Hair is neither inconspicuous nor insignificant. What other body part encourages such wonderment, gossip and instruction?
Actor Jennifer Aniston’s various Hollywood hairstyles have been copied by many women, and long-haired singer Willie Nelson inspired seniors to grow their hair out. I once met a Breslever Chassid who had the traditional haredi buzz cut, but his payot (side curls) were coiffed and deliberately stylized – jet black and cylindrically curly like a tornado. Their hair speaks to us.
Hair is a big deal in the Orthodox world. There are many halachot (Jewish laws) surrounding it, such as how much hair is considered a barrier between you and your tfillin. There’s also a tradition that requires a male child to wait until he’s three years old before having his locks cut, while Jewish women are commanded to cover their hair, and some even shave it off.
According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s (1808-1888) commentary on the Torah, our mouth and eyes represent the physical parts of our body, while our foreheads embody the intellectual.
Rabbi Hirsch states that the physical requires special supervision, so that we don’t “slide into a pattern of self-destruction,” and therein lies the significance of hair. It’s a point we need to focus on in order to ensure that hair is used for good. This great sage teaches us that hair is about sensuality control, therefore a woman must wear a head covering. Men have payot (which separate the sensual part of the brain from the intellectual), and young boys have their first haircut at three as a way of instructing them to use their intelligence to control their deeds.
After reading Rabbi Hirsch’s explanation, it begins to make sense why people seem to take great interest, and sometimes offence, in the length of other folks’ hair.
Throughout my life, I’ve been approached by people young and old asking me why my hair is so long. “Why don’t you get a haircut?” Nowadays, they ask the same about my son, Noah River.
(Since I was a child, having long hair meant a lot to me. I’m not sure why, but after getting haircuts, I would be petrified to return to school, fearing such epitaphs as, “Rosensweig, did you bump into a lawnmower?” Unfortunately, later on, having short hair was just as important to my father and the rabbis in my yeshiva as my long hair was to me.)
I tell hair-curious people that Noah and I love long hair, but they’re rarely satisfied. A Jewish community leader once told me that I’d do better in life with shorter hair. I responded that I had just received a promotion. He rebutted, “You would do even better.” I smiled at him. I had little to say. In his mind, my sensuality control was dialed too high, and it made him feel out of control.
I don’t know what it’s like to be bald. I understand that it can be very traumatic. I do know, however, the tribulations of having a thick mane of hair that symbolizes for many a lack of conformity, and perhaps even a lascivious nature.
While I understand the mystical view put forward by Rabbi Hirsch, it might serve us better to pay less attention to the crown of hair atop a person’s head and more to the body that’s carrying it and the soul that lies within it.
After all, do we really know what lurks in the nature of the finely cut?