Re-eih: Eyebrows for the Dead

August 22, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Posted in Re-eih | 1 Comment

You are children to God, your god; you shall not inflict cuts on yourselves, and you shall not shave a bald patch for the dead between your eyes.  Because you are a holy people to God, your god … (Deuteronomy/Devarim 14:1-2)

karchah = a patch of skin shaved bald

beyn eynekha = between your eyes

In this week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (See), Moses continues exhorting the Israelites to follow all of God’s rules, even after they have conquered the promised land of Canaan.  Among the laws Moses revisits is the prohibition in Leviticus/Vayikra 19:27-28 and 21:5, where God tells Moses that when the people enter the land, they must not cut the edges of their heads, ruin the edges of their beards, tattoo their skin, or shave a bald patch on their heads.

When Moses brings up the topic again in this week’s Torah portion, he says God prohibits cutting gashes in the skin, and shaving between the eyes as a sign of mourning.

Yet shaving is not inherently a problem.  Leviticus calls for priests and Levites to shave their whole bodies when they are consecrated, for nazirites to shave their heads when their period of abstaining from grapes and haircuts is  completed, and for people with a skin disease to shave off all their hair when they are officially cured and rejoin the community.

Thus shaving (as opposed to cutting the skin or tattooing) is sometimes required to mark a person’s passage from one status in the community to another.  It is only forbidden to shave “between your eyes” as a sign of bereavement.

The custom of shaving the head and/or beard as a sign of mourning appears a number of times in the Torah, though priests are not permitted to do so.  This mourning practice, common in Biblical times, was ruled out a thousand years later in the Talmud.  So for the last 1,500 years, Jewish mourners are not supposed to shave; they must let their hair (and beard) grow for the first 30 days of mourning.

However, in this week’s Torah portion, it is only the spot “between your eyes” that must not be shaved in mourning.  Some translators interpret this as meaning “your forehead” or “the front of your head”.  Yet Biblical Hebrew has a word for forehead, meitzach, and uses it in other contexts.  So the phrase “between your eyes” must mean something else.  I searched for other Torah references to anything between a person’s eyes, and the only ones in the whole canon, from Genesis to Chronicles 2, are references in Exodus and Deuteronomy to placing God’s teaching as totafot “between your eyes”.

Nobody knows what totafot are; I’ve seen the word translated as “ornaments”, “frontlets”, “symbol”, “circlets”, and “bands”, but these are only guesses, since scholars still haven’t pinned down the definition.  Whatever totafot are, they contain a written copy of some of God’s teaching, and are placed right between the eyes—not above the hairline where Jews place the head tefillin with its tiny parchment scrolls, but over the pineal gland, the “third eye” of Asian mystics.

Since the purpose of wearing totafot is to remember the Torah (which, literally, means “teaching”), it seems appropriate to place it between your eyes, so everything you see will be experienced through an awareness of God’s teaching.

Then what does it mean to shave the very spot where you are supposed to place the reminder of the Torah?

Some group in Canaan must have responded to a death by shaving the ends of the eyebrows closest to the nose, giving the face an unnatural look and making the mourning even more obvious to others than if you shaved your head bald, or shaved off your beard.  But for the people of Israel, remembering God trumps remembering a dead human being.

In this week’s portion, the prohibition against shaving between the eyes for the dead is bracketed by “you are children to God” and “you are a holy people”.  God comes first.

Is this because one’s relationship to God is more important than one’s relationship to any human?  That’s what rabbis Obadiah Sforno (16th century) and Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century) say in their commentaries.

But maybe the real issue is death.  The book of Genesis says humankind (adam) is created in God’s image.  Although God creates both life and death, God itself is the “living God” or the “God of life”.  Whatever God is in the Torah, God is not dead.

Later in Deuteronomy, Moses exhorts the people to “choose life”.  Although all humans die, and we suffer when someone we love dies, we are not allowed to give up on our own lives.  We must choose life, and continue with our own holy journey.  The spot between the eyes becomes a reminder of this holy imperative.

The next time I’m tempted by despair, I want to touch the spot between my eyes, and make that touch a reminder of the holy journey—a virtual totafot.

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  1. Fascinating views regarding that!

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