While the Jewish tradition has for centuries forbidden shaving with a straight razor, the reason for the taboo is somewhat unclear. The prohibition is at least as old as the Bible, where it is banned in Leviticus 19:27, 21:5, and Deuteronomy 14:1; yet the Torah frankly does not offer a transparent reason for the prohibition. The 13th Century sage Rabbi Jacob ben Asher argues, “we do not need to understand the reason for all the commandments. They are the commands of the King upon us, even if we do not know their reason” (Arba’ah Turim, Yoreh De’ah 181).
That perspective has not kept generations of authorities from seeking a more satisfying answer. Maimonides, for example, regards shaving with a straight razor as an idolatrous practice (Laws of Idolatry 12:1). Consequently, Jews must refrain from shaving as a way to differentiate themselves from their idolatrous neighbors.
Other scholars argue that, in antiquity, shaving was a sign of mourning. Some people tore out their hair upon learning of a death, either as an offering “to strengthen the ghost in the nether world,” as a way of assuaging “the ghost’s jealousy of the living,” or as an act of “self-punishment expressing feelings of guilt” (Jeffrey Tigay, comment on Deuteronomy 14:1). From this perspective, the Torah is possibly seeking to guide people away from misguided notions about death and the afterlife, or to forbid extreme and self-destructive behavior. One beautiful interpretation, by the medieval Spanish commentator Abravanel, is that Jews “should not perform extreme rites of mourning when bereaved because, as God’s children, they are never totally orphaned” (Jeffrey Tigay, comment on Deuteronomy 14:1).
Perhaps the most compelling approach is that of the 11th Century French commentator Rashi. Rashi contends that the Torah’s command is about our relationship with God: “You are God’s children, and you deserve to be beautiful.” Not shaving is a way in which we make ourselves beautiful, which grants us the dignity we deserve as Children of the Sovereign.
At first blush, this might sound counterintuitive. If beauty is the objective, one might think we ought to be allowed to tinker with our bodies as much as we want. In our culture, where we are constantly bombarded with messages – some subtle, some overt – about how naturally ugly we are, and how much we need external remedies to make ourselves more attractive and presentable. The Torah offers another way of thinking: we are actually perfect just the way we are. We ought not mess with our natural beauty too much, or we will mess up a good thing.
In this line of reasoning, a man’s facial hair reflects his natural beauty; after all, a man’s beard will naturally grow out if left alone. The Jewish legal tradition (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh De’ah 181:3, et. al.) thus comes to teach us that we may modify that natural beauty slightly (i.e., with scissors, which trim but cannot fully remove), but we must not radically alter it (i.e., with a straight razor, which comes as close to fully removing the hair as is possible).
True, a straight razor is much more efficient than an electric razor. But efficiency is not the value the Torah seeks to impart here. Instead, it is reminding us of our natural beauty and dignity as God’s children, and our responsibility to see ourselves through the eyes of our loving heavenly Parent.