Daf Yomi Shabbos 94: On splitting hairs

“One who plucks white hairs that are signs of impurity.”

I am convinced that the Daf Yomi cycle starts with the Berakhot Tractate in order to draw us in with all the inspiring discussions about blessings and intention. I am finding the Shabbat Tractate especially difficult to keep returning to each day, and the last few days have been especially tedious to wade through. In the spirit of finding one small thing each day to glean onto, I am focusing today on the Rabbis’ discussion of personal grooming. This reverberates with me because the salons and spas in New York City have been closed since March and there is still no date, even as the city enters phase one of reopening today, when we may be able to have haircuts, manicures, pedicures, eyebrow waxes and facials. I know the life that I once lived might seem frivolous when so many people are suffering, but the people who provided these services were important to me and they need to get back to work.

The Rabbis spend a lot of time today discussing the plucking of white hairs by someone with leprosy. I have no idea why white hairs are symptomatic of leprosy or the obsession with hair plucking.  We are told that someone with leprosy who plucks white hairs or frighteningly burns unaffected skin in order to try to maintain “purity” violates a prohibition. But the Rabbis literally – and I mean literally – split hairs today about how many plucked hairs are prohibited. There is agreement that if there are two white hairs growing out of one’s chin, one is liable if a single hair is plucked, while there is dispute on whether it is allowable if one plucks one of three hairs. Rav Nahman says one is liable while Rav Sheshet says one is exempt. Rav Sheshet bases his opinion on the fact that the act is ineffective and therefore does not violate the prohibition. Afterall, one still has two ugly white hairs growing from his chin.

Today’s Daf Yomi spends a lot of time discussing the removal of fingernails. The Rabbis are as concerned with manicures as I have been since the salons closed down and I read that the initial community spread of the coronavirus in California started in a nail salon. We are told that the following labors are prohibited on Shabbat: removing a fingernail without scissors (which sounds painful), removing more than one hair (or is it two) with one’s hands, braiding one’s hair and wearing makeup. Fingernails are in a special category and if one removes a fingernail on behalf of another, his action is exempt. Some Rabbis believe that even one who removes his own fingernail is exempt.

The Rabbis compare braiding a woman’s hair with weaving, the application of blue eye shadow with writing and wearing blush with spinning (since blush was applied with a “string from a doughy substance and passed over the face.”) Since weaving, writing and spinning are prohibited on Shabbat, the act of braiding one’s hair and applying eye shadow and blush are also prohibited. It’s a long stretch to make the connection in today’s world of cosmetics where soft brushes are used as applicators.

Like the Rabbis who prohibited plucking of white leprous hairs, our leadership has prohibited salon services of any kind since March. It’s time to open up and let us have that special feeling you get after a haircut, when even if your life is miserable you have managed to find order in your hair. After reading today’s Daf Yomi I have a special plea for Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio: Open up the salons in New York City. Let the hardworking stylists, barbers, facialists, cosmeticians get back to work (with the right protections of course.) I would like to know how you both have been managing to keep your hair so well-groomed over the last few months while we have all been getting shaggier and shaggier while we wait for the city to reopen.

About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at https://brokentabletsfrompennycagan.me
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