Orthodox Jews believe that the commandment to wear peyot -- or sidelocks -- is incumbent upon all Jewish males. Just as there are different modes of dress within the Orthodox community -- ranging from long black coats and black hats to jeans and t-shirts -- there are different customs regarding sidelocks.
The practice of wearing sidelocks derives from a Torah prohibition of removing hair from certain areas of the head. Leviticus 19:27 states, “Do not round off [the hair] at the edges of your heads.” Rabbinic commentators understand “edges” to mean the hair that normally grows between the ears and the hairless portion of the face. Orthodox Jews believe this prohibition is an expression of God's will. They observe the commandment -- or mitzvah -- of not shaving off the peyot even if the reason for the law is unknown.
Distancing From Idol Worship
The medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides offers a rational explanation for the prohibition. In his classic work, "Mishneh Torah," Maimonides explains that idol worshipers had the custom of removing the hair from both sides of the head while growing out the hair on top of the head. He suggests that the Torah's prohibition of removing peyot might be God's way of distancing Jews from pagans and idol worship. According to this view, the prohibition of cutting off peyot is similar to the prohibition of getting a permanent tattoo.
"Sefer HaChinuch," a 13th-century overview of the Torah's 613 mitzvot, claims wearing peyot serves to identify a person as Jewish. The Ben Ish Chai, a 19th-century Iraqi Jew, agreed with this reasoning when he referred to a Jew's sidelocks as "two trustworthy witnesses that adorn us with the crown of Judaism." In Czarist Russia and during the Holocaust, ruling parties viewed peyot as powerful symbols of Jewish identity and attempted to strip Jewish men of this identity by publicly cutting off their sidelocks. Many Orthodox couples refrain from cutting a son's hair until the age of three years to emphasize the mitzvah of peyot and to help the boy identify as a practicing Jew.
Some Chassidic groups, as well as Jews from Yemen and Morocco, have the custom of wearing their peyot long and tightly curled. Other Orthodox men keep their peyot short and trimmed close to the head. Some men tuck their peyot behind their ears or under their hats, but some rabbinic authorities discourage this practice because it implies embarrassment. Some men never cut or trim their sidelocks -- perhaps to emphasize and enhance the mitzvah -- while others believe this is an unnecessary stringency.
- Chabad.org: The Prohibition Against Shaving the Edges of One's Head
- YU Torah Online: Halachos of Peyos Harosh
- Mechon-Mamre: Leviticus Chapter 19
- The Book of Knowledge: From the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides; Moses Maimonides
- Gateway to Judaism: The What, How, And Why of Jewish Life; Mordechai Becher
- Miraculous Journey; Yosef Eisen
- The Brisker Rav; Shimon Yosef Meller
- David Silverman/Getty Images News/Getty Images