Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

22 Av 5766 - August 16, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Too Close a Shave?

by Yated Ne'eman Staff


In search of ways to increase the efficiency of their shavers, Philips (Holland) filmed the blades of an electric shaver in action under laboratory conditions. They used special lighting and a specially produced three-grooved lattice, open on one side, to provide access for the fast video camera to the process.

One of their findings has important halachic ramifications. The groove in the lattice that the hair enters prior to being cut by the rotating blade is wider than the hair. The blade meets the hair and cuts it before it reaches the opposite side of the groove. This article explains the significance and implications of this discovery.

The Torah warns us "do not destroy (lo sashchis) the extremities of your beard" (Vayikra 19:27) and "they shall not shave (lo yegaleichu) the extremities of their beards" (21:5). There are differences of opinion about the appearance and the nature of the operation of the various shaving implements mentioned by Chazal in connection with these prohibitions (Makkos 20,21). Several recent poskim discussed the use of electric shavers but not all of them wrote down the reasons for their rulings; they conveyed their opinions orally and it's hard to know exactly what they meant.

The following article first surveys the subject, looking at some of the areas of uncertainty to which it gives rise. Then some of the possible grounds for leniency are examined - - the above mentioned finding does away with the main argument; can any of the others be relied upon? Lastly, the opinions of the poskim whose rulings are cited in support of permitting the use of electric shavers are mentioned.

Some Basic Terms

The mishnah (Makkos 3:) states that the prohibition against shaving is only transgressed when one shaves with a razor (ta'ar). The source of this Halochoh is the Torah's use of two different expressions for the forbidden action. In parshas Kedoshim, hashchosoh (destroying the hairs) is forbidden while in parshas Emor the term gilu'ach (shaving) is used. Through a gezeira shovo, Chazal learn that each posuk's expression applies to the other posuk as well (Kiddushin 35). Thus, only the use of an instrument that both shaves and destroys the hairs is forbidden. A beraissa in the gemora states that a ta'ar is such an instrument, hence the mishnah's ruling. [It should be pointed out that although the Hebrew hashchosoh is translated as "destroying," it lacks the English word's connotation of the destruction's being irrevocable. The Torah forbids the complete removal of facial hair, even though it grows back.]

Which instruments destroy the hair without shaving and which shave without destroying? The beraissa mentions that misparayim (scissors) shave but do not destroy while a malkeit (tweezers) and rahitani (plane) destroy but do not shave. As mentioned, a ta'ar (razor) does both.

There are many different opinions as to the precise nature of these instruments and consequently, to which of the three groups an electric shaver should be assigned. Basically the question is whether or not a shaver both shaves and destroys the facial hair.

The Rishonim advance several different reasons as to why the malkeit and rahitani do not shave. It may be because they are not usually used for shaving, or because they only uproot a few hairs at a time whereas shaving is defined as an operation that removes many hairs at once. A third possibility is that since they pull the hairs out rather then cutting them, they are not considered shaving instruments.

A shaver cannot be classed with malkeit and rahitani according to any of these definitions, for it is used specifically for shaving, it shaves many hairs at once and it cuts them.

It therefore remains only to be clarified whether or not it destroys the hair. If so, it is a type of ta'ar and its use is forbidden; if not it should be permitted.

Can Shavers Be Likened to Scissors? (I)

According to the beraissa, misparayim shave but do not destroy. There are two ways in which this can be understood. It could be because scissors leave longer remnants of the hair than a razor does, since the lower blade prevents the upper blade from cutting next to the skin. A razor, by contrast, cuts the hairs right at the skin's surface. (See the Rivan, Makkos 21: "They do not cut the hair at the root like a razor" and Tosafos [Nozir 40, beg. Desanya]: "Scissors do not destroy because they do not cut the hair at its base and root.") Alternatively, the reason why scissors do not destroy might be based on their cutting action -- two blades moving across each other, as distinct from the razor's single blade.

