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When did Jews start keeping their beards? Did Moshe's generation have beards?

What is the historical development behind this phenomenon?

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    Certainly in David's time, Jewish men had beards. When the Ammonites sheared off half of the beards of David's envoys, David told them to stay in Jericho until the other half of their beards grew back (Sh'mu'el II 10:4,5). – Fred Jan 6 '15 at 2:27
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    Not to mention the mentions of beards in the time of Moshe and Aharon (Vayikra 14:9, 19:27, 21:5; T'hillim 133:2 regarding Aharon himself), David (cited above, and Sh'mu'el I 21:14), Y'sha'yahu (Y'sha'ya 7:20, 15:2)... – Fred Jan 6 '15 at 2:57
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    Also, Yosef was "shaved" before his encounter with Pharaoh, suggesting that he had a beard beforehand (B'reishis 41:14, unless this only means his hair was trimmed, such as is perhaps indicated by Onkelos - "וספר ושני כסותיה". See also Y'vamos 88a, "ואמר רב חסדא מלמד שיצא בלא חתימת זקן ובא בחתימת זקן"). – Fred Jan 6 '15 at 3:26
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    Also note that Yosef's brothers did not recognize him and he recognized them because they had been old enough to have beards when he last saw them. – sabbahillel Jan 6 '15 at 10:22
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I assume that most people, besides Jews, also had beards, since it is a natural phenomenon that male humans have beards. At some point in time it became common for many men to shave them, and as mentioned by @Danny Schoemann, this was inconvenient for most Jews, and is still frowned upon by many for halachic reasons, so they are still more prevalent in Orthodox circles, even in communities that do not have any particular objection to shaving.

Asking when Jews started wearing beards is like asking when the Greeks started going uncircumcised.

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The Torah commands us (Vayikra 19:27) not to use a razor on one's beard.

לֹא תַקִּפוּ פְּאַת רֹאשְׁכֶם וְלֹא תַשְׁחִית אֵת פְּאַת זְקָנֶךָ: ‏

As a result, Jews can trim their beards but not shave them, as documented in Shulchan Aruch יורה דעה in סימן קפא - אסור גלוח הפאות

י: אֵינוֹ חַיָּב עַל הַשְׁחָתַת פְּאַת הַזָּקָן אֶלָּא בְּתַעַר, אֲבָל בְּמִסְפָּרַיִם מֻתָּר, אֲפִלּוּ כְּעֵין תַּעַר. ‏

הגה: וּמִכָּל מָקוֹם נִזְהָרִים כְּשֶׁמִּסְתַפְּרִין בְּמִסְפָּרַיִם שֶׁיַּעֲשֶׂה הֶקֵּף הַגִּלּוּחַ בַּחֵלֶק הָעֶלְיוֹן מִן הַמְסַפְּרוֹת וְלֹא בַּתַּחְתּוֹן, פֶּן יַעֲשֶׂה הַכֹּל עִם חֵלֶק הַתַּחְתּוֹן וְהָוֵי כְּתַעַר (ת''ה סִימָן רצ''ה)‏

Only "recently" were electric shavers invented that possibly bypass the prohibition of using a razor on one's beard.

Though chemical depilatories existed in the olden days [source] they are generally foul in odor and messy to use and were probably not very popular.

So in all likelihood, Jews started growing beards in Moshe's time, as soon as they were commanded to stop shaving with razors. As to whether they trimmed them, that does not seem to be documented.

According to kabbalistic sources, apparently, there's a spiritual advantage to not cutting one's facial hairs. According to them, the righteous ones - even in Moshe's time - would not have trimmed their beards. (ibid באר היטב ):

והאר''י ז''ל לא היה מגלח כלל לא בתער ולא במספרים לא בשום מקום כלל זולת בשיער שעל השפה המעכב האכילה היה חותך במספרים. גם היה נזהר שלא ליגע בזקנו שמא יעקר ח''ו ב' משערותיו ונמצא פוגם ועוקר צינור א' ח''ו) אבל הש''ך תפס דברי הרב עיקר והבו דלא לוסיף על החומרא עכ''ל: ‏

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To answer the title but not the body of your question, the Raddak who lived 1160–1235 in Narbonne, Provence, mentions that in his times in the lands where he lived the minhag was to not keep a beard. See Samuel 2 10 5. In fact his words there are apologetically trying to explain why in Dovid's times, when everyone had beards, it was embarrassing not to have a beard.

  • The didn't necessarily wear a yarmulka either. Not sure what general conclusions beyond 13th century France you can draw from this data point. – Yishai Jan 8 '15 at 3:29
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    @Yishai we know for a fact the or zarua says they didn't wear yamakas. Im not sure what you're point is. That they had different minhagim than us? That was my point! – user6591 Jan 8 '15 at 3:45
  • I'm wondering if they were an outlier in general Jewish practice, though. – Yishai Jan 8 '15 at 3:47
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    @Yishai considering they were amongst the founding fathers of Ashkenazi minhagim and so many of our minhagim in all scopes of life come from those groups, we can't just write them off because of the minhagim that didn't trickle down to us. Btw the or zarua said that about the chachmei tzarfas. – user6591 Jan 8 '15 at 3:57
  • @Yishai You can wonder that about ray's answer too, but so what? All we can do is extrapolate from assorted data points even if there really only is half a black sheep in Scotland. – Double AA Jan 8 '15 at 6:27
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the Meam Loez in Bereishis says the lion, as king of the animals, was given a beard to give him a majestic look.

Likewise we can say for man who is the crown glory of creation and the one God chose for His service.

So according to this, it is proper for all men to have beards so it probably started from the first man (Adam) and was later contested by those who wished to deny the importance of man.

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    And lemme guess, Adam also had a black hat... – Double AA Jan 7 '15 at 18:46
  • @DoubleAA dont think he was born with one – ray Jan 7 '15 at 18:52
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    Me neither. He could have made one though since he did daven to God. (I don't know if he did or not. That's why assuming people did things based on your sense of 'ideal' isn't a good way to answer a history question.) – Double AA Jan 7 '15 at 18:56
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    Though in terms of majesty, the Gemara does imply that having a beard does make one more beautiful (or at least puts you in a different category of good-looking), in Bava Metzia 84a – הנער הזה Jan 7 '15 at 19:52

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