The Commandment

In two separate places, the Torah forbids a man to cut his facial hair:

“You shall not round off the corner of your head, and you shall not destroy the edge of your beard.”1 Then in the context of the laws of the priests, we read: “…nor shall they shave the edge of their beard…”2

Noting that the Torah uses the Hebrew words for “shaving” and “destruction,” the Talmud3 understands that the punishable offense in the Torah is shaving with a razor, in those days the only technique to fully destroy the hair.

How about trimming with a scissors, or otherwise cutting the beard but not achieving a clean shave? Many (starting with the Sefer Hachinuch) understand that Maimonides4 would consider such an act to be forbidden but not punishable.

There are halachic authorities (including the Tzemach Tzedek,5 third Chabad rebbe) who teach that, in addition to the issue of destroying the beard, cutting the facial hair of a man has the problem of cross-dressing, which is forbidden by the Torah.6

The Reason

Maimonides teaches that the reason the Torah forbade the destruction of the beard is because shaving was a practice of ancient idol-worshippers.7

In addition, Kabbalah attaches great importance to the beard, teaching that the “thirteen locks” of the beard are representative of G‑d’s thirteen supernal Attributes of Mercy. Growing a beard makes one a beneficiary of the bounty which originates from G‑d’s compassion.

The History

Traditionally, Jews throughout the ages wore beards in order to not even come close transgressing the Torah’s command. This was true in Eastern Europe, where the vast majority of Jews grew full beards until the mid-nineteenth century.

As the winds of “enlightenment” spread to Eastern Europe, many people felt that wearing a beard labeled them as backwards and old-fashioned. Many Torah leaders, including the Chafetz Chaim, protested this change. Chassidim were in general less swayed by the modernization taking place around them, as is evident in their dress. Therefore, they—for the most part—did not feel compelled to shave their beards. In addition, the Kabbalistic reason mentioned above made the practice of growing a beard much more precious to them.