You are children to God, your God; you must not gash yourselves, and you must not put a karchah between your eyes for the dead. Because you are a holy people to God, your God, and God chose you for [God’s] personal property out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 14:1-2)
karchah (קָרְחָה) = baldness; a patch of skin shaved bald.
Moses forbids two mourning practices in this week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See”): gashing your skin, and shaving “between your eyes”.
Other mourning practices mentioned in the Hebrew Bible include wailing, tearing your clothes, wearing sackcloth around your hips, and sitting in ashes. These are never forbidden (though priests are only allowed to do mourning rituals for their immediate family members)1.
But in the bible people also mourn by gashing, scarring, or tattooing their skin and by shaving the side of the head or beard, all prohibited in Leviticus/Vayikra 19:27-28.
Shaving the hair off some part of the head seems to have been a common way to express grief in the Ancient Near East, at least for men and possibly also for women.2 The grief might be for the death of a family member, or for the death of a whole city. Isaiah’s prophecy about the downfall of Moab includes these lines:
On every head is karchah,
Every beard is shaven. (Isaiah 15:2)
Ezekiel prophesies the doom of Tyre to the north and predicts:
Vehikriychu for you a karchah
And they will wrap themselves in sackcloth.
And they will weep to you with a bitter soul
Bitter rites of mourning. (Ezekiel 27:31)
vehikriychu (וְהִקְרִיחוּ) = and they will shave or pluck bald.
When Jeremiah prophesies that God will send the Egyptian army to destroy the Philistine city of Gaza, he declares:
“Karchah will come to Gaza.” (Jeremiah 47:5)
That says it all; so many people in Gaza will be killed that everyone left will be in mourning, shaven partly bald.
Even in the Israelite kingdoms of Samaria and Judah, when God is about to destroy the capital city, God wants people to make bald patches on their heads. Perhaps the God-character makes an exception to the commandments against shaving as mourning because God wants to see a dramatic reaction when “he” destroys a whole nation of Israelites.
Amos predicts God will bring down Samaria and reports that God said:
I will change your festivals into rites of mourning
And all your songs into dirges.
And I will put sackcloth over every pair of hips
And on every head karchah. (Amos 8:10)
Isaiah complains that the Israelites of Judah forgot God during their preparation for the siege of Jerusalem. He says:
My lord the God of Hosts called, on that day,
For weeping and for rites of mourning,
And for karchah and for tying on sackcloth. (Isaiah 22:12)
Any mourning observance, including shaving your beard, the side of your face, or “between your eyes”, makes a person ritually impure and therefore unable to approach God in the sanctuary. Mourners and anyone else exposed to death must be purified again before they can enter the courtyard of the temple or Tent of Meeting.
Leviticus explains that priests must avoid mourning rituals because their job requires being holy, and therefore ritually pure, at all times:
Yikrechu not karchah on their head, and the side of their beard they must not shave, and their flesh they must not tattoo with tattoos. Holy they must be to their God, and they must not profane the name of their God … (Leviticus 21:5-6)
yikrechu (יִקְרְחוּ) = they shall not make bald, they must not shave bald. (From the same root as karchah.)
Yet other kinds of shaving are explicitly holy. The Torah calls for Levites to shave their whole bodies when they are consecrated,3 for nazirites to shave their heads when their period of abstaining from wine and hair care is completed,4 and for people with a skin disease to shave off all their hair when they are officially cured and rejoin the community5.
In these three examples the shaven person is ritually pure and makes an offering at the altar.
Right between the eyes
This week’s Torah portion prohibits shaving a bald spot “between your eyes”. Where is that?
When I wrote an earlier version of this post in August 2011, I searched for other biblical references to anything between a person’s eyes. I found only four, all referring to the placement of reminders of God’s teaching on your hand and “between your eyes”. (Exodus 13:9 calls for a zikaron (זִכָּרוֹן), a memorial or reminder, between your eyes. The other three references, Exodus 13:16, Deuteronomy 6:8, and Deuteronomy 11:18, call for a totafot, a word which appears only in these three sentences.)
