History of the Upshernish: a medieval custom?

Sunