Responsa on the matters of beards and tattoos

Yedayim 4:3E tells us,
"Everyone who gives a stringent ruling must bring forth proof."
(Mishnah 4:3E(2))

While this is the comment of a single rabbi, and not a ruling from "the sages", it is still a good guide. Before declaring something is banned by prohibition of the written Torah (as we interpret it), we must take the position that someone must prove that the prohibition exists. Otherwise, a person should be considered left to their freedom of choice and judgement. If a passage can be interpreted in either of 2 ways, then we should presume that the less stringent of the two interpretations is the definition of the law. This philosophy seems especially true of the Oral Law, as the Talmud says elsewhere..."all doubts concerning rabbinical ordinances must be decided more leniently" (Tractate Yom Tov in commenting on Mishna 1:1)

However, fences are not a bad idea either. And sometimes the more stringent of the two interpretations can be the "safe" mode of conduct. Allow me to present a few examples:


In Gen 38:8-10 we find the following...

* G-d kills Onan
* Onan was engaging in the following activities
* Failing to fulfill his obligation to care for his brother's widow
* Spilling his sperm to prevent conception
* Potentially misleading Tamar into thinking she might get pregnant.

Which of these 3 things explain why G-d was mad at him and killed him? From the passage, we can't tell. Can we ban birth control based on this? Some people have argued so, but since we can't tell, we don't have proof for a strict ruling to use this to ban birth control. It could have been deceit or it could have been the obligation issue. On the other hand, we can certainly look at this and understand why some people would feel uncomfortable using forms of birth control that imitate this, such as a condom. So if one wanted to be "safe" that they were not sinning by doing whatever it was G-d was mad at Onan for, they might decide to (1) Not use birth control, (2) never deceive their wife about the potential for conception and (3) marry the widow of any brother they have. Since the last of these 3 may not make everyone feel comfortable who is unsure about the definition of adultery and wants to play that issue "safe" by only marrying one woman, we may not always be able to build a fence around every commandment to ensure we don't commit an act that MAY be offensive to G-d, but we are unsure if it is or not.

In short, we would have to conclude that if G-d doesn't want us to do something, or specifically wants us to definitely do something, He will tell us and not be ambiguous about it.

There are several levels to interpreting scripture for purposes of halachah...

# Determining that which is clearly banned or clearly promoted
# Determining that which COULD be at least PART of what is intended
# Determining what COULD be a possible meaning.

The first, or even second, is what a Beit Din might make a legal ruling on. The second or third is where we may determine to propose a personal advisory, or a "fence" , but not conclude that there is a clear-cut obligation.

Exodus/Shemot 23:19 says...
"Do not cook a kid in the milk of it's mother/people/M)."

Several interpretation have been proposed for this...

# Don't COOK a kid in the milk of the mother that gave it birth, but OK if milk from another female animal of same species.
# Don't COOK a kid in the milk of the any animal from the same species, since "M)" can mean any animal of the same species.
# Don't COOK a kid in the milk of the any animal of any species.
# Don't eat meat and diary together.
# Don't COOK a Kid while it is IN its mother's milk.. .ie. it must be weened

The least strictest ruling is #5 - and blocks consumption of veal and newly born animals.  The next is #1, but #2 is indeed a possible way to read the text. We're not sure how broadly or narrowly to interpret this. #3 would be a bigger fence and #4 a really big fence, and it is exactly the fence that Rabbinical Judaism has built. However, we do find in the Talmud that there was a difference of opinion on this issue...

"In the place where R. Jose of Galilee lived, fowls were eaten with milk"
(Tract Shabbat, p289 of Rodkinson translation)

There is no danger of cooking turkey or chicken in its mother's milk or the diary products of any of its species or similar species, since fowl do not provide diary products. But the prevailing thought of modern day Judaism has been to build a much bigger fence than what was adhered to in ancient Galilee.

In trying to assess how big of a fence we should put around this command in order to not violate the principle of the commandment, we have to ask ourselves several questions...

* What is the likelihood that the "fence" is actually the essence of the commandment?&nbsp;<br>(Maybe "people" here IS the intended meaning, and not just a fence to be sure we don't break the intended meaning.)
* How much damage COULD result if we violate the standard proposed by the fence?
* How much benefit is there if we ignore the standard proposed by the fence?

