I have heard that the Shadal used a razor to remove his beard, justifying it for himself through the Ibn Ezra's interpretation of Vayikra 19:27 that the prohibition would only be for shaving the beard for the dead. Is this true, and if so, how would this be allowed if there are no authorities that permit this?
ואני גם כי אינני מאוהביו כבר קיבלתי פירושו (נגד ההלכה) בפסוק לא תקיפו פאת ראשכם שאינו אלא על מת וקִבלתיו לעצמי למעשה אע"פ שאין אני מורה כן לאחרים כי אין לי עסק בהוראה
As for me, though I am not one of [Ibn Ezra's] friends, I have already accepted his explanation (against the halacha) in the verse [Leviticus 19:27] "Ye shall not round the corners of your heads", that it is only over the dead. And I have accepted it for myself in practice even though I do not rule as such for others since I have no business in ruling.
Here is an image of the relevant portion of the letter:
In the course of my translating Shadal’s perush on Vayikra, I have given a good deal of thought to this difficult issue. Here are some of my conclusions:
Before criticizing Shadal, it is important to scrutinize the actual words of his letter to Rapoport. Nowhere does he say that he shaves with a razor; nowhere does he admit to violating the normative halakhah in any specific way at all; nowhere does he even claim that Ibn Ezra himself would have advocated shaving with a razor or otherwise violating the halakhah. What Shadal does say is merely that Ibn Ezra’s understanding of the peshat of Lev. 19:27—-that the prohibitions of that verse seem to be connected with mourning practices—-is at variance with the Rabbis’ authoritative interpretation, which does not limit these prohibitions to the mourning context. So far, so good; Ibn Ezra’s exegetical method was in fact to examine the theoretical peshat of the Torah’s legal texts while at the same time accepting the Rabbinic halakhah in practice. But then Shadal goes on to say that he does rely on Ibn Ezra’s understanding of the peshat to justify doing... something. The question is, what?
It is true that all depictions of Shadal show him as beardless (except for his nineteenth-century style sideburns). However, even before the invention of the electric shaver in the twentieth century, the traditional straight razor was not the only means of removing one’s beard. Alternative methods included depilatory creams or powders, which received halakhic approval from some authorities, but not from others. Many Italian Jews from the seventeenth century onward removed their beards by such means, and Shadal himself may well have been one of them. But it is possible that in light of the less than unanimous support for this practice among halakhic authorities, Shadal may have chosen to fall back on what he regarded as the peshat of Lev. 19:27 to justify his beardlessness, at least in his own mind—-after all, he was not removing his beard for mourning purposes. And so perhaps this was all that he meant to “confess” privately to his friend Rabbi Rapoport: not that he invoked the peshat to defend his shaving with a razor (an activity uniformly recognized as halakhically forbidden), but that he invoked the peshat merely to defend removing his beard by other means (an activity that was at least arguably permitted under normative halakhah). Under such a cautious reading of his words, Shadal’s only “sin” would have been to invoke the peshat to begin with, an approach that even he would not normally have followed in interpreting practical halakhah.
Such a reading, it might be argued, is not only cautious but far-fetched. However, the alternative is no less difficult—-to conclude that a traditionalist figure like Shadal rejected a clear rule of halakhah. Given the cryptic and ambiguous nature of Shadal’s statement, the record of his otherwise zealous advocacy of halakhic observance, and the fact that no one, to my knowledge, has ever yet unearthed evidence of any other such personal lapses on his part, it seems only fair to give him the benefit of the doubt (kaf zekhut) and read his statement so as to minimize any fault-finding or controversy.