A common objection people raise to following the Torah centers on the commandment to not shave your beard. I don’t have a beard and I believe that’s good instructions (Torah) is still good for us today – so am I a being a hypocrite?
The first part of the problem is simply one of ignorance. Most of us Christians were taught that the Law/Torah was done away with so we don’t really take a close look at it. The commandment actually says to not cut your hair or beard FOR the DEAD. It is not a general prohibition against shaving but shaving on behalf of a dead person.
Let’s look at the commandment in its context because, just like modern sound bites which rarely give the full scope, neither do isolated verses: context and cross references are paramount. When looking at a doctrine, try to make a verse sandwich – that is have a verse or two on top and a few on the bottom. In our sandwich below, we see that first off, the commandment is to not eat things with blood and that is connected with divination: “You shall not eat anything with the blood, nor shall you practice divination or soothsaying. (Lev 19:26)
Then comes the verse about not shaving: “You shall not shave around the sides of your head, nor shall you disfigure the edges of your beard.” (Lev 19:27) In the Hebrew text the word “and” precedes “you shall not” and is significant because it connects verse 27 with the previous verse about not eating blood or practicing divination. This verse is followed by another “and you shall not” (the “and” is left out of many translations): “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the LORD.” (Lev 19:28) Thus, we see that one is not to eat blood, practice divination, AND not to shave around the sides of the head or disfigure the beard, AND not to make any cuttings FOR the DEAD.
This is not just a prohibition of shaving but it is against shaving (beard and head) with a specific purpose – that is for the dead because that is what the pagans did. They would shave their hair and cut themselves for the dead according to the renown medieval Jewish commentator Rashi, (c.f. John Gill Lev 19:28):
It was the custom of the Amorites, when anyone died, to cut their flesh, as it was of the Scythians, as Herodotus (d) relates, even those of the royal family; for a king they cut off a part of the ear, shaved the hair round about, cut the arms about, wounded the forehead and nose, and transfixed the left hand with arrows; and so the Carthaginians, who might receive it from the Phoenicians, being a colony of theirs, used to tear their hair and mouths in mourning, and beat their breasts (e); and with the Romans the women used to tear their cheeks in such a manner that it was forbid by the law of the twelve tables, which some have thought was taken from hence: and all this was done to appease the infernal deities, and to give them satisfaction for the deceased, and to make them propitious to them, as Varro (f) affirms; and here it is said to be made “for the soul”, for the soul of the departed, to the honour of it, and for its good, though the word is often used for a dead body.
Cutting and disfiguring oneself is precisely what the four hundred priests of Baal did when they were trying to summon their reclusive god to make his appearance on Mount Carmel in their duel with Elijah. “So they cried aloud, and cut themselves, as was their custom, with knives and lances, until the blood gushed out on them.” (1Kgs 18:28) This is the kind of activity that God does not want his people doing.
When we look at the parallel verses about not shaving we find the instruction to not shave on behalf of the dead:
“And the LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: “None shall defile himself for the DEAD among his people… They shall not make any bald place on their heads, nor shall they shave the edges of their beards nor make any cuttings in their flesh. (Lev 21:1, 5)
“You are the children of the LORD your God; you shall not cut yourselves nor shave the front of your head for the DEAD. (Deut 14:1)
Once we have looked at the full context and the parallel verses plus a little bit of digging into history the conclusion is simple – no shaving your beard or head on behalf of the dead. So, if you prefer a clean shave to a beard – go for it – either way you are keeping Torah!