[Note: This is an abreviated version of a longer teshuvah on the same topic]
Can I shave with an electric shaver and are all models permissible?
In two separate verses, the Torah prohibits men to shave their beards. In parashat Kedoshim, the Torah states: “You shall not destroy (tashchit) the corners of your beards,” (Vayikra 19:27). Two chapters later, in parashat Emor, addressing the male Kohanim, the Torah states: “The corners of their beards they shall not shave (yigaleichu),” (Vayikra 21:5). The Talmud (Makkot 21a) states that these two verses are not two separate prohibitions, one for Kohanim and one for all male Jews, but rather constitute one prohibition that applies equally to all Jewish men.
According to the Talmud, the different verbs that are found in these two verses – destroying (hashchatah) and shaving (giluach) – teach that the only prohibited act is one that has both of these components: an act of shaving that fully destroys the beard. Thus, one may use a scissors because it does not cut away the hair fully and leaves stubble behind. Conversely, one may also use a tweezers to pluck his beard hairs; although this fully destroys the hair, it is not shaving (i.e. cutting) but rather plucking. The Talmud concludes that one only transgresses if he uses a razor (ta’ar) which cuts the hair and leaves no stubble behind; all other forms of shaving one’s beard are fully permitted.
Elsewhere, the Gemara deals with an implement that is between a scissors and a razor: “scissors which are like a razor”. Rishonim state that a man may cut his beard with this instrument even when it cuts very close to the skin.
Shulkhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 181:10) rules accordingly: “One only transgresses if he shaves his beard with a razor, but with scissors it is permissible, even if it is similar to a razor.”
Until the advent of electric shavers, it was relatively obvious which implements were considered razors and which were considered scissors. Modern electric shavers, however, are hard to categorize. On the one hand, they provide a very close shave rivaling that of straight-edge razors. On the other hand, they operate more like a scissors than a razor: they cut without the blade touching the skin. Not surprisingly, there is a debate amongst the poskim regarding the use of such shavers.
When electric shavers were first introduced they were used widely in Germany, Hungary and Lithuania, even among yeshiva students. Because of this, many poskim, including Chelkat Yaakov, Yitzchak Yeranein and Rav Ovadya Yosef, start by assuming that electric shavers are permitted. Some poskim also note that being strict here may be counterproductive (a “stringency that brings about a leniency”); if men are prohibited to use an electric shaver, they may just choose to use a straight-edge razor.
The key halakhic question is: what is the line that separates a “shaving with a razor” which is forbidden, from “shaving with scissors like a razor” which is permissible? Three possible answers suggest themselves, one that focuses on the result achieved, one that focuses on the process of cutting, and one the focuses on the instrument used:
- If a totally clean shave was achieved, that is, if the hair is cut away from its very root, it is forbidden even if done with a scissors. If some stubble is left, it is considered cutting by scissors and permitted.
- A razor action, defined here as cutting with the sharpness of a single blade, is forbidden. A scissors action, defined here as cutting with the joint action of two blades, is permissible even if it produces a totally clean shave.
- Only something defined as a classic razor is forbidden. All other instruments are permitted.
Let us look at the halakhic implications of these three approaches.
Result-based definition – is it a clean shave?
According to a result-based definition, electric shavers should most likely be forbidden, as they produce a close shave that leaves behind no stubble. Poskim who adopt this position and state that even those who permitted electric shavers when they first appeared would forbid contemporary electric shavers that produce such a close shave.
Other poskim argue that shavers do not produce as close of a shave as a razor since the screen in front of the shaver blades always stands between the skin and the blade. According to these poskim, anything less than a cutting of the hair at the base and against the skin would not be considered a fully clean shave and hence be permitted. This would also be true for lift-and-cut shavers, which – manufacturers’ claims notwithstanding – still do not shave as closely against the skin as a razor.
Process-based definition – does it cut like a razor?
If the key question is whether the shaver cuts like a razor or not, we must determine what defines razor-like cutting. The major positions among the poskim are as follows:
- Does the blade cut directly against the skin like a razor, or above the skin like the cutting blade (as opposed to the stationary blade) of a scissors? This definition would permit the use of a shaver, since the screen prevents the blades from touching the skin.
