What Is An Upshernish?
It is a long-standing custom for Jewish parents to let their sons' hair grow and cut it for the first time at the age of three. Exactly when this custom started is unclear. The students of the Kabbalistic sage, the AriZal (Rabbi Isaac Luria) relate that he took his son to the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar, in Meron for this ceremony. They do not speak of the Ari's act as an innovation he initiated, but rather as his adherence to an ancient and revered custom. Significantly, this practice is observed in both Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities.
The ceremony is intended to train a child to observe the mitzvah (commandment) of peyos (leaving the “earlocks,”) but as well it is considered as the initial phase of a child's conscious Jewish education, carrying far greater significance than the observance of this particular prohibition.
The Rabbis draw a connection between this custom and several other mitzvos. For example, a connection is drawn to the mitzvah of orlah, (the prohibition against benefiting from the fruits that grow in the first three years of a tree's life.) In the fourth year, by contrast, the happy farmer took his harvest to Jerusalem, to partake of it in an environment of holiness.
Similarly, the Torah compares man to a tree. In the first three years of a child's life, there are no edible fruits – no tangible returns for a parent's endeavors. During the fourth year, there are harvests of holiness; the first fruits of the child's education are seen. He begins learning verses from the Torah. This process is inaugurated by reaping – by cutting off his locks of hair.
Others compare it to the mitzvah of the gifts of the first shearings of one's herd of sheep to the priests. The sages of the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystic tradition, associate sheep with the arousal of Divine mercy and the outpouring of kindness that is untempered by judgment.
Others note that when the Torah mentions the term “and he shall remove his hair”, the letter gimmel is oversized. Now gimmel is numerically equivalent to three, alluding to the fact that there is a removal of hair which is a holy act performed when a child reaches the age of three.
There are many different customs regarding the date of the child's first haircut. In Rabbinic literature, it is mentioned that some would permit having the child's first hair cut at the age of thirteen weeks. Other sources, mention delaying the cutting of the hair until the age of five. In the land of Israel, most communities give the child his 1st haircut at three. Some however, follow the practice of holding the upshernish on the holiday of Lag B'Omer at the grave site of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, even if the child's third birthday is somewhat before or somewhat after that holiday.
In the Lubavitch community, the Rebbe instituted the custom of holding the upshernish on the day of the child's third birthday itself, not before or after. When asked if it was better to wait until an “auspicious day,” he commented that “since it is Jewish custom to hold an upshernish when the child reaches the age of three, this is ‘a good an auspicious hour.’ Who knows whether it will be possible to choose a time of equivalent Divine favor?” If for certain reasons, the celebration accompanying the upshernish could not be held on the appropriate day, the actual hair cutting should be held on the child's birthday and the celebration on a day when it is convenient.
Generally, the custom is to hold the upshernish during the day, after the morning prayers. There are, however, those who hold the celebration at night.
Traditionally, it was customary for an upshernish to be carried out in a holy place. As mentioned above, the AriZal carried out his son's upshernish in Meron, at the grave site of the holy Sage, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Year after year, particularly on the anniversary of that Sage's passing on Lag B'Omer, but even throughout the year, thousands emulate that practice. Similarly, the Radbaz, a renown Rabbinic authority of the 16th century, speaks of making the upshernish at the grave of the prophet Samuel. And others would customarily carry out this custom at the grave of Shimon HaTzaddik in Jerusalem.
If a person does not live near such a holy place, there are many who hold - or at least begin - the upshernish in a synagogue or house of study. There is no sense of the haircut being considered as inappropriate in such places, for the practice is considered as a celebration associated with a mitzvah.
It is customary to have righteous men and sages participate in the upshernish. Chassidim would frequently take their children to the Rebbe to have him initiate the haircutting. If that was not possible, they would write to the Rebbe who would respond with a letter of blessing.
It is appropriate to invite many guests for this celebration. Similarly, frequently, it is enhanced by songs and music.
Since the upshernish is a landmark in the child's education, the child should be involved in the preparations for the ceremony. It is valuable to take him to see the upshernish of his friends and relatives to familiarize him with the customs and arouse his eagerness for the time when all eyes will be focused on him, as he begins his active participation in his Jewish education.
In these photos, Yudi's hair was first cut Saturday night, at the holy “ohel” of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. A Kohein, (my husband, his grandfather,) Levi, and Yisroel (his father,) cut first. Two braids were cut off, to be donated to an organization in Israel, which makes wigs for children with cancer, r"l. Then everyone else snipped, and donated tzedaka (charity) to be given to the school where Yudi will learn. Even his little sister Gitty got to take a snip. After the party, Yudi got his first real haircut, and will have a special ceremony this week to enroll in school.
First Haircut - Upshernish
What Is An Upshernish?