Au cours de l'été 1925, Schmuel Yosef Agnon, écrivain hébreu originaire de Galicie (et futur lauréat du prix Nobel de littérature) âgé alors de trentesept ans, revenait progressivement au mode de vie traditionnel dans lequel il avait été élevé. Écrivant de Jérusalem à sa femme, demeurée provisoirement en Allemagne, il lui fit part d'un incident survenu la veille et qui avait, par conséquent, conservé toute sa fraîcheur dans sa mémoire.
The present paper explores the range of meanings associated with the Jewish beard in Europe, the Mediterranean countries, and the Middle East between the ninth and eighteenth centuries, and the processes through which those meanings were constructed. Although classical Jewish law prohibited shaving with a razor, it did not require that the Jew wears his beard conspicuously long or untrimmed. Where Jews cultivated such an appearance, such as in the Maghreb and the Muslim or Byzantine East, it was due no less to the cultural values of the surrounding environment, in which the beard functioned as a badge of masculine honor, than to the demands of Jewish tradition. In those same areas the kabbalists were able to endow the beard with an additional dimension of mystical meaning, regarding it as a symbol of divine splendor which was not to be tampered with in any way. Not surprisingly, where the beard was most venerated, it was also most subject to violent attack or punitive removal.
In medieval Christian Europe, by contrast, most Jews opted not to grow their beards in a pronounced manner. This did not prevent Christians from making use of the beard as a symbol of the Jew and his otherness. Jews (and Christians) travelling to the East or the Holy Land would sometimes grow their beards there but remove them upon returning to Europe, apparently so as not to be perceived as an alien Other. The meanings of the Jewish beard were never determined by the Jews alone, nor by the cultures in which they lived, but through dynamic interactions on both the social and discursive levels.