Many poskim wanted to permit the use of electric shavers based on the first explanation. They argued that the lattice within which the blades rotate prevents them from cutting the hairs at the skin's surface. According to this, however, shaving with scissors in a way that achieves results identical with those of a razor -- that is, if any part of the face is left where hairs cannot be felt when a hand is run across it -- will clearly be forbidden. Whether or not the action is classed as destroying the hairs will be determined by the result -- the smoothness of the shave -- not the way in which it was brought about. How then, can permitting electric shavers even be considered?

This is the point to introduce the concept of "misparayim ke'ein ta'ar (scissors like a razor)." Although the gemora concludes that it is forbidden to use an instrument that both shaves and destroys, the Shulchan Oruch rules explicitly that, "It is permitted with scissors, even like a razor" (Yoreh Dei'ah 181:10). Some point to the Sifro in parshas Kedoshim (#3) as a possible source for this ruling. Apparently, scissors may be used even in a way that destroys the hairs like a razor. Therefore, if a shaver can be classed as a type of scissors due to the mode of its action, its use should be permitted even if it shaves as closely as a razor.

Several Acharonim however, led by the Chasam Sofer and the Tzemach Tzedek, reject the idea that the Shulchan Oruch's words "even like a razor," permit using scissors no matter how smooth the result. The Chasam Sofer points out that the word ta'ar isn't actually mentioned anywhere by the Torah. It's brought by the beraissa as an example of an instrument that both shaves and destroys but, he writes, Torah law certainly forbids any method of shaving that achieves a similar result to a razor (Teshuvos Chasam Sofer, vol. I, Orach Chaim siman 154).

Can Shavers Be Likened to Scissors? (II)

What about the second way of understanding why scissors are permitted -- not because of the smoothness or roughness of the result but because they use two blades moving across each other, as opposed to the razor's single blade?

Some poskim wanted to use this approach to permit using shavers, arguing that the hair is cut when it is caught between the wall of the groove in the lattice and the rotating blade, in the same way that it is caught between the two blades of scissors.

The film produced by the Philips Company shows that this is not true. One clearly sees the blade cutting the hair by itself, without any pressure from the wall of the groove. In fact, in many instances, the shaver doesn't work like scissors at all. The only way to allow its use is therefore to ensure that the hairs it leaves are long enough not to have been considered "destroyed." It is important to make sure that the shaving blade doesn't touch the skin; if it does, it cuts the hair at the skin's surface. Despite the presence of the lattice, the skin's suppleness allows it to enter the grooves, where it is met by the shaving blades. The lattice is actually very thin -- on Philips' shavers, around the outer edge of the shaving head where the grooves are, the lattice is only 8-9 hundredths of a millimeter thick.

Repeated tests have been carried out on gentiles of different ages and with different skin types and the results show that irrespective of whether or not the shaver was applied to the face with pressure or not, there were always areas that emerged completely smooth. Participants even said that the shaver shaved them closer and deeper than a razor. Results varied with the differing types of skin and shaver and also depended on whether the skin had first been washed with soap, or had gel or talc applied, in which case the smoothness of the shave was more complete. The tests were conducted in front of a number of rabbonim over a period of approximately a year.

What's the Solution?

Using depilatory creams is certainly permitted. Nowadays there are creams suited to different skin types and they no longer have an unpleasant smell. The only thing to watch for is not to scrape them off the skin with a sharp edge, as mentioned by the poskim.

Concerted efforts are underway to develop a shaver that is safe to use from the halachic point of view. A Torah observant, senior development engineer has been working on the problem. An initial attempt involved making the grooves in the lattice narrower to stop the skin entering and being cut by the blades. This failed because not only couldn't the blades touch the skin, they couldn't shave either.

Another idea is to insert a thin disk between the lattice and the shaving head that carries the blades. This prevents the blades from getting too near the skin and ensures that they don't shave too close. This is currently being pursued as a possible solution. It's unclear how thick the disk needs to be. Disks of thickness ranging from five to fifteen hundredths of a millimeter are being tested.

Removing the Double Blade

In their constant pursuit of a more efficient shave, Philips introduced a new idea: the double blade. The company produced an animated clip to demonstrate how it works. It shows the first blade encountering the hair and drawing it upwards, out of skin, exposing part that is normally below skin level. Then the second blade arrives and cuts it very low down. After being cut the hair returns to its place, beneath the level of the skin's surface.

This demonstration leaves the impression that in a regular, single blade shaver such an effect is absent. This is untrue. Even without the double blade, the first of the revolving blades to encounter the hair pulls it up and the next one cuts it. The effect is simply slower and less efficient without the double blade but it is there.

For example, after not shaving for several days, many people prefer to use a trimmer to shorten the hairs before shaving with a regular shaver in order to avoid the pain of the longer hairs being pulled. Removal of the second blade is therefore no solution. In fact, newer models shave better even after the double blade has been removed than older ones do even with the double blade.

In the past this pulling action of the blades was used as the basis of an argument to permit shavers. The hair is pulled upwards when it is drawn into the machine and its root, which usually sits in a pit (fovea) in the skin, is exposed. After cutting, it sinks back to its usual position, below the skin's surface. Even though the blade cuts the hair right at its base, the cutting takes place well above the skin's surface, unlike the action of a razor, which cuts at the skin's surface. Perhaps this is not called "destroying" the hair?

HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt'l, rejected this argument as conclusive. He wrote, "It isn't clear whether we look at the beginning of the shaving [i.e. the actual cutting] or the end [once the cut hair returns to its usual position, below the skin's surface]."

It should also be noted that this discussion only applies to those hairs that are pulled upwards but some areas are shaved after the skin is pulled into the groove.

But I Can Feel Bristles; But I Don't Apply Pressure

If bristly stubble can still be felt after shaving, the hairs have clearly not been destroyed. How evident do the bristles have to be? Responding to an argument that it is sufficient if tiny bristles can be seen with a magnifying glass, HaRav Auerbach wrote, "This should not be relied on. Ordinary eyesight is the only yardstick in this case, unaided by any means of magnification."

The problem with relying on this type of proof is that one transgresses the prohibition even if just two hairs are destroyed! Stubble on some areas of the face is no proof that hairs in other areas have not been destroyed. The suppleness of the skin varies on different parts of the face, changing its response to the action of the shaver.

A bochur asked HaRav Eliashiv if he could shave, since he still felt bristles after shaving. HaRav Eliashiv's response was, "Can you swear that not even two of the hairs have been destroyed?"

A Yid who examines shavers has been approached by a number of people who shave and rely on leaving stubble, asking him to check the results of their shaving. He told us that certain areas of the face are found to be completely smooth. All the people he examined told him that they made a point of not pressing the shaver against the skin, in order to leave stubs. The constant ambition of the companies producing shavers is to develop models that fit themselves better and better to the contours of the face and considerable progress has been made in this area. The lattice covering the blades is very thin indeed -- those of some Philips models have been found to be just 8-9 hundredths of a millimeter thick. (A teshuvoh written by HaRav Y.Y. Weiss zt'l thirty-eight years ago quotes a letter from Remington reporting an even thinner lattice!) As mentioned at the outset, filmed trials show clearly that the skin is drawn into the grooves.

In the new ranges of Philips shavers, the shaving heads rest on a springed base that adjusts itself to the curves of the face. In the newest models the head is divided into three separate parts, each of which fits itself precisely to the angle of the area to which it is applied. Virtually no pressure is needed on the part of the user to achieve perfect results, which once could only have been obtained with effort. (The closeness of this kind of shave is the reason why many people feel they need to apply moisturizing cream after shaving.)

But Didn't Some Earlier Authorities Permit Using Shavers?

It is known that the Chofetz Chaim zt'l, prohibited using shavers. He wrote, "The new device for shaving . . . they shave literally like a razor, removing the hair completely and leaving nothing behind. It would seem that a person using them to shave his beard transgresses what's written in the Torah, `and they shall not shave the extremities of their beards.' Anyone who guards his soul will keep his distance from them" (Likutei Halochos, Makkos, perek 3, Ein Mishpat 7).

HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt'l disagreed with this ruling and permitted using the early shavers. HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach once discussed at length how people sometimes cling to a lenient ruling that has become outdated because conditions have changed completely, citing this ruling of Reb Chaim Ozer's as an example. He said that in R' Chaim Ozer's day, one could see with one's own eyes that shavers didn't remove the hairs completely, whereas today's shavers leave the skin completely smooth.

