Selected Sermon/Article
2000-05-05 Kedoshim by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
The Rabbi's Beard
By: Shlomo Riskin, Shabbat Kedoshim

How important is it for a rabbi to have a beard? I was nearly refused even the possibility of taking the test for a city rabbinate in Israel because I didn't have a beard, and to this day I am the only city rabbi in Israel who doesn't have one. Indeed, the biblical portion this week commands, "You shall not destroy the corners of your beard" [Lev. 19:27].

Although our Talmudic sages interpret this to mean that it is forbidden to shave with a razor blade on the skin from which a beard usually sprouts, rabbinic interpretation not withstanding, even in our modern times most rabbis do sport at least a goatee.

Nevertheless, for personal reasons I have chosen not to wear a beard, being mindful of a Yiddish vignette in which the keeper of the gates to Eden asks one would-be entrant: "Jew, where is the beard you shall have?" and asks the other would-be entrant: "Beard, where is the Jew you should be?"

However, one day a year I do appear in public with a beard: on Purim. And therein lies a tale that occurred this Purim and which can prove that even a Purim beard can teach a powerful lesson.

Some 20 years ago, my wife presented me with a Purim gift of a remarkably realistic-looking beard, one that seemed to be made for my face and provided me with an instant Purim costume. Initially, in Lincoln Square Synagogue and for the last 17 years in Efrat, I would proudly appear at all Purim celebrations, from the various Megillah readings to the sundry Purim shpiels and l'chaims, with my special beard. "At least once a year we have a real rabbi", my cooperative congregants would remark.

At the conclusion of Purim I would lovingly place my beard together with my precious scribe-written Megillat Esther and specially crafted wooden grogger for the next year's festivities.

Purim this year, no different from the previous ones, found me to be a "bearded" rabbi. After the traditional yeshiva shpiel, which generally made fun of my non-hirsute appearances during the other 364 days of the year, I moved on to a bar mitzvah celebration rather far from Efrat on the coastal plain of Israel. A teenaged waiter named Lior was bedecked with purple hair in honor of Purim and seemed fascinated by my beard. He asked to borrow it, to which I gladly acquiesced. When I was about to leave, he asked if he might keep it. After all, he explained, "I used to go to [yeshiva] and I still have religious feelings."

I spontaneously responded that I would gladly give him the beard if he agreed to pray each morning with tefillin. "I can't make such a commitment", he said. I told him, perhaps lamely, of my sentimental attachment to this particular beard, but promised that I would make every effort to send him a similar specimen. He returned the beard and we exchanged telephone numbers.

From the bar mitzvah I went on to Bikur Holim hospital, where I had a patient to visit. Obviously I entered the hospital with my beard because I especially wanted to cheer up the patient. During the course of my stay at Bikur Holim I used the public phone, and at length returned home to rest. That evening I was scheduled to appear at a 50th birthday celebration Purim party in Tel Aviv. When I set out, I discovered that I had misplaced my beard in the hospital. I checked on the way to Tel Aviv but neither the patient nor the hospital could give a clue as to the whereabouts of my missing beard.

While sitting in my office the next morning, I received a phone call from someone whose voice seemed unfamiliar. "Rabbi, this is the waiter, Lior. Remember me? Well, you don't have to bring me a beard. An amazing coincidence happened. You see, my grandfather is recovering from surgery in Bikur Holim hospital in Jerusalem. I went to see him yesterday afternoon after work. On my way out, I stopped off to call my girlfriend and right next to the public telephone was a fake beard that is a dead ringer for the one you lent me. I kind of see it as a sign from God. I put on tefillin this morning, and I plan to continue to do so every day of my life."

I put down the receiver with tears in my eyes. I have come to believe that coincidence is God's way of telling us that he is still anonymously in charge. My wife has already started to track down another beard for next Purim.

Shabbat shalom.

(reprinted with permission of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin)