Grooming for God: The Payos
With the passing of Simchat Torah, the last of the autumnal Jewish holidays, we thought we’d take a deeper dive into one of the more impressive faith-based grooming rituals: the Jewish payos (which is acceptably spelled about a dozen ways, including pe’ot, peyos, payot and so on).
Our fascination with the payos is similar to our intrigue with the burqa: we’re curious, but also wary of asking insensitive/dumb questions.
So, we did a little research.
As the story goes, in biblical times it was common practice among many idol worshipers to shave only the side of the head. The Jews, having absolutely zero interest in being confused with such heathens, decided it best (if not a little passive-aggressive) to specifically grow out the side of the head.
Thus, Leviticus 19:27: “You shall not round off the pe’ah [sides, corners] of your head.”
But how do they get those awesome curls?
According to OHR’s Ask the Rabbi , “A man shouldn’t use curlers. Rather, stick the forefinger in between the hair and the forehead and push it towards the roots of the payos. Then, curl the rest of the hair around your other forefinger in the down direction. Hold it that way for a moment, and then gently remove the forefinger without messing up the curl. Do this once each weekday morning and hopefully it will start curling naturally by itself.”
As for length, style and grooming methodology, the rules are as varied as Judaism itself. Payos of traditional Yemenite Jews tend to reach the upper arm, whereas the Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s are barely evident (with the belief that any hair around the ear long enough to be plucked out constitutes a payos.) Similarly, Lithuanian Jews leave only a few short strands uncut and tidily place them behind the ear.
Why is it that most Jews do not have payos? According to religion and ethics scholar Hillel Gray, “the practice is more closely linked to Orthodox resistance to modernity and secularization, as well as the dynamics of communal cohesion and identity formation around traditionalistic practices, in this case bodily transformations.”