Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Nazir 39: Cutting Hair, Lice, and Men Dying Their Beards

A new Mishna reminds us that nazirites who do not specify the length of their nazirut take on a nazirut of thirty days.  If they shave their own hair or if bandits shave their hair inside of that timeframe, they must repeat the thirty days.  This holds whether one uses a razor, a scissors, or one's hands to pull out the hair.

The rabbis argue over a number of details including whether or not the full thirty days should be repeated; perhaps only seven days of nazirut should be repeated like in other similar cases.  My favourite details both involve the rabbis' considerations about how the hair grows, from the top or the bottom.

After walking through a number of theories that do not conclusively prove whether or not the hair grows down from the scalp, they figure out their answer based on men who dye their beards.  A number of days after dying their beards, new hair grows in grey near their faces.  Thus the hair grows in a downward direction.  

What I find fascinating about this determination is that we learn that it was not unusual for men to dye their beards.  Specifically, men dyed their beards when their hair was growing in grey.  Clearly the obsession with a youthful appearance is not a new things, as these words were written approximately 1800 years ago.   This new information gives rise to many related questions: how did they dye their beards?  Did they dye other hair on their bodies as well?  Was this practice limited to men or did women participate as well?  How were the standards different by gender?  Was dye accessible to all or was this practice only for the wealthy?  Did rabbis take part in this practice?

The other point that I found most interesting was a theory that did not prove that hair grew in any particular direction.  The rabbis consider live and dead lice, whose nits attach themselves to the hairs of their host.  As the hair grows, don't the parasites move back toward the scalp?  Or do they remain in one place on the hair shaft?  Watching the rabbis try to understand hair growth reminds me of the myriad of differences between the times of our rabbis and now.  Would I be able to figure out from which direction hair grows if I didn't understand that process as a scientifically understood fact since my very early childhood?

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