Eilenberg trimmed his beard on Tuesday and did not leave home until Friday. It was his wife, my good friend Gitty, who put an end to it — she who could not understand him.
“You wanted to trim your beard for over a year,” she screamed, exasperated. “Why are you crying now like you lost your only son?”
But she knew why. Because it said so in the Torah, in Parshas Vayikra: “Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.” And it says in the holy Zohar, the divine source of Kabbalah, that there is great holiness in the beard. Even trimming it with a pair of scissors is a great sin.
Eilenberg was the first in his family to trim his beard. He was the first among his brothers, uncles and long line of ancestors to violate the Torah and the Zohar. All in the space of 10 minutes.
Eilenberg could not say when it first began, this secret desire to cut. Before the madness struck, the man had not thought of his beard at all. Like his spleen or his kidneys, it lay unhampered and ignored, there because it was there. Like every other pious Hasid, he had side curls, facial hair, and a hat.
Perhaps it was because Goldman did it, walking into shul with a goatee in place of his once long beard, or maybe it was because Heshy did the same just a few days after. It was hard not to see the difference; somehow the cutting made them look better. Or maybe it was his son, two-year-old Moishe, pointing to a picture of a long-bearded shnorrer (beggar) in his book, shouting in delight, “Totty! Di bi in dem bukh!” — “Daddy! You are in the book!”
He could not say for sure. But one morning, standing in front of the mirror, untangling the dental floss his son braided around his chin, Eilenberg suddenly saw his beard as if for the first time. He saw that it was reddish brown, and that it was thick and coarse. He saw the extra fullness, the uneven contours at the bottom. He touched it, pressing down. Suddenly it annoyed him — the crooked edges, the tangle of confusion, the thick tuft sprouting on his chin like a little bush.
Eilenberg knew what the Torah says: All God-fearing Jews must grow their facial hair. This way they look different than the goyim. The priests at the temple had grown beards; it had signified royalty and devotion. The holy tzadik and mystic Ha’Ari Hakadosh had carefully avoided touching his beard, lest a single hair accidentally drop from it.
That a few less strands of beard could compromise his moral core terrified Eilenberg, because Eilenberg did not want to be a less pious Jew. He only wanted to have a neater beard. The thoughts passing though his mind disturbed and bewildered him, and he left the bathroom resolved to forget this nonsense.
But the beard still bothered him. In the glass windows of the bakery, in the bank’s mirrored bathroom, in his mother’s front hall, he encountered his reflection and felt each time less like a holy priest, more like the saint of all shnorrers. He tried taming the thing, ironing it between his clenched hands, curling it into neat folds for hours on end, but it bounced back every time, every hair in its own direction.
His wife, Gitty, teased him. She could not understand what had come over her husband. And why, pray tell, did he take forever to get out the bathroom each morning?
“What are you doing?” she’d yell, pounding the door. “You’re a handsome man, I promise — now get out!”
But that fateful Tuesday morning, when Eilenberg came out mid-pounding, Gitty nearly fainted. It was her husband standing there, all right — but his beard? He had left it in the sink.
Gitty stared at him in shock. There, in a discarded pile, lay her husband’s beard, two-and-a-half inches of it, at least. There were curls on the counter, strands on the floor; what was left of it graced Eilenberg’s narrow chin like the freshly trimmed hedge. His wife did not know who this stranger was.
Neither did Eilenberg. He did not open the door proudly, but like he’d seen a ghost. He stumbled back and sat on the toilet seat.
It was the temptation, he explained in tears. He could not restrain himself. After weeks of thinking about cutting, of imagining how it looked after cutting, of holding a scissor to his chin pretending he was cutting, he had finally gone and done it. He had snipped off inches of his own beard — and then it struck him that he could not glue any of it back on.
Gitty called him a fool. She called him other names too. She had known of his secret desire, laughed when he showed her the many different shapes his beard could take. But to actually go ahead and do it? What was he, a child? A man gone mad? And what would her father say?
Eilenberg hid in his room. He did not attend the morning prayers. He did not catch the bus to work. He did not leave the apartment even for shtieble (shul), where he prayed with men he’d known all his life.
Shtieble was not a safe place. He could almost hear the gasp of his friends, Sruli’s head leaning back in a question.
“So tell me,” his old friend would say. “What happened? The beard was too heavy to carry?
“So tell us,” his older cousin would chime in. “The beard shrunk overnight? It wasn’t nice before? Eh? Ehhh?”
And Chezky the strange one would stare at him with silent eyes, judging him in horror.
“Pah!” he’d say, and in Eilenberg’s mind, he and his beard would go hurtling down to the bottom, the lowest rung in the hierarchy, reserved for the bums and the putzes, the half-true Hasidim, those who’ll get to paradise, but only by standing in the last position in the heavenly line.