The most well-known reference, in the Torah portion Va-etchannan, became the first paragraph of the Shema section6 of evening and morning prayers.
And these words that I command you today shall be upon your heart. And you shall repeat them to your children, and you shall speak them when you stay in your house and when you go out on the road, and when you lie down and when you get up. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be totafot between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:6-9)
totafot (טוֹטָפוֹת) = ornaments worn low on the forehead.
This definition is speculative; scholars have not yet determined what totafot were. According to the Talmud a totefet (possibly a singular form of totafot) was an ornament or sachet attached to the front edge of a woman’s hairnet, at the center of a band that went from ear to ear7—at the point where other Asian cultures imagine the third eye,
Some translators replace the word totafot with tefillin. But a head tefillin is tied onto the top of the head, above the forehead, rather than between and just above the eyebrows. Although totafot are located in a different place, they are supposed to be reminders of what God did or commanded, so they may have contained tiny scrolls like tefillin.
If so, the text for the totafot in Exodus would be: “With a strong hand God brought you out from Egypt”. The two passages in Deuteronomy indicate a different text, since both are lists of reminders for obeying “these words that I command you today”. The closest thing to a commandment preceding both lists of reminders is: “And you shall love God, your God, with all your heart and all with your soul” (Deuteronomy 6:5, 11:13)—i.e. you shall love God with your whole mind and body.
With or without a text, the purpose of wearing totafot in Exodus is to be grateful that God rescued your people from slavery in Egypt, and the purpose in Deuteronomy is to remember to love God completely. The placement of totafot approximately between one’s eyes makes them reminders that everything one sees should be experienced from the viewpoint of appreciating and loving God.
If you shaved off part of each eyebrow, the part near the nose, your face would have a bald spot, a blank patch, right where you were supposed to place the totafot.
In this week’s Torah 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. Remembering to love God is more important than remembering a dead human being, however beloved.
Later in Deuteronomy, Moses exhorts the people to “choose life”.8 Although all humans die, and we suffer when someone we love dies, we are not supposed to give up on our own lives. So just as we must not gash our skin in mourning, we must not disfigure the spot between the eyes where the totafot would go.
You are children to God, your God; you must not gash yourselves, and you must not put a karchah between your eyes for the dead. Because you are a holy people to God, your God … (Deuteronomy/Devarim 14:1-2)
May we all embrace life, even in the face of suffering and death.
- Leviticus 21:5.
- Most of the Hebrew Bible is about the world of men, and many of God’s rules are written from a male viewpoint. The closest the bible comes to describing mourning practices for women is in the rules for when a man brings home a female war captive. She must be given a month to weep for her father and mother before her owner can take her to bed. At the beginning of the month she shall “shave her head”. This is either a mourning ritual for women, or way to reduce the man’s lust so he can stay away for the required month. (Deuteronomy 21:10-13).
- Levites shave their whole bodies in Numbers 8:11 just before they come to the sanctuary to be offered to God.
- Nazirites shave their heads at the end of their period of abstention in Numbers 5:18. The hair that remained uncut and untended during the period of their vow is holy, and is put on the fire of the altar along with the usual grain and animal offerings for God. The shaving is also holy, since it takes place in the sanctuary at the altar.
- People with the skin disease tzara-at shave all their hair, including their eyebrows, seven days after they are pronounced cured in Leviticus 14:8-9.
- The “Shema” is the prayer in Deuteronomy 6:4. There are several possible translations (see my post Va-etchannan: All in One) but I usually prefer “Listen, Israel: God is our god; God is one”. The “Shema section” in Jewish prayerbook begins with the Shema and continues with three paragraphs of instructions about ways to remember God’s rules (Deuteronomy 6:5-9, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41). The first two include totafot.
- Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 57b.
- Deuteronomy 30:19-20.