Around this time of year, hockey fans are treated to images of world-class athletes who look like a post-burning bush Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. Feast your eyes on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Nick Bonino or the San Jose Sharks’ Brent Burns, National Hockey League conference finalists who are sporting beards that wouldn’t look too out of place in Bnei Brak or South Williamsburg. Sure, the tonsorial connections between hockey players and Jews might be totally superficial. But it can’t just be a coincidence that the stretch run of the NHL playoffs overlaps with the counting of the Omer, when Jews are prohibited from shaving—can it?
There must be deeper, even mystical meanings lurking behind the playoff beard. By this point in the season, the Sharks and Pens have contested roughly 100 games apiece, which is a punishing and just grossly excessive amount of hockey. As with the Kabbalists, the playoff beard contains both knowledge and insanity. How many slashing penalties and body shots and ice baths and painkillers and exhausted third-period rallies lie behind Joe Thornton’s nearly foot-long growth? After months, or years or even even entire careers of fruitless physical and mental toil, the players on the remaining teams have at last reached the edge of something extraordinary. The journey has marked them: like the Kabbalists, they can’t simply look like the rest of us, can they?
The practice of NHL players growing out their beards until their team is eliminated from the playoffs began in the early 1980s, when the dynastic New York Islanders teams stopped shaving during the postseason, a tradition—though also a superstition, and a symbol of pride—that subsequent NHL champions have largely followed. (It should be noted that the 1994 New York Rangers did not grow playoff beards during their championship, as an apparent rebuke to their rivals on Long Island).
The growing of a playoff beard extends beyond the ice: The 2004 Red Sox, famous for barely shaving, mounted a historic ALCS comeback against the Yankees on the way to winning the club’s first World Series victory since 1918. During the 2013 playoffs, the Red Sox beards returned. And when the Sox won the World Series that year—their third championship in less than a decade, following a 86-year gap between titles—the team was so uniformly bearded that one Twitter user jokingly congratulated Egypt’s Salafist Nour party on their win.
Don’t worry John, I thought it was funny. #Egypt #WorldSeries RT @JohnAllenGay: Nour Party wins World Series pic.twitter.com/Cwc74QMJrK
— Ryan J. Suto (@RyanJSuto) October 31, 2013
In the late 2000s, back when San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson was one of the most feared shut-down men in the game, fans would come to the ballpark wearing Wilson-style fake beards, meaning he could gaze from the mound at thousands of simulacra of himself, an entire stadium’s worth of burly facial hair. The Giants won three World Series titles between 2010 and 2014, one of them with Wilson. In Washington, star outfielder Jayson Werth’s beard is the inspiration for one fan’s widely-beloved Twitter account.
There’s no blood or glory or Stanley Cup for the clean-shaven. Victories, recent history has taught us, are taken by the bearded.
In wildernesses both real and figurative—a desert island, or a Kabbalists’ study house, or an NHL Conference Final, for instance—the beard measures time as well as distance. It is a continuous physical record of the temporal gap between its owner and contemporary standards of hygiene, and by extension, the distance between its owner and the very trappings of civilization that dictate such standards in the first place.
There’s a similar dynamic—or, less kindly, a similar neuroticism—at work in hockey. In the NHL, the playoff beard records the distance a player and a team have traveled, and marks their proximity to the holy center. Unmoored from comforting or familiar contexts, and possessed of whatever fearful mindset actively rejects such contexts, the luxuriantly bearded man dwells on a higher yet possibly more dangerous plane than the rest of us.
In Kabbalism, the beard is evidence of mystical experience, in all its wonder and madness. As Bar-Ilan University professor Elliot Horowitz recounted in a 1994 paper on 18th century Jewish facial hair, “the Lurianic kabbalists recommended that the beard should remain untouched not only by scissors but even by the human hand, for fear that a single one of its hairs might be inadvertently removed ‘thus damaging and uprooting also one of the conduits [of divine grace].’ ” The Kabbalists “regarded the hairs of the beard as possessing special sanctity and deserving, therefore, a concomitant measure of respect.” Horowitz cites an 18th century Kabbalist who had trouble taking his contemporary the Rahmal of Padua all that seriously, finding it doubtful that a maggid, or heavenly mentor, would visit someone without facial hair.
The playoff beard has this defiantly anti-social quality to it—although interestingly, the beard became a marker of difference for Jewish mystics only because it had been a social norm in a different time and place. Certain Western European Jewish communities tended to adjust their facial hair styles in accordance with local customs in the 17th and 18th centuries. But as Horowitz recounts, extensive facial hair was a typical look for men in the eastern Mediterranean through the early modern period, to the point where Jewish merchants in more clean-shaven regions would grow beards in preparation for trips east. “The beard then functioned in the Levant in a manner similar to the modern business suit (or the tweed jacket or black fedora of some more bookish circles),” Horowitz writes. “It bestowed respectability and neutralized otherness, enabling its wearer to be taken seriously.”
The Jews themselves had once used the beard as an indicator of communal identity: The book of Leviticus mentions prohibitions on cutting facial hair on two different occasions (19:27 and 21:5). As the Polish scholar Artur Kamczycki argued in a 2013 paper, Theodor Herzl grew a long beard to evoke continuity with the Jews’ distant past: by fully embracing what he understood to be, in some sense, a normative if antiquated symbol of Jewish belonging, Herzl wanted to show that “the new Jew, filled with new Jewish pride, was no longer required to seek recognition in the eyes of the Gentiles, but fully deserved it.”
The playoff beard is less historically weighted, of course. But it’s not without its own rich texture of meaning. Playoff beards spring from a near-mystical superstition—that Kabbalists’ fear of the untold cosmic consequences of disturbing even a single hair on an oddly specific part of the body. And that superstition has a trans-temporal dimension that gives it a meaning greater than itself. Put another way: maybe the playoff beard just works, even if the causality of it must remain a mystery. Every Stanley Cup winner grows them, right? And would a cleaner-shaven Red Sox team have won in 2013—or in 2004, for that matter? Maybe, but maybe not.
From a fan’s perspective, the causality question is sort of pointless: The fact is that these teams were all lushly bearded at their greatest moment of triumph. For certain clubs and their community of supporters across time and space, beards are intrinsically linked to the highest possible high-points. They’re a memory to share in during disappointing and cleaner-shaven years, a point of distinction between teams—the ones that seem doomed to remain clean-shaven forever, and the ones that climb, bearded, to the top.
Editor’s note: This post has been updated to reflect the fact that the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning have been eliminated from the NHL Playoffs.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.