- Single- or double-blade action. For many poskim, including Rav Ovadya Yosef, a razor is defined something that cuts using the sharpness of a single blade, while scissors cut using the joint action of two blades. An electric shaver generally cuts in the following way: the hairs enter through slits in the screen, and the rotating blades (or oscillating blades, in the case of a foil razor) cut the hairs as they are being held by the screen. The blades are generally not sharp enough to cut the hairs without the holding action of the screen. Accordingly, a shaver is classified as a type of scissors and permissible for use.
Some poskim who follow this approach, including Rav Moshe Feinstein (by attribution), state that shaver models whose blades are sharp enough to cut individual hairs without the support of the screen are forbidden, as there might be instances where a blade would cut a hair without the holding action of the screen. Those who express this concern advise people to not use such shavers or to dull their blades by rubbing a key against them or the like.
Against this latter approach, all the evidence indicates that no serious possibility exists of the blade cutting without the use of the screen or something else providing resistance. In my experience, the accepted practice in non-Haredi communities is to permit all models of electric shavers without concern for the sharpness of the blades, and this is my psak as well.
Instrument-based definition – is it a razor?
A number of authorities argue that the key definition is not how the cutting was done, but what instrument was used in the cutting; only an instrument that is “normally” used for shaving is considered a razor and forbidden. The author of Menahem Meishiv posits that nowadays, when it is normal to use a shaver, an electric shaver would be considered “a razor” and forbidden. In contrast, Rav Moshe Feinstein is quoted as having said that even today a razor remains the normal instrument used to achieve a perfect shave, and hence an electric shaver remains “not-standard” and may be used. Others argue that a razor is defined by what was the normal instrument for shaving during the time of the Torah, and thus an electric shaver would certainly not be a razor.
Trimmers and Sideburns
Many electric shavers have trimmer attachments. These trimmers also operate with a cutting motion and with a guard that prevents the blades from coming in contact with the skin and thus may likewise be used to shave one’s face and beard. They may not, however, be used to shave one’s sideburns shorter than their required minimum length. When it comes to cutting one’s sideburns, the term in the Torah is not tashit, destroy, but rather, takifu, to round or to lop off (Vayikra 19:27), a term which signifies a less fully destructive act. Hence, Shulkhan Arukh (YD 181:3), following Tosafot and Rosh, rules that it is forbidden to use an instrument such as a “scissors like a razor” on one’s sideburns. Only scissors, and not a shaver or a trimmer, may be used.
In conclusion, the accepted psak in our community is to permit all electric shavers for use in shaving one’s beard, as all of them cut with a dual-blade cutting action, do not cut directly against the skin, and do not provide a totally clean shave.
 See Kesef Mishnah on Rambam, Laws of Avodah Zarah, 12:7, contra Hinukh, mitzvah 252.
 See Nazir 40a and 58b; Rivan (pseudo-Rashi) and Tosafot ad. loc., and Rambam, Laws of Nazir 5:11. See also Tosafot Shavuot 2b, s.v. chayav and Rosh Makkot 3:2.
 Helkat Yaakov, YD 89; Yitzchak Yeranein, vol. 1, 2:6 and Yabia Omer, vol. 9, YD 10, no. 14-15.
 Responsa Hatam Sofer, 1:154.
 Trumot HaDeshen, no. 295.
 See Tosafot (Nazir 40a,s.v. ela eima), Rambam (Laws of Nezirut 5:11), and Prisha (YD 181:3).
 Shevet HaLevi 4:96 and Minhat Yitzhak 4:113. Also see Hakhmat Adam 89:16, Kitzur Shulkhan Arukh 170:1, Helkat Yaakov, YD 90 and Rav Elyashiv, as quoted in Yabia Omer.
 Edut LiYisrael, p. 145. Although the hair left behind is not long enough to be considered “hair,” nevertheless, there is no hashchatah, a full removal of the beard. See Shaol Sha’al, YD 106.
 See Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, Edut LiYisrael, 145. It seems that Hazon Ish, as quoted in Minhat Yitzhak, ibid., agreed in principle that if the blade did not touch the skin it would be permitted, but he believed that all shavers cut directly against the skin.
 Helkat Yaakov, ibid; Shoel vi’Nishal, 3:412, Divrei Yaziv, YD 61 and Yabia Omer, ibid., no. 15.