by R. Daniel Mann
Question: I am a young man with a unibrow, which I find very embarrassing. May I remove some hair with tweezers from that area? Also, may I remove some more hair to make my eyebrows less bushy?
Answer: The gemara (Nazir 58b-59a) forbids a man to shave his pubic and underarm hair with a razor. There are different versions on whether this ruling is a severe Rabbinic violation or a violation of the Torah law forbidding a man to do things of aesthetics that are considered feminine (“lo yilbash gever simlat isha” – see Devarim 22:5).
There is a machloket among the Rishonim (see Beit Yosef, Yoreh Deah 182) whether there is any problem with hair removal from other parts of the body. The Shulchan Aruch (YD 182:1) rules that in these other places, it is forbidden only with a razor, whereas it is otherwise permitted even to cut short with scissors. Presumably, tweezing eyebrows falls under the category of being permitted.
The gemara (ibid.) tells of one whom Rav Ami gave a special dispensation when Rav Ami discovered he did not remove underarm hair. The Ran (Avoda Zara, 9b of the Rif’s pages) makes the following halachic observations. It must have occurred in a place where most men remove hair from there, so that we see that hair removal is then permitted, just that the pious still avoid it. This is how the Rama (YD 182:1) rules. The Rambam (Avoda Zara 12:9) says that in that case, it is not a severe Rabbinic violation, which warrants flogging, but, as the Beit Yosef (ibid.) understands the Rambam, it is still forbidden, as he rules in the Shulchan Aruch (YD 182:1). The Rav Pealim (III, YD 18), after declaring that Sephardim should rule like the Shulchan Aruch, justified the wide practice in Bagdad for men to remove hair from one of the problematic places using chemicals, given that women do it by razor.
While we find that changed practice can turn classically forbidden grooming into permitted, practice can also expand matters forbidden due to its feminine nature. The gemara (Makkot 20b) forbids removing individual hairs (from the head or the beard, which is generally permitted) if he is removing white hairs from among dark hairs, to make him look younger, as women do. Similarly, poskim of our era have generally assumed that grooming eyebrows is a feminine activity, and thus, as a rule, is forbidden for men.
Even so, fixing a unibrow is permitted according to rabbinic consensus (including Rav S.Z. Auerbach, cited in Nishmat Avraham, YD, p. 140). While not meaning to put down anyone who is willing to keep it, many, including you, consider it an embarrassing blemish (in some cultures, it is desired). Just as the Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 4) permits hair removal that would otherwise be forbidden when it is done to alleviate skin pain, so too it is permitted to remove emotional distress, even if it is not extreme. The main rationale is not that the need enables waiving minor prohibitions or relying on lenient opinions. Rather, the prohibition is based on the assumption that a man is acting with a degree of care for beautification that is generally reserved for women (see Igrot Moshe, YD II:61, in permitting coloring hair in order to get a job for which he looks too old). Removing a unibrow is not seen as acting to looking one’s absolute best, but just as avoiding sticking out negatively, and this is not within the prohibition’s parameters.
Regarding bushy eyebrows, the matter is less clear-cut and depends on time/place but likely also on the degree of grooming one is talking about. Extreme bushiness could reach the point of blemish. Regarding cases that are within the bounds of normal, we would say that a few decades ago, it was forbidden. However, it has become increasingly common for men to groom eyebrows (the norms of non-Jews are, according to many, relevant for determining these matters – Prisha, YD 282:5). Therefore, it is likely permitted these days in many places. We would just say that a man should do the grooming in the way men do it, if and assuming it is different from the way women do.[Note: The title was selected by the editor]