyot with scissors so that the hairs of the peyot not mix with those of the beard, since they correspond to different mystical attributes.12 (For more on this, see Kabbalistic Hair Styles.) In light of this, many—including Chabad—have the custom specifically to trim the peyot.13

There are various other customs regarding peyot: tucking them behind the ears, wrapping them around the ears or twirling them into long ringlets. Some of these customs are based on mystical teachings, while others are based more on community norms. But what is important to bear in mind is that all these different customs go beyond the basic requirement of peyot.

Final Note

Throughout the ages, and most recently by the Nazis during the Holocaust, much animosity and torture was directed specifically at the Jewish peyot—for the peyot are a sign that differentiates and clearly marks the Jew. However, instead of being embarrassed by them, many Jews literally gave their lives for their peyot, staying proud Jews even to the last moment of their lives. Indeed, Yemenite Jews, instead of calling them peyot, call them simanim, “signs,” for they are signs that we proudly wear, proclaiming to all that we are Jewish.