It's hard to find any nutritional benefit to a loose standard on this topic and many have found some damage, thus most have been quick to conclude that we it should not matter if a kid is cooked in the milk of its mother or another goat's mother, especially since this COULD be what it is saying. On the other hand, expanding the interpretation to include #3, milk of any animal, would seem to be broader than the commandment since there would be no reason for "the milk of it's "M)"" to be present here if that was the intended meaning, and this would seem like an overly broad fence. The 4th "fence" of not eating meat and diary together seems to violate Genesis/Bereshit 18:8, in which Abraham fed YHWH meat and diary in the same meal.

"Fences" are built around commandments for several reasons:

# We're not sure how broadly to interpret the commandment itself. Exod/Shem 19:23 is a good example. We're not sure if just the biological mother or any mother of its species is included in the intended meaning.
# We might ban an activity, not because it is wrong, but because it could LEAD TO violating what we know is wrong.

Example #1: Don't cook a kid any ANY store-bought milk, because if its store-bought, we don't KNOW FOR SURE that the milk didn't come from its mother.
Example #2: Telling your teenage daughter to be home by midnight. (In reality, that's just a "fence" to prevent her from getting into OTHER types of trouble.)

Broad fences around Torah akin to "be home by midnight" should be viewed as good advice, not a definition of sin. Sometimes we have to separate "What does Torah forbid?" from the question "what advice should we follow to avoid breaking Torah?" For example, we might adopt the general guideline of not cooking beef in storebought milk, but if we know the beef came from a farm in Arkansas and the cheese was imported from Sweden, do we really have a reasonable worry that it is the same? And if we're talking about beef and goat's milk, then it can't be either the kid's mother or the same species.

How important is Oral Law?

While some today make no distinction between Written and Oral Law, we find that ancient Judaism did. Here's a few quotes that demonstrate this.

"The following acts necessary for the sacrifice of the paschal offering supersede the due observance of the Sabbath, namely: The slaughtering thereof, the sprinkling of its blood, the removal of its entrails, and the burning of the fat with incense; but the roasting of the sacrifice, as well as the washing of its entrails, does not supersede the due observance of the Sabbath. To carry and bring it beyond the sabbatical legal limits, or to remove a wen (or spreading sore) thereon, is an act which does not supersede the due observance of the Sabbath. R. Eliezer, however, says they do supersede it. "For," said R. Eliezer, "this is surely a logical sequence; if slaughtering an animal, which is prohibited on the Sabbath as being a principal act of labor, is allowed in this instance (of the Passover) and even supersedes the Sabbath, does it not follow that these two acts, which are only prohibited by rabbinical law, should also in this instance supersede the Sabbath?" " (Mishnah Pesach 6:1) "If there be two cities (to which a person may go) and in one city they are about to sound the cornet and in the other to recite the benedictions, he should go to the city in which they are about to sound the cornet; and not to that in which they are about to recite the benedictions. Is this not self-evident, because the sounding is Biblical and the benedictions are only Rabbinical?" (Tractate Rosh Hashonah, p74 of Rodkinson translation) 'Where a biblical ordinance is in question the case should be discussed before the act is committed, but in the matter of rabbinical ordinances the deed may be accomplished and then the decision may be asked for.'" (Tractate Erubin, p159 in Rodkinson translation) "Mishna teaches that a prohibited thing must not be ignored on purpose. This, however, is only true of a biblical prohibition, but not of a rabbinical." (Tractate Yom Tov in commenting on Mishna 1:1)

So here we see that the Talmud is recognizing that the written Law is superior to the Oral.

Beards &amp; Tattoos

Let's take a look at the structure of Lev 19 and how it deals with these two issues....

LEV 019:019*Ye shall keep my statutes. Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind: thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee.
LEV 019:020*And whosoever lieth carnally with a woman, that is a bondmaid, betrothed to an husband, and not at all redeemed, nor freedom given her; she shall be scourged; they shall not be put to death, because she was not free.
LEV 019:021*And he shall bring his trespass offering unto the LORD, unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, even a ram for a trespass offering.
LEV 019:022*And the priest shall make an atonement for him with the ram of the trespass offering before the LORD for his sin which he hath done: and the sin which he hath done shall be forgiven him.
LEV 019:023*And when ye shall come into the land, and shall have planted all manner of trees for food, then ye shall count the fruit thereof as uncircumcised: three years shall it be as uncircumcised unto you: it shall not be eaten of.
LEV 019:024*But in the fourth year all the fruit thereof shall be holy to praise the LORD withal.
LEV 019:025*And in the fifth year shall ye eat of the fruit thereof, that it may yield unto you the increase thereof: I am the LORD your God.
LEV 019:026*Ye shall not eat any thing with the blood: neither shall ye use enchantment, nor observe times.
LEV 019:027*Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.
LEV 019:028*Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD.
LEV 019:029*Do not prostitute thy daughter, to cause her to be a whore; lest the land fall to whoredom, and the land become full of wickedness.
LEV 019:030*Ye shall keep my sabbaths, and reverence my sanctuary: I am the LORD.
LEV 019:031*Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God.
LEV 019:032*Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man, and fear thy God: I am the LORD.
LEV 019:033*And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him.

