Why do Orthodox Jewish men have sidecurls?
Thanks for your question. Those sidecurls are called “peiyot” in Hebrew, meaning corners. This is commonly Yiddishized as “peiyes” and is usually rendered in English in a variety of less-phonetically-accurate spellings, including “payes” and “peyot.” (By the way, the common English-language term is “sidelocks,” not “sidecurls.”) I’ll go with “payes” for the balance of this reply.
Jewish men wearing payes is a pretty straightforward Biblical obligation. Actually, it’s a prohibition as Leviticus 19:27 tells us, “Do not round the corners of your head…,” which prohibits removing the hair that grows in this spot. While most prohibitions apply equally both to men and to women, this particular prohibition applies to men only. This is because the verse continues with the prohibition against destroying the corners of the beard. The two are so interrelated that the prohibition against rounding the corners of the head only applies to those who are prohibited to destroy the corners of the beard, i.e., men.
Now, people sometime mistakenly think that only Hasidic Jews wear payes. This they do visibly, in a variety of styles, including straight, curled and behind the ear. But Hasidim aren’t the only ones who wear payes – all Orthodox Jewish men do, just not as visibly. While some interpret the rule in a way that encourages them to grow their payes long, others see it merely as prohibiting altogether removing the hair that grows there. So, while a Jewish man would not be able to shave his head or to get a mohawk without violating this prohibition, most secular haircuts would not pose any sort of problem. In other words, modern Orthodox men also have payes, they’re just generally indistinguishable from their neighbors’ haircuts.
Now, this last point might seem counterproductive if you clicked on that first link, where you’ll see that, according to the Sefer HaChinuch, the purpose of payes is to distinguish us from our neighbors. The reality is that sometimes our styles align with what’s popular in the society around us, while other times they conflict. For example, hemlines go up and down; sometimes they align with our halachic practices and other times they don’t.
Similarly, if one wanted his hairstyle to emulate Elvis or the Beatles in their heydays, that would have coincided pretty nicely with our halachic requirements. That wouldn’t be the case if one wanted to emulate Yul Brynner, Telly Savalas, Bruce Willis, Patrick Stewart, Billy Joel, Vin Diesel, Samuel L. Jackson, etc. The reality is that sometimes crew cuts and shaved heads are in style, so this mitzvah does inform our style choices. (As an adult male with thinning hair, let me assure you that the shaved head is indeed a tempting hairstyle. Alas, such is not to be!)
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent