Upsherin. It’s a Jewish tradition wrapped in symbolism and filled with Kabbalistic meaning and yet many have never heard of the ritual or taken part in its celebration.
In fact, upsherin is the Yiddish word for haircut, according to Rabbi Levi Langer of the Kollel Jewish Learning Center. It is also the name of a tradition popular in various Jewish communities, he explained, where Jewish boys receive their first haircut at the age of 3.
In modern times, the upsherin has been accompanied by parties featuring cakes and other sweet food, toys and games, similar to a birthday party or b’nai mitzvah celebration.
While the word itself is associated with a boy’s first haircut, the tradition has far deeper meanings, according to Chabad of Squirrel Hill’s Rabbi Yisroel Altein.
“At age 3, we want to start educating our children to do mitzvahs: saying blessings, wearing yarmulkes, tzitzit and so on,” he explained. “That is the primary concept of the upsherin, that age 3 is an appropriate time for our children to start recognizing and embracing our traditions.”
Langer, who said he did not celebrate his son’s third birthday by cutting his hair, concurs that education plays an important part in the tradition. Despite not shearing his son’s locks, Langer did take him to Yeshiva Schools and Lubavitch Center of Pittsburgh for a bit of learning.
“They were very kind to us,” Langer said. “There are different ways to do it, but you teach the kid their first Hebrew letters and you recite a few Hebrew words and you let them lick some honey. They get a sense that education is something sweet and positive.”
One of the mitzvahs kept by several Haredi Jewish communities is wearing payot, or the familiar sidelocks of hair extending from the front of a male’s ears to beneath his cheekbone. This tradition can be traced to Leviticus 21:5, where it is stated: “They shall not create a bald spot on their head and the corner of their beards they shall not shave….” When a boy’s hair is cut during the upsherin, according to Altein, the payot are left intact.
“That’s how you do that mitzvah,” he said. “It’s very practical.”
While many of Judaism’s rituals, traditions and practices can be traced back to the Torah or the Talmud with pages and pages of commentary and interpretation, the upsherin is a relatively new observance. It became popular in the 17th century and was primarily celebrated at a family’s home with little or no fanfare. At that time, it is believed the ritual was part of Kabbalistic observance.
Although it isn’t a literal translation, Altein noted, there is a verse in Deuteronomy that some Jewish sages understood to mean “a person is compared to a tree in a field and there is a mitzvot to not eat any fruit for the first three years from a tree. Kabbalisticly, we associate that with the same thing as a child’s hair, allowing it to grow for the first three years.
“Whenever you have a tradition like this, a lot of the attention goes to the hair,” Altein added. “But, it’s really about education.“
One of the more interesting aspects of the upsherin is its observance during Lag B’Omer, during the counting of the Omer between Passover and Shavuot. Rather than individual celebrations, the tradition is shared throughout communities with festive parties and celebrations moving from one home to another.
Lag B’Omer is the 33rd day of counting the Omer. This 49-day cycle is traditionally observed as a time of semi-mourning when Jewish customs forbid, among other things, listening to music, having parties, and shaving or cutting one’s hair. Those restrictions are lifted on Lag B’Omer.
Among the weddings, barbeques and concerts associated with the holiday is the first haircut for boys whose third birthdays fell during the first 32 days of the Omer.
“Imagine that you couldn’t have birthdays for a month and a half,” Altein explained. “All of a sudden you have all those kids coming together to have a party, so it becomes a celebration.”
Of course, in the new world of social distancing and self-isolation even marking the milestone of a first haircut has to be altered due to COVID-19 concerns.
Earlier this month, a post on the Facebook group Jewish Pittsburgh promoted “The Mane Event” for Lag B’Omer, and invited community members to “drive by our houses…say l’chaim with us and our families on our special day.” A note reassured anxious potential celebrants: “All socially distant. Of course!”
Most importantly, noted Langer, the upsherin tradition speaks to both the practical and spiritual natures of those that observe the tradition.
“The haircut part is not rational, it’s based on an idea that goes back to a Kabbalistic school,” he said. “The other part is rational. Your son is getting older and you want to give him his first taste of Jewish education and make it sweet. That’s the straightforward idea, which is not necessarily Kabbalistic.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com