Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Hair Cutting Ceremony in Jewish Tradition

On Tuesday we celebrated the 3rd birthday of my second son which included birthday party and of course the upsherin or chalakah (ritual hair cutting). As per the Jewish custom, we let our son’s hair grow and did not cut it until his 3rd birthday. When considering the occasion of this ritual haircutting, I began to wonder what the source of this custom is. The common theme that I had heard was attributed to “deeper” Jewish sources comparing the child to a tree, whose fruit we do not take for the first three years of its growth, so too we are accustomed to not cutting the hair. Another idea for the child adorning a talis katan and kippah at this auspicious moment is an educational process whereby we bring the child into a more recognizable mindset of keeping mitvos by utilizing these external devices, talis katan, kippah and leaving the peyos (by cutting the hair). However, why at age 3, why not before or after?

I had once heard that Rabbi Sperber, in his encyclopedic work on Jewish customs entitled Minhagei Yisrael, discussed this very topic, and therefore on the eve of the upsherin I decided to do some research. The appropriate section is found in the 8th volume, 1st chapter, page 13. The sources which he brings are vast, ranging from kabbalistic “sources” to Medieval German folklore!

Although the custom of cutting a child’s hair at age 3 is not mentioned in shas or Poskim, there are several Jewish sources which allude to this custom and connection. These sources are the Talmud Yerushalmi (Peah), Midrash Tanchuma (Kedoshim) and a story relayed of the Arizal by one of the students of the Arizal.

1. (Yerushalmi Pe’ah 1: 4)

הלכה ד מתני' ...ובאילן האוג והחרובים האגוזים והשקדים והגפנים והרימונים הזיתים והתמרים חייבין בפיאה:
...כי תחבוט זיתך מה את ש"מ אמר רבי יונה לא תקיפו פאת ראשיכם

This is the place where the author of Yalkut Hatispores (ר. יוסף סערעבריאנסקי) suggests is an early allusion to the connection between cutting of one's hair and the laws of cutting the crop of the field.

2. Midrash Tanchuma (Kedoshim 14)
Based on the verse in Vayikra 19: 23

וְכִי תָבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ וּנְטַעְתֶּם כָּל עֵץ מַאֲכָל וַעֲרַלְתֶּם עָרְלָתוֹ אֶת פִּרְיוֹ שָׁלשׁ שָׁנִים יִהְיֶה לָכֶם עֲרֵלִים לֹא יֵאכל
The midrash states:

ונטעתם וערלתם הכתוב מדבר בתינוק שלש שנים יהיה לכם ערלים שאינו יכול להשיח ולא לדבר ובשנה הרביעית יהיה כל פריו קדש שאביו מקדישו לתורה

From here we see that a child is compared to a tree, whereby at 3 years it enters a new stage of development.

3. Pri Etz Chaim: Shaar Sefiras HaOmer 7 (Relayed by R. Yisrael Seruk to R. Chaim Vital). There it states that the Arizal tok his son to Meron to the Grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai to cut his hair. His wife was also there and they stayed for 3 days of celebration. One of the Rebbes of Lubavitch explained that emphasis on cutting of the hair and leaving the peyos was to signify the removal of the hair which is considered din (judgment) and the extension of rachamim (mercy) through leaving the peyos. According to Sperber, it is not mentioned explicitly that the child was 3 years old (although I have not seen this inside to verify that claim).

Sperber also traces the custom of not cutting a child’s (quite specifically a male, although not always limited to) hair to several non Jewish nations as well. The following sources are taken from the same chapter as previously cited.

• Robertson Smith in his Lectures on the Religion of the Semites claims that among the Hebrews and Arabs there was the custom of shaving the head or part of it and depositing it upon the tomb or funeral pyre. This was a type of hair “offering” (not in the official sense as in a korban, but ceremonial). (p. 20)
• The South Hungarian tent gypsies also have interesting rituals for when a child has their first haircut. (p. 20)
• The Ancient Greeks also had ceremonies dedicating the cutting of the first hair to the gods. It was an offering which signified a religious initiation entering into maturity. (p.21)
• In Roman times, we are told that Caesar held a great feast after shaving his beard, whereby the entire nation celebrated with festivities.
• Edward Lane in “The Manners and Customs of Modern Egyptians states that when a boy is 2 or 3 years old his head is shaven. Their ancestors observed this custom, and the weight of the hair in gold and silver was given to the poor. (p. 24)
• In medieval times in Germany, a boy’s hair was not cut until they were seven. The hair was taken to be a symbol of strength and cutting of the hair was assumed to weaken the body. Therefore, one waited until the body was strong enough to eventually cut the hair. (p. 19)

There seem to be many races and cultures that view the first haircutting as an important occasion and celebrate accordingly. Once again the question of how the Jewish tradition developed is quite open to interpretation since there are no clear sources documenting the origins of this custom. Nevertheless, our personal experience was positive and certainly signified a transition to a new stage of maturity for our son and my wife and I both hope he continues developing and transitioning into greater levels of maturity.


Zohar said...

See Rav Binyomin Hamburger in Shorshei Minhag Ashkenaz

The original custom is that haircuts are made whenever the hair gets long, with no ceremony.

RS said...

Zohar, Thanks for your comments. I will check out those sources that you mentioned. By the way, how did you get to my blog (just curious)?