Matisyahu Beard Goes Missing, Jewish World in a Panic and Rushing to Judgment

The Jewish world is in spasms over Matisyahu’s facial hair.

Even before I awoke in Los Angeles, text messages were lining up like Hanukkah cards from the East Coast asking “is it true?” The blogs are on fire with questions like “Did he stop being religious?” “Is this a publicity stunt?” and much more. As my witty blogging friend Esther Kustanowitz put it, this was “the beard heard round the world.”

Never before in the history of our ancient people has one man’s beard cause so much panic. In fact, I am not sure in the entire history of beards, if one beard has created so much commotion.

In our world obsessed with looks and stardom, his decision to go beardless now warrants news alerts.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency alert yesterday was“ Gingrich sticks by Palestinian comment, draws GOP rebukes.”

Today the alert is about our beloved singer’s decision to shave off his signature bristles, “Matisyahu Shaves off Beard.”

Tens of thousands of people have looked at the photos on Twitter, thousands are commenting on his website and Facebook. Even national gossip media sites are chiming in with their own opinions. But all one needs to do it look at what he himself wrote on his blog:

No more Chassidic reggae superstar. Sorry folks, all you get is me…no alias…. And for those concerned with my naked face, don’t worry…you haven’t seen the last of my facial hair.

It seems that his own words were not enough. Everyone has an opinion. Rushing to judgement is a national pastime.

There is no obligation in Judaism to wear a beard. It’s not a mitzvah. Facial hair is meant to be an adornment for the face, say the rabbis. The Torah instructs us about how to cut the beard – no razors allowed, leave the upper part of the sideburns – but doesn’t require a man to have a beard. While some associate taking off the beard with a lapse in religious observance, that is simply not the case.

Historically, Jews have gone without beards before. Over the ages, Jewish men have used depilatory creams and powders made from nasty stuff that took off the beard. At the most famous yeshiva in pre-war Europe, most men studied bare-faced. The invention of the electric shaver created the opportunity for even more observant Jewish men to go beardless without killing their faces.

I remember when i started growing my beard sixteen years ago, much to the surprise of my fiance. It had everything to do wit

h my displeasure at shaving, and nothing to do with a fashion of religious statement. My skin is super sensitive, and no matter what kind of electric shaver, creams, treatments I used, my skin could not bear it. With my marital future in place, I took the risk and grew one leading up to my wedding. My grandmother, of blessed memory, was distraught that all the wedding pictures would have me in a beard.

A beard does not make a man make. I am sure some famous bard centuries ago wrote something along those lines. Matisyahu’s talent as a singer and performer have little to do with what clothes he wears and what kind of facial hair he prefers. While it might have been his signature look for a part of his career, it isn’t any longer. Let’s not rush to judgement and let him speak — and sing — for himself.

16 replies
  1. Rabin Kos
    Rabin Kos says:

    Very nice and appologetic post.
    But I wouldn’t agree with downplaying ppl’s lament.
    If one for years tries to be the Jewish icon and thrives on spreading the Jewish message and then decides to oh so publically get rid of his beard (couple with very ambiguous statement) which was the Jewish trademark then one cannot be surprised that hundreds of Jewish kids are left confused at best… maybe even betrayed.
    He did become famous as the chassidic rapper and chassidim do wear beards. And the famous yeshivaof the yesteryear you’ve mentioned was not a chassidic one.
    True Torah does commend one to wear a beard but has been the the chassidic tradition across all the spectrum.
    And as you yourself mentioned Torah obligates one to leave the upper part of the sideburns and the picture published doesn’t look like the new haircut adheres even to bear minimum requirement.

    I was never a big fan of his music but I was always happy that there are so many Jewish kids that listen to a music of a jewish performer with a great message. And what message is he giving now.

    Sure ppl should judge but ppl with such a big public profile should not make such ambiguous statements either (pirkey avos ch.1).

  2. rabbiyonah
    rabbiyonah says:

    Matisyahu never set out to be a Jewish hero – he was embraced by the Jewish community but always has had a desire to break out and be a world famous singer. Which he did. His notoriety was not based on his Jewish communal activities, it was based on gold records.

    We can debate how he went about doing it – but why should we expect that just because we made him a Jewish icon he wants to accept that mantle.

    I agree that his statement was ambitious, and he tried to update in later posts.

  3. Chaim
    Chaim says:

    Learn Moshe Wiener’s tome on the Halachic imperative to maintain full facial hair and about the infatuations of the Haskalah and reformist movements that have led so many to disrespect and violate our Halacha.

    The Ruzhiner said that, before Moshiach arrives, there will be rabbis without Torah.

    Lookstein, who awarded you semicha?

  4. Chaim
    Chaim says:

    Torah demands us to stand up to anyone who publicly disparages, perverts, or detracts from Halacha.

    What are this man’s credentials?

    Ahavas Yisroel is love of all Jews, many of whom know little and will be led on the wrong path because of his aggrandizing statements.

    And who are you, rabinkos, to prioritize the mitzvos?

    There are many of us who will not be taken in by your blurry, feelgood American Judaism.

  5. rabinkos
    rabinkos says:

    Why don’t you prove Rabbi Yonah halachically wrong instead of making personal attacks.

    Ahavas Yisroel and Derech Eretz are concepts that predate American Judaism and were Jewish ideals for millennia. If one cannot do a tochacha with them as a guide, one should remain silent. I am pretty sure Chofetz Chaim would agree with that.

    Just to stop you worrying, Rabbi Yonah’s rabbinic credentials are sterling.

    But who are you?

  6. Chaim
    Chaim says:

    The man speaks out publicly amongst the Goyim with his perverted interpretation of Halacha.

    The halachos of tochacha also are clear but you clearly are not. Again a distortion of Halacha.

    Get off the Internet and go learn something.

  7. rabinkos
    rabinkos says:

    you are right. i should go and learn something.

    if i may return a favor and also suggest something.
    since you failed both to prove rabbi yonah wrong and show in any way that you know what you are talking about, i suggest that you go on some other website and be angry there.
    i am sure you comments are very valuable to the author of this blog but since you can’t go pass personal attacks you will be probably better off commenting somewhere else where you could find like-minded people.

    and please do remember that pelting stones at people whether in reality or verbally or in writing is not a Torah way.

    a freiliche chanukah.

  8. rabinkos
    rabinkos says:

    Ok so thanks to Chaim’s friendly suggestion I got off the internet and did my homework. Thank you very much for this favor.


    Rabbi Moshe Wiener published a huge sefer (over 1000 pages) called Hadras Panim Zaken which deal exclusively with the mitzvah of growing a beard.
    It’s worth noting that Rabbi Weiner is a chassid of Lubavitch and this chassidus follows the opinion of Tzemach Tzedek (the third rebbe of Lubavitch) who in his commentary to Shulchan Aruch states that it is forbidden to shave one’s beard. According to Tzemach Tzedek there are 5 prohibitions involved in one shaving his beard.
    Rabbi Weiner himself admits that Tzemach Tzedek is the only halachic authority (acharon) who has such a view i.e. other permit it (be it not without limitations). In order to support his view, Rabbi Weiner cites various kabbalistic rabbis (Arizal amongst others) who hold that for mystical reasons it is detrimental to shave one’s beard at any circumstances.
    Inasmuch as the view of the kabbalah is important, it is only incorporated into the practical law when cited by majority of opinions (or at least by an opinion of a widely followed authority).
    The kabbalistic views on growing beard are not quoted anywhere among the major later hallachic authorities – at least not in my copy of Shulchan Aruch (שולחן ערוך הבחיר עיה “ק ירושלים ת”ו תשסד).

    The code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch YD 171:10, 11) forbids shaving the beard with the razor in exclusion to things that do not work like a razor (e.g. scissors).
    This view is supported by Pischei Teshuva and Atzey Levona (he does quote rishon R”I who forbids shaving with the scissors but quotes also Rem”a who does permit) and not contested by anybody.

    As far as practical halacha for those who do not follow the ways of Lubavitch, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (very widely followed halachic authority) in his responsa Yigros Moshe (YD II 61 – 3rd paragraph) strongly disagrees with Tzemach Tzedek and refutes his reasoning (one being that by shaving beard one is transgressing a prohibition of a man dressing like a woman). Rabbi Feinstein concludes that it is permitted to shave one’s beard provided that it was not done with the razor (or things like it).

    SO we can see from here that although for chassidim of Chabad (almost all of chassidim of other streams also follow this ruling) it is forbidden to shave one’s beard, for people who adhere to the strict letter of the law such a prohibition does not exist.

    Finally one more thing.
    The Torah says (Vayikra 19:17) “you shall reprove your fellow”. This commandment requires one to inform the sinner that his behavior is improper and try to convince him to amend his ways.
    Rashi comments there that one should be very careful not to embarrass the rebuked in public. I am sure that calling people names and attacking them personally would not be contained in this definition of a rebuke. And this only works if one is a sinner which I fail to see.

    But hey maybe I am wrong?

  9. rabbiyonah
    rabbiyonah says:

    First of all my name is Bookstein. SEcond of all my smicha is very much legit. Your conduct on this blog however is not so legit. As Rabbi Kos mentioned – you have zero gnerally accepted sources for your opinions. I am not Gd forbid, going against Torah, Shulchan Aruch, nor publicizing anything heretical. I am sorry that you feel this way, but that is the truth. Moshe Weiner’s sefer — I have it. I have read parts of it. It is nothing other than a polemic sefer that is not interested in points that are contrary to his thinking.

  10. rabbiyonah
    rabbiyonah says:

    Feel Good American Judaism. Really? Is this what you think that I am promoting.Listen, Chaim, I understand your disappointment – it seems that he was a real role model for you and this act is a betrayal. I cannot stop you feeling betrayed by one of your heroes. I am not however promoting anything other than traditional yiddishkeit. It might not be yours, but it is in line with halacha.

  11. LivnotLaurie
    LivnotLaurie says:

    Becoming stagnant is the most dangerous religious journey of all. I was also a bit disappointed that Matisiyahu decided not to appear outwardly as a religiously-identified Jew because that persona made it “cool” for many young Jews to identify openly with Judaism.

    But would it be better if Matisiyahu joined the crowds who dress or act a certain way to ‘fit in?’ Finding a spiritual home is a lifelong path and we should support people who make the effort because, frankly, most of us don’t.

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