Eilenberg could have just rolled it up like some other men in the shtieble, tucking the trailing end beneath his chin with a bobby pin so that it did not get in the way. But he had cut it. He had put a scissor to that which should not be touched. Madness.
Eilenberg went to sleep early that night. He closed his eyes at 9 p.m., easing his mind into obliviousness, for in his dreams he still looked like the glorious saint of shnorrers. Perhaps the night would take away the day, swallow it up like a bad dream, and life would then tread on in the exact same steady rhythm of before.
At dawn, Eilenberg woke up, refreshed. He jumped out of bed, walking briskly down the hall to the bathroom. He closed the door and saw himself in the mirror. A strange creature stared back at him — a man who was almost him. His hands rushed up to his chin. They fumbled at his cheeks, groping anxiously at the missing part.
When Gitty woke up an hour later, her husband was still in the bathroom. He exited after the pounding, but he stayed in his room. And this is how it went on for three days: From the bedroom to the bathroom; from the bathroom to the kitchen, where he paced back and forth, circling the table in fear of his father-in-law, his own shadow and divine retribution.
But mostly his father-in-law. Because Eilenberg’s father-in-law did not trim his beard. And he did not marry off his daughters to men who did. And when he had signed the engagement document for his eldest daughter, it did not need to say on paper what was engraved on the cultural soul, that one does not touch or tamper with certain things.
On Wednesday evening, Gitty found her husband sitting in front of the mirror, pulling at the hairs of his chin. It was then he declared that he was no longer leaving the house. Gitty would go to work as a salesperson, while he’d stay home, wash the dishes, get pregnant and give birth in the bedroom without an epidural. He could not, must not, absolutely would not, tread outside until every last curl had grown back in and in every which wrong direction. He would not leave home until he was, once more, the saint of all shnorrers.
But Gitty was already pregnant and said that she did not need help with that. Desperate, she warned him that if he did not go out, she would call her father. Because a man at home is a man in the way, and she’d soon lose her mind.
Now, I know what you are thinking, those of you who did not grow up in this world. I know that you are certain that I am exaggerating, that I am stretching the truth. How could this be? All this over a few inches of beard?
Then let me explain it to you, the way it was explained to us.
A man’s external appearance reflects the essence of his soul and his purpose on earth, in the same way a soldier’s uniform reflects the army he serves and his duty in it. When a man wears the uniform, everyone knows he is a soldier. When he doesn’t, they do not. An officer does not decide one day to wear a baseball cap instead of the army-issued cap. A general does not decide to exchange his jacket for a cotton T-shirt, no matter the weather outside. And so it is with the Hasid, his shtriemel and his beard. A uniform tells a story. It is a tale of one’s history, one’s purpose, one’s aspiration or accomplishment. The way one wears his uniform tells the story of his life.
I cannot exaggerate what it means for a Hasid to cut his beard. If you were taught what we were, then you would feel the same way.
There are three kinds of men walking the streets of Boro Park, Williamsburg and Crown Heights: those who trim, those who do not and those who want to but dare not. Every family has a man who cuts his facial hair — the husband, the brother, the nephew who finally puts a scissor to his beard — as others look on in horror or yearning. So when my friend Gitty appeared on my doorstep frustrated, angry — plotzing, really — I knew exactly how she felt. I told her that I knew many helpful excuses her husband could use, excuses which would enable him to leave home and her to enjoy life again.
Tell him to say that Moishe, the two-year-old toddler, cut his beard with arts-and-crafts scissors during his Shabbos nap. One moment he was napping; the next he was standing in a pile of his own crudely chopped hairs. Or he could say that he had oral surgery, the kind that required a trim so the infected part could be reached. There is also a rash that can sometimes develop, a rare infection, causing the hairs to fall out in two-inch pieces. Or the beard caught in a paper cutter, what with its merciless blade. There was the beard that caught on fire, the beard that thinned out overnight, the beard that accidentally got bleached while its owner was scrubbing the tzitzit clean. There were many such stories, dozens of excuses that few believed and made little sense but which helped many a man survive that first, terrible time.
Gitty went home and told it all to her husband. “Say it was the toddler,” she suggested as she pushed him out the door and locked it. “That’s just how two-year-olds are.”
“No one will believe me,” said Eilenberg miserably, but Gitty did not care, and though he memorized the reasons, by the time Eilenberg arrived at the shtieble, two steps past the front door, everything went blank, excuses dissipating from his mind like dust off the holy books. He saw his friends; they seemed glad to see him. They called his name, said, “Nu? The sick man is finally better.” Then, mid-gesture, they stopped.
He could hear their inward gasp. He could see Sruli’s head lean back in a question.
“So tell me,” his old friend finally said. “The beard was too heavy to carry?”
