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Beards Make the Rabbi

Mostly Kosher has a post about the role of beards in religious communities. Reading this post I was reminded of David Weiss Halivni’s description of his first days in an orphanage after he arrived in American after the end of WW II. The following quotes are from The Book and the Sword, pp. 79-80.

I wanted to make sure the meat was kosher, and the director obliged me by bringing in a young man who supervised the kitchen to see that it conformed to the dietary laws. The young man, I later learned, was from one of the right-wing yeshivot, Torah VoDaath, but he had no beard. It was the first time I had seen a rabbi without a beard, so naturally I had some hesitation about his supervision.

The continuation of the story is too good to pass up.

Since I was very hungry and anxious to eat, as were the people following me, I tested him by asking him a question of law. I was already ordained and asked him the kind of question I would have been asked in Sighet, an interpretation of a text that is part of a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, which we had to study for ordination. The commentary was called the Peri Megadim, and I subsequently learned that rabbinical students in the United States did not study it as intensively as we did in Europe.

So what happened next?

I asked the young man the question and he did not know the answer. His not knowing made me doubt his reliability, and we did not eat.

To make a long story short, the powers of bashert then took over. The introduced Halivni to a Yiddish-speaking social worker whose task was to get him and the orphans who were following his lead to eat meat. It happens that the social worker, Shulamit Halkin, was the sister-in-law of Saul Lieberman. Well, these are the circumstances under which David Weiss Halivni met Saul Lieberman.

The next morning, February 12, 1947, she took me to Professor Lieberman’s home. I was enormously impressed by his erudition, which probably was unrivaled by that of any living scholar. Even when he didn’t want to impress, he was impressive. This time he wanted to impress. He wanted to make sure that I would eat. He explained that the meat was kosher even though the fellow who supervised couldn’t answer my question. After a few hours of discussion, he sent me back to the orphanage, where we stayed for a few more days and then were sent to another orphanage; and we ate, of course.

When I first heard this story from Professor Halivni, he added that when he first saw Professor Lieberman, he couldn’t believe that they brought him to another rabbi without a beard. For some reason this didn’t make it into the book.

As for this meeting. Halivni wrote:

This first casual meeting with Professor Lieberman may have changed the course of my life.

For more on Jews and beards see this entry and the accompanying bibliography.

3 Responses to “Beards Make the Rabbi”

  1. 1
    Benjamin Of Tudela:

    Now we just need to write a post about how the hat makes the rabbi..

  2. 2
    7azon Yesha3ya:

    in my childhood, (some 4+ decades) in our nothing but orthodox community, all our rabbis were clean shaven with the exception of our shochet. nobody thought any less of the clean shaven rabbis!

  3. 3
    Mar Gavriel:

    And to this day, Rabbi Halivni still has a beard! (Or at least he did as of the last time I saw him, which was about two hours ago.)

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