In ShuT Har Tzvi, HaRav Tzvi Pesach Frank zt'l discusses haircutting with electric clippers (Yoreh Dei'ah siman 143). First he mentions shaving: "Regarding shaving . . . since the actual blade neither encounters, nor touches the skin because there is a thin intervening layer, it is considered to be `scissors like a razor,' which does not involve transgressing the prohibition of shaving the beard."

In the Sivan 5712 issue of the journal Hapardes, HaRav Frank was quoted as having forbidden the use of electric shavers. HaRav Mordechai Yaakov Breisch zt'l av beis din of Zurich, wrote to HaRav Frank asking him about this and printed the reply he received in his ShuT Chelkas Yaakov (Orach Chaim, siman 103).

HaRav Frank wrote, "What was printed in my name forbidding electric shavers is incorrect. My response to those who asked me was that since those who shaved using them emerged clean, with completely smooth skin, on which there were no remnants [of hair], this type of shaving is considered to be a razor . . . Thus, there are grounds for saying that a shaver that experience shows gives a smooth shave is a razor."

In view of the efficiency of today's shavers, the hetter mentioned in Har Tzvi is certainly inapplicable today. In fact there were many who took issue with it even then, simply because many people are in a hurry when they shave and unwittingly apply pressure, or because of those areas where pressure has to be applied in order to shave -- which means that in practice it's impossible to be vigilant.

HaRav Reuven Feinstein told us the following about the lenient ruling that his late father HaRav Moshe Feinstein zt'l gave regarding shavers. "Father permitted it on two conditions: first, that the blade is not sharp enough to shave by itself and second, that it doesn't actually touch the skin. Today, it's certainly hard to find a shaver that is in order."

With regard to the first condition, it's clear that today's blades are extremely sharp and can shave on their own. As for the second condition, that even a blade that isn't sharp shouldn't touch the skin, we've already mentioned the evidence that shows that this is no longer the case.

Practical Guidelines for Shaving with Hair Clippers and Trimmers

Since no shavers available on the market satisfy halachic requirements, the only devices that can be used are hair clippers and the smaller-sized hair trimmers. These operate on the principle of "scissors like a razor," which Halochoh permits. Here are some guidelines for their use, which we received from the Beis Horo'oh of HaRav Mordechai Gross, rov of Chanichei Hayeshivos in Central Bnei Brak.

1. The Machine and the Way It Works

The clippers have a fixed, sloped base that tapers off towards the edge, across which a thin, flat plate moves back and forth. The movement of the surfaces against each other cuts the hair with a scissors-like action.

2. The Two Ways of Using Them

1) The base is placed on the face and moved around. The hairs are cut between the two surfaces, like scissors.

2) Two types of shaving involve using the clippers the second way:

i) When the object is to make a straight border of the payos or beard, the machine is held perpendicular to the face. The edges of the base and the moving plate both touch the face and cutting is usually achieved by the friction between the blades. If, though, the moving plate meets the base it might cut the hair by itself. Even if the friction between the blades does the cutting, hair could still be cut at the root because the moving plate meets the base.

ii) Some areas are uncomfortable to shave with the base on the face; in these places shaving is done with the machine held perpendicular to the face. When the edge of the moving plate meets the edge of the base there is a possibility of hairs being shaved close to their root, either through friction that pulls the hair low down, or by the moving plate by itself.

3. Basis of the Halochoh

Halochoh permits shaving using "scissors like a razor," so long as the hair isn't cut right next to the surface of the skin. Since clippers cut the hair in between the two blades, when shaving the first way there are always remnants of hair left, almost the length of the thickness of the base. When shaving the second way, so long as the moving plate is some distance away from the edge of the base so that two don't meet, the user can be sure that no hair will be cut at its root. Remnants of the hair will always be left.

4. Points to Be Aware of When Buying Hair Clippers

Some of the trimmers on the market, when held at certain angles might cut the hair at its base with the moving blade alone. When buying a machine care should be taken that the following two conditions are met:

i) The base should have some thickness, so that there should be no danger of the hair getting in between the crevices and coming into contact with the moving plate, which could result in its cutting the hair at its base. This problem is only encountered in plain, cheap models.

ii) The edge of the fixed base should not meet that of the moving plate. It should protrude approximately two millimeters; this is the only way to ensure that hairs do not get caught at their base in between the two blades. There will also be no danger of the moving plate cutting a hair by itself.

