It began as an act of laziness, I admit it. Over the years, vacation or illness had provided ample excuse to liberate my routine and my face from the rigors and razor burn of daily manscaping. There was the occasional foray in pursuit of novelty, a stylistic dynamism that seemed amply available to women, but limited for men to a few tame configurations: the hipster goatee; the soul patch; or the seemingly static five o’clock shadow. There was the annual license of No Shave November that I always seemed to forget about until Thanksgiving, by which time the pretext was well past. Yet I always returned to the default of professionalism and demonstrable care implicit in the daily shave.
It seemed a given that I would enter the period of stay-at-home isolation this Spring embracing an obvious opportunity for facial entropy, if not inertia. Even with an HD camera on Zoom, how much could those whom I’d “meet” really notice the jaggedness of my jawline as my lengthening head of hair reached Samsonian proportions? Soon, the notion of a “quarantine beard” entered the crisis lexicon, elevating the vice of negligence into the virtue of symbolism. Despite Susan Sontag’s much referenced work discouraging the obscuring use of metaphor in the throes of illness, there seemed something potent and purposeful about the beard as marker of this dramatic moment.
In my early years as a rabbi, a beard added gravitas, hiding insecurities and inexperience behind a veil of ancient archetype. As I became comfortable in my role, the graying growth became a form of shaggy sagacity—a cross between a middle-aged Santa and 80’s era Jerry Garcia, aging me beyond that sweet spot of vitality and relevance in a culture that valorizes youth. A presence or lack of beard was also a demarcation for many between adherence to traditionalism and a commitment to a contemporary approach to Judaism, with the pluralism, egalitarianism, autonomy that it entails.
Yet Jewish tradition ascribes to the growing of beards more than fidelity to the demands of scripture. During periods of personal and communal mourning, the significant change in a man’s most visible representation reflected the internal struggles with loss and grief. Particularly in our current period of Counting the Omer between the Festivals of Passover and Shavuot, the custom of growing beards to commemorate the massacre of the students of Rabbi Akiva under Roman tyranny is an enduring reminder of the quest and costs of securing religious freedom.
And so, what began for me as a release from daily drudgery has evolved into a sign of the times—with its disruption to the imagined course of our lives, heartbreaking cancellation of long-awaited milestones, threat to our physical and financial wellbeing, and inability to envision an uncertain future. And thus, my eventual shaving will herald both an ending and a new beginning—a closing of this painful chapter in the history of our civilization, and the start of an era transformed by the forging fires of adversity. Yet it is a return and a sacrifice I heartily welcome, though the savings on blades, shaving cream, and wear and tear to oft-wounded skin is perhaps one of the “silver linings” I will most cherish from this dark time.
Rabbi Daniel A. Weiner serves Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle and Bellevue, WA.