QUESTION: Can I shave with an electric shaver and are all models permissible?
ANSWER: In two separate verses, the Torah prohibits men to shave their beards. In parashat Kedoshim, the Torah states: “You shall not destroy (tashchit) the corners of your beards,” (Vayikra 19:27). Two chapters later, in parashat Emor, addressing the male Kohanim, the Torah states: “The corners of their beards they shall not shave (yigaleichu),” (Vayikra 21:5). The Talmud (Makkot 21a) states that these two verses are not two separate prohibitions, one for Kohanim and one for all male Jews, but rather constitute one prohibition that applies equally to all Jewish men.
According to the Talmud, the different verbs that are found in these two verses – destroying (hashchatah) and shaving (giluach) – teach that the only prohibited act is one that has both of these components: an act of shaving that fully destroys the beard. Thus, one may use a scissors because it does not cut away the hair fully and leaves stubble behind. Conversely, one may also use a tweezers to pluck his beard hairs; although this fully destroys the hair, it is not shaving (i.e. cutting) but rather plucking. The Talmud concludes that one only transgresses if he uses a razor (ta’ar) which cuts the hair and leaves no stubble behind; all other forms of shaving one’s beard are fully permitted.
Elsewhere, the Gemara deals with an implement that is between a scissors and a razor: “scissors which are like a razor”. Rishonim state that a man may cut his beard with this instrument even when it cuts very close to the skin.
Shulkhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 181:10) rules accordingly: “One only transgresses if he shaves his beard with a razor, but with scissors it is permissible, even if it is similar to a razor.”
Until the advent of electric shavers, it was relatively obvious which implements were considered razors and which were considered scissors. Modern electric shavers, however, are hard to categorize. On the one hand, they provide a very close shave rivaling that of straight-edge razors. On the other hand, they operate more like a scissors than a razor: they cut without the blade touching the skin. Not surprisingly, there is a debate amongst the poskim regarding the use of such shavers.
When electric shavers were first introduced they were used widely in Germany, Hungary and Lithuania, even among yeshiva students. Because of this, many poskim, including Chelkat Yaakov, Yitzchak Yeranein and Rav Ovadya Yosef, start by assuming that electric shavers are permitted. Some poskim also note that being strict here may be counterproductive (a “stringency that brings about a leniency”); if men are prohibited to use an electric shaver, they may just choose to use a straight-edge razor.
The key halakhic question is: what is the line that separates a “shaving with a razor” which is forbidden, from “shaving with scissors like a razor” which is permissible? Three possible answers suggest themselves, one that focuses on the result achieved, one that focuses on the process of cutting, and one the focuses on the instrument used:
If a totally clean shave was achieved, that is, if the hair is cut away from its very root, it is forbidden even if done with a scissors. If some stubble is left, it is considered cutting by scissors and permitted.
A razor action, defined here as cutting with the sharpness of a single blade, is forbidden. A scissors action, defined here as cutting with the joint action of two blades, is permissible even if it produces a totally clean shave.
Only something defined as a classic razor is forbidden. All other instruments are permitted.
Let us look at the halakhic implications of these three approaches.
Result-based definition – is it a clean shave?
According to a result-based definition, electric shavers should most likely be forbidden, as they produce a close shave that leaves behind no stubble. Poskim who adopt this position and state that even those who permitted electric shavers when they first appeared would forbid contemporary electric shavers that produce such a close shave.
Other poskim argue that shavers do not produce as close of a shave as a razor since the screen in front of the shaver blades always stands between the skin and the blade. According to these poskim, anything less than a cutting of the hair at the base and against the skin would not be considered a fully clean shave and hence be permitted. This would also be true for lift-and-cut shavers, which – manufacturers’ claims notwithstanding – still do not shave as closely against the skin as a razor.
Process-based definition – does it cut like a razor?
If the key question is whether the shaver cuts like a razor or not, we must determine what defines razor-like cutting. The major positions among the poskim are as follows:
Does the blade cut directly against the skin like a razor, or above the skin like the cutting blade (as opposed to the stationary blade) of a scissors? This definition would permit the use of a shaver, since the screen prevents the blades from touching the skin.
Single- or double-blade action. For many poskim, including Rav Ovadya Yosef, a razor is defined something that cuts using the sharpness of a single blade, while scissors cut using the joint action of two blades. An electric shaver generally cuts in the following way: the hairs enter through slits in the screen, and the rotating blades (or oscillating blades, in the case of a foil razor) cut the hairs as they are being held by the screen. The blades are generally not sharp enough to cut the hairs without the holding action of the screen. Accordingly, a shaver is classified as a type of scissors and permissible for use.