By HaRav Yisrael Rosen
Dean of the Zomet Institute
Hayesh tzohellet u'smeicha - "I have a beard down to my knees / I have a mustache two Amot long / Can anybody be as happy-go-lucky as I am with my mask?"
- A children's song for Purim (Levin Kipniss, Nachum Nardi).
The Scandal of the IDF Beards
"Is this a reason to disband the coalition government?" These were the words of the heads of the Chareidi parties to the Prime Minister. "The decrees of Antiochus were eventually cancelled but Bibi (Netanyahu) and Boogie (Yaalon) will forever remain in disgrace in the chronicles of the nation of Yisrael after their decree to shave off the beards. The history of the IDF does not contain any previous cases where the traditions of Yisrael and the Torah of Moshe were attacked by the sword in such a way." In another meeting of "Chardal" rabbis (Chareidi Zionists) with our ministers Naftali (Bennett) and Uri (Ariel) the rabbis voiced their disappointment "about the weakness shown by the Bayit Yehudi Party, which gave up so easily on the 'Mezuzah of the Home,' our regimental symbol, and on the image of faith of our army. Just look at the pleasant countenances of the Iranian generals with their well-trimmed beards and the power of the thick-bearded Hezbollah warriors, who inherited their prowess from Shimshon of Azza, who had a legendary beard." The delegation finished its declaration with a hint of despair: "Will a worthy woman be treated like an innkeeper? (see Mishna Yavamot 16:7)." (Source: IDF Barber Union, 5708 (1948).
Let me put on paper my proposal, which I have been considering ever since the beginning of this crisis. Just like there is a standard military haircut, which is the responsibility of the IDF barbers, so we must define a military beard (there will be two or three models, all with the "payot" tied behind the ears). The standard will be a combination of the Jewish tradition on one hand and the need for military uniformity on the other hand. In my mind's eye, I can just picture the image of the Haman's ten sons with their minutely precise Persian beards. No longer will we be subjected to the mangy beards of the Falangist or the wild images of the Palmach.
As far as I can see, without any doubt, this matter will not be able to reach a satisfactory conclusion until a new law is passed! To make progress on the issue, we should call in representatives of women's organizations, who will emphasize the dedication of the women soldiers, who have taken on the task of collecting all that hair, stretching it out, and forming it into the proper shape. "And a recruited woman of quality will not be treated like an innkeeper from a yeshiva!"
I will end this tirade with an episode that is diametrically opposed to the thesis I have been proposing until this point. In the Yom Kippur War, I served in Refidim, in the Sinai Desert. I will never forget the quiet Friday night prayers in a gloomy and despairing atmosphere in the wake of the Egyptian invasion. And then, suddenly, while we sat in the blacked-out synagogue, a thick-bearded and stalwart-looking Chabadnik burst in, with a broad back and a broad beard, wearing an IDF uniform with the insignia of a lieutenant colonel, with tzitzit hanging from his belt. He sat among us, the lowly soldiers, and prayed with devotion. In my mind's eye I saw the image of "the soldiers of King David" – and my spirit was lifted!
The History of Shaving in the IDF
I will take this opportunity to set out before my readers the history of the commands about shaving in the IDF, which were born as a way of showing consideration for the religious soldiers... who did not have beards. The rules were established through a combination of sweat and mirth. Here is the story as it happened. My father-in-law, Natan Gordy (a pioneer of religious settlement, who was a leader in Hapoel Hamizrachi), was taken into the Hagannah, and when the IDF was formed he was appointed as the head of the religious services (which later evolved into the Chief Rabbinate of the IDF). At the time the standing orders of the IDF were written, and the issue of discipline was the responsibility of the tough head of the discipline unit, who was a student of the strict approach of the British army. In those days, before the widespread use of electric shavers, religious soldiers shaved using a salve which destroyed facial hair by a chemical process, but which also caused severe irritation of the skin. The "British" officer demanded daily shaves, as part of military discipline, without any regard for religion. The Chief of Staff banged the table: "Shaving with a razor and shaving with the salve will be treated the same way!" He refused to listen to the pleas of the head of the religious services section, who claimed that it was wrong to cause all the religious soldiers to suffer from daily use of the salve. "Bring me proof!" the Chief declared. And he rushed away to take command of the battle of the Kastel, near Jerusalem.
The Chief Discipline Officer came to the next meeting with a file brimming with laboratory test results that showed that using the salve for a shave every day did not cause any problems. My father-in-law replied, "Let me tell you a story. There was once a woman who was in trouble, so she went to the local Rebbe and gave his assistant a note asking for a blessing for a good life at home. But her husband had left her! The Rebbe gave her a blessing and said, 'He will return soon.' When his assistant heard this, he said, 'No, he will not return!' The woman burst into tears and returned to the Rebbe with a complaint about the assistant. The Rebbe blessed her once again and the assistant again said, 'No, he won't come back.' When this happened a third time, the Rebbe called his assistant and asked why he continued to contradict him. 'How dare you do this?' And the assistant replied, 'Rebbe, you see the note by the woman that I bring you, but I see her face, and how terrible she looks!'"
Finally, the Chief of Staff made a decision. Nardi is right! The religious soldiers are released from the command to shave every day and for them every other day is sufficient. As a Hesder soldier in the sixties, I can now reveal the truth. We were issued powder to prepare the salve, but our master sergeant was not always able to tell if we had used it one, two, or three days before...