5. Some Practical Points

i) Most hair clippers have a thick base and a lever for varying the distance of the fixed blade. The machine can be used for shaving when the distance between the blades is set at two millimeters.

ii) There are almost no unproblematic hair trimmers, for the following two reasons: 1) the thinness of the base and 2) in most models the fixed blade meets the moving one.

iii) A shaver's straightening edge may not be used for the following two reasons: 1) its parts meet and 2) the moving part comes into direct contact with the face. Many people mistakenly think using the straightening edge leaves behind long bristles. In view of its structure however, there is no certainty whatsoever that a hair won't be caught and be cut at the skin's surface.

Comments of Some of the Contemporary Gedolim, shlita

HaRav Y.S. Eliashiv: "The shavers that were developed in the Chofetz Chaim's day, around a century ago, were nothing like today's efficient shavers. So long as one can't be certain that after using them each and every hair can still be felt, one is ensnared in transgressing a Torah prohibition."

HaRav A.Y.L. Shteinman: "It is known that gedolei Yisroel have forbidden [using shavers] and it's almost certain that according to them it involves transgressing a Torah prohibition; there is nothing more to add."

HaRav M.L. Lefkowitz: "It is quite simple -- once the holy elder, our master the Chofetz Chaim ztvk'l, ruled that using a shaver is forbidden by the Torah and involves transgressing five prohibitions, what is there to discuss? How much more so [does this hold true] for today's machines."

HaRav S. Wosner: "With regard to the terrible stumbling block of many people still using shavers, as is known, this involves transgressing the Torah's prohibition against using a razor, since they destroy the hairs just like a razor does."

HaRav N. Karelitz: "It's clear and obvious that it's impossible to allow any leniency with regard to any type of shaver, since it involves encroaching on a Torah prohibition. Checking by feeling the hairs afterwards doesn't help."

Talking to the Engineer who is Working to Find a Solution to the Problem of Using Shavers

YN: Once you succeed in producing the disk, be'ezras Hashem, how will it be attached to shavers?

"Every time I design a machine in the course of my work I try to put myself in the user's shoes. In this case, we hope to achieve a result that will enable even people with two left hands to insert the disk into the lattice."

YN: Why can't you manufacture thicker lattices through Philips?

"First, the size of Torah observant market wouldn't justify a company the size of Philips investing in a separate production line. Second, a thicker lattice runs counter to the company's clear aim of imitating the action of the razor as far as possible. Their object is that the blade should get as close as it can to the face. We want the opposite. Were Philips to manufacture a thick lattice, it might harm their reputation."

YN: Have you obtained any information from them that will help current research?

"Not much. Apparently it's classified material. People don't begin to imagine how much thought is invested in an electric shaver. There is a wonderful mutuality between the lattice and the blades; their structure, their angles, the degree of hardness, their self-sharpening -- everything is wonderfully planned. When one takes a casual look it might not make any particular impression; one has to see it with an engineer's eye to notice it. When designing our disk we have to be careful not to interfere with the high degree of function that Philips' engineers have achieved. That's why we're having problems with the design. After two trials we haven't yet succeeded."

YN: Let's hope you manage next time!

"I design much more complicated systems and they take me less time to crack. But let's not give up; let's move forward."

YN: This must be proof that we're dealing with something holy, that is being held back . . .

"That's certainly true."

YN: Wouldn't it be easier to come up with a solution by designing a suitable shaver?

"It would be easier for me but not for those who'd be using it. Using a Philips shaver is much more comfortable. I'm looking for a solution that will suit everyone and won't be too complicated. Besides, the solution we hope to arrive at won't involve buying a new shaver, just inserting three little disks into the current one."

YN: When all is said and done, will shaving with the disks give a smooth shave?

"At this stage, I can't give a definite answer. It's not simple to address the needs of both those with tender skin and those with rougher skin. As things move forward we'll be able to look into disks of different thicknesses and see exactly what the results are."


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.