Why do some Jewish men (mostly Hassidic) have curly ringlets of hair?
The commandment in Leviticus 19:27 states: "Do not cut the hair on the corners ("payot/s") of your head; Do not cut the corners of your beard."
This is one of the rare "do not"s in the Torah that only applies to men.
The Talmud and commentaries explain the first part of the verse to mean that hair may not be completely removed from the sideburn area, at least from the cheekbone and up around the ear. The latter half of this verse is discussed in a different posting - click here.
Hassidic Jews take upon themselves a kabbalistic stringency to not cut the sideburn hairs at all, leaving them long enough to either curl (to keep out of the way), wrap behind their ears, or tie behind their heads (often hidden underneath a 'yarmulka'). There is no rule that the hair needs to be curled - it is simply a matter of convenience.
Non-Hassidic Jews fulfill this commandment in one of two ways: by allowing the sideburns to grow down to the cheekbone, or by not shaving above the cheekbone. (Thinning the hair is fine, as long as it is recognizable that there is hair there.)
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