“So tell us,” his older cousin interjected. “The beard shrank overnight? Eh? Ehhh?”
And Chezky the strange one stared at him with silent eyes, judging him in horror.
Even Goldman and Heshy laughed at his misery, teasing him mercilessly, those worthless bums. And after the long prayers, Mendel nudged him aside, wanting to know how he had done it. “Your wife let you?” he asked in wonder. “She agreed? If I’d cut just one hair, just one, my wife would divorce me the same evening. … Look at my beard, look — enough for three men. How’d you do it?”
Eilenberg mumbled. He did not know. He had to go home, now.
Two days passed in this way — the teasing, the stares, the questions — and Eilenberg thought it would never end. But on the third day, another man’s wife demanded a divorce, and in the shock of that news Eilenberg’s friends lost interest in his beard.
Eilenberg walked home that day sighing in relief. But just after he arrived, his father-in-law strode in without knocking. Eilenberg rushed down the hall, thinking that now would be a good time to die. But his father-in-law saw him, and called his name. He said loudly that he had heard that his son in law had tampered with his beard. And he wanted to know now, immediately, if Eilenberg had used a single-bladed razor.
“A what?” whispered Eilenberg from the other end of the hallway.
“A razor!” his father in law shouted. As it says in Vayikra, Jews must not destroy the corners of the beard. According to nearly all interpretations, shaving with a single blade against the skin, close to the root, in a smooth manner, is completely prohibited. So did he or did he not use a single-bladed razor?
No, said Eilenberg. No.
And did Eilenberg know that Menachem Mendel Schneerson said that shaving a beard falls under the Torah’s prohibition of males resembling females?
Eilenberg nodded rapidly, hoping to seem knowledgeable. Then he shook his head faster. He had certainly not in any way, shape or form at any point during the trimming meant to resemble a woman.
But the beard is a complicated thing. It has corners, his father in law said, jabbing his thumb in the air. As explained in the Talmud, it has five extremities, or points, that one is forbidden to touch. No one is completely certain what those five points are. And did Eilenberg cut the five prohibited points of his once-long beard?
Eilenberg said he had cut the bottom, also a little on the chin. But the mustache and sides remained untouched. Maybe three extremities. No more.
What about an electric razor? Reb Moshe Feinstein says the electric razor is permitted because it acts like a scissor, trapping the hair between two pieces of metal rather than between the blade and the skin. And yet the same electric razor is prohibited by the great Reb Avraham Karelitz. The rotary-model razor by Philips is especially problematic. Did Eilenberg use that one? Eilenberg said he did not.
“An electric razor?”
“But it’s permitted by Feinstein.”
“Yet prohibited by Karelitz.”
“A sharp tool to weaken the roots of the hair?”
“A tool to smooth the skin?”
“Not over my dead body.”
Then what had he used to remove half his beard, to reveal his foolish face?
Eilenberg showed him the scissors. He told his father-in-law that Shulchan Aruch quotes the Talmud in saying that because the cutting action of a pair of scissors happens between two blades and not the blade and the skin, it does not violate the prohibition against marring the five extremities of the beard. It is permitted.
His father-in-law did not agree. He called it a forbidden kind of permitted, a sinless sin, a deception of God and the soul. And you cannot fool God or the soul.
“You are a bum,” Eilenberg’s father-in-law declared. “A disappointment. Do you know that Ha’Ari Hakodosh did not touch his beard for fear that a hair would fall out? Did you know that Jews in the Holocaust died because of their beards, which made them look like Jews? You are a fool! An idiot! A Hasid does not play with prohibitions.”
He then ordered his son-in-law to get back to life. He ordered him to stop the mourning, the misery, the ghost-walking through the streets; to be husband to his wife, and to grow that beard. He would see him and the grandchildren on Shabbos.
With that, he strode back out of the house. And when Eilenberg and wife and children came on Shabbos, he did not utter another word.
So goes the story of Eilenberg’s beard. The one he did not grow again. Not after Gitty, accustomed to the trim, warned him that if he didn’t keep it neat, she’d cut it herself as he slept. With a rotary blade.
A good two years have passed since then. Many others followed Eilenberg; many have not. Yet despite the Zohar, and his father-in-law’s angry silence, Eilenberg’s moral core remained uncompromised. He is, to this day, a good man, faithful to his past and his ancestor’s traditions, a pious if short-bearded Jew walking proudly past the glass windows of the bakery, where sometimes he can still see, among the reflections, the saint of all shnorrers, laughing.
Judy Brown wrote the novel “Hush” under the pseudonym Eishes Chayil. “Inside Out” is her essay series about life in the ultra-Orthodox world. It is based on true events, but her characters’ names and identities have been changed. Some are composites, comprising several real-life people. “Eilenberg’s Beard” was inspired by a real-life story that happened to Brown’s good friend.