Let's summarize the themes of this section...

Lev 19:19 Mixing two kinds of animals together. Mixing two kinds of seeds together
Lev 19:20 Mixing two people together (they become one flesh)
Lev 19:21-22 Atonement for sins
Lev 19:23-25 Law concerning when fruit of trees becomes kosher to eat.
Lev 19:26 Don't eat meat with blood still in it. (A mixing of some sort, so we are still on this theme) Also bans enchanters or observing times. enchanters mix the spiritual and physical world, and so does astrology (observing times). Also, enchanters and astrology could be viewed as a form of mental/spiritual "food"
Lev 19:27 "Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard."
Lev 19:28 "Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the YHWH."
Lev 19:29 Talks about prostitution, a mixing of man and woman in exchange for money.

The thematic context of the commandments in Lev 19:27-28 is this...

* Verses before and after it involving mixings.
* Verses before and after it involving pagan practices.

Thus, from the context, it would be very logical to conclude that Lev 19:27 and 28 are banning specific pagan practices. The Scriptures CAN be interpreted that way, and the principle of Strict VS lenient would lead us to go with the more lenient ruling here of only viewing this as a pagan practice, and not something that affects life when shaving or tattoos are not an attempt to imitate a pagan practice.

Analytically, we can apply the 4th rule of Hillel to conclude that Lev 19:26 and 19:31 are discussing the general principal of pagan practices. To apply the 6th rule of Ishmael to Lev 19:27 and 28 would cause us to interpret those specific examples in verses 27 and 28 as only applying to the general principles derived in 26 and 31.

HOWEVER an objective person might still conclude a need to put a broader "fence" around this could be wise for the tattoo issue, since the text says...

"Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you"

One could argue that the 6th rule of Ishmael doesn't apply, since we had to "build" the general principle in verses 26 and 31 from another rule. IF we abandon those rules of interpretation, we might wonder if this is banning a pagan practice in general in the first part ("cutting flesh for the dead") but going one step broader and banning "print any marks on you" while its on the topic? Or just banning both CUTTING the flesh, as well as putting a mark ON TOP the flesh?

Ezekiel 9 may help us resolve at least part of this...

"Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it."
(Ezek 9:4)

So it would appear that not ALL markings are evil. For example, do I use Lev 19:28 to claim a religious objection to going to Chucky Cheese, where they put a stamp on your hand to identify what kids came with what parents? That would probably be an overly broad interpretation. So not only would the 6th rule of Ishmael tell us to not interpret verses 27 and 28 any more broadly than the general rule derived from the examples in Lev 26 and 31, but a broader interpretation would conflict with Ezek 9:4.

The same argument could be made for interpreting this text as banning beards. Also, we have another guide for it's interpretation that is easier, since there's a completely parallel sentence here.

"Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard." (Lev 19:27)

Whatever its saying about beards it is also saying about the head. They tradition of wearing peyot and not shaving is probably more of a fence than where the prohibition actually lies. We also find this in Torah...

Num 8:6-7 "Take the Levites...have them shave their whole body..."

So, Lev 19:27 must not be a total ban on all forms of shaving, because Num 8:6-7 tells the priests to shave ALL HAIR from their body for consecration. If Lev 19:27 was a complete ban on all shaving, then it violates Num 8:6-7. But if it is a specific example of the general rule about pagan practices, then it should only be interpreted in light of how it relates to pagan practices, and therefore is not forbidden as long as it is not imitating some sort of pagan practice.

written by J _ Viel of Messiah Alive in __ Tennessee USA

The Sages have said:

The rabbis have taught, the Holy One, blessed by He, will say to Messiah ben David, may he be revealed soon in our days. 'Ask of Me anything and I shall give it to you.' For it is written, Adonai said to me, 'Thou art my son, this day have I begotten thee. Ask of Me and I will give thee the nations for thine inheritance (Psalm 2:7-8).' And when he will see that Messiah ben Joseph will be slain, he will say before Him, 'Master of the World! I ask nothing of you except life.' G~d will say to him, 'Even before you said, "life," your father David prophesied about you, as it is written, 'He asked life of thee, Thou gavest it to him. (Psalm 21:5)'

— Babylonian Talmud
[Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 52a]