Adventures in Lesser-Known Milestones: The Upsherin

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Zalmy Sputz, son of Rabbi Hirshi Sputz and Shevy Sputz, just as his upsherin begins
Zalmy Sputz, son of Rabbi Hirshi Sputz and Shevy Sputz, just as his upsherin begins (Courtesy of Rabbi Hirshi Sputz)

If you’re keeping score on your Jewish milestone celebrations bingo card at home, there are a few squares you’ve probably filled a few times over.

Weddings! Bar and bat mitzvot! Funerals! Brit milot! Brit milot might even count as the free square in the center for men, though that will have to be adjudicated another time.

There are a few squares off in those far-flung corners that are a little harder to come by. Been to a pidyon haben recently? Hmm? Anyone’s second bar or bat mitzvah, celebrated at the age of 83? No?

What about an upsherin?

“It’s a great custom, it’s very exciting for the kids, for the family,” said Rabbi Hirshi Sputz, who runs Chabad of Fairmount with his wife, Shevy Sputz.

An upsherin (alternately spelled upsheren, opsherin or upshernish) is a ritual first haircut for boys upon the occasion of their third birthday. The word itself, according to Chabad.org, is a conglomerate of the German word “sheren,” which means shear, and “Auf,” which means off. This practice is traditionally undertaken within certain Orthodox Ashkenazi communities, though some Orthodox Sephardi communities celebrate a very similar ceremony called chalakah (sometimes spelled halaqa).

Though there are many individual community variants — some Ashkenazi communities perform the upsherin at age 2, and some Sephardi communities wait until 5 — the fundamentals are basically the same.

In honor of a male child’s graduation from infanthood to childhood and their newfound intellectual abilities, Rabbi Mendy Cohen of Chabad of the Main Line explained, friends, family and community members come and snip off most of the boy’s hair, until all that remain are the peyot. The boy will say a few words of Torah, deposit some coins into a tzedakah box and be treated to a celebration after the haircut. He’ll also wear tzitzit and a kippah for the first time.

Though the boy’s induction into wearing the “uniform,” so to speak, is part of the reason for ceremony, it’s also meant to symbolize the beginning of their genuine education in the faith: the age of chinuch (literally, education). Now that they’re able to grasp full sentences and simple ideas, it’s time to look the part of a Jewish male undertaking his education, too.

(As a quick aside: though there is not a similar ceremony for girls at the age of 3, they, too, mark their entrance into the age of chinuch, Sputz said. This will often consist of their beginning to bless the Shabbat candles on Friday night.)

After those basic mechanics, many of the practices related to upsherin will change from community to community, even family to family.

“That’s part of the beauty of customs,” said Rabbi Yehoshua Yeamans of B’nai Israel Ohev Zedek. In Yeamans’ wife’s family, for example, it has become tradition to donate the hair to various wig-making entities, a wide-spread practice.

Elya Cohen, son of Rabbi Mendy Cohen and Temma Cohen, just before his upsherin
Elya Cohen, son of Rabbi Mendy Cohen and Temma Cohen, just before his upsherin (Photo by Sarah R. Bloom)

For some families, the cutting of the first lock of hair is an honor reserved for a rabbi or a Kohen on hand. Whether the hair is saved as some sort of testimonial changes from family to family, too.

There’s also the question of when exactly the ceremony should take place. For some families, according to Cohen, having the upsherin on the exact date of the third birthday (on the Hebrew calendar, of course) is an important factor; for others, it just needs to be in the general vicinity of the date itself.

If you’re a close reader of the Jewish holiday calendar, you already know where that leads. What if a boy’s third birthday falls during the counting of the Omer, when haircuts are forbidden?

Like any Jewish person, they have to wait until Lag B’Omer to get their haircut. For Jewish boys celebrating their upsherin in Israel, however, families will endeavor to perform the ceremony at the graveside of a tzaddik, a holy person; in particular, the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, also known as Rashbi, is a popular site.

The reason for such a specific site goes back to the oldest known example of the upsherin, a practice that has no real basis in the Torah. A student of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th century mystic who is often considered the father of contemporary Kabbalah, wrote that he witnessed his teacher perform his son’s first haircut at the age of 3 at the gravesite. Even then, the student referred to what he saw, and what would come to be known as the upsherin, as a well-known tradition. The true source of the practice remains lost to history.

The Jewish Exponent does not have any breaking news about the origins of the upsherin, unfortunately (send tips to [email protected]). But the joy of the ceremony (and the ever-increasing scale of the accompanying party, according to the rabbis interviewed) isn’t to be missed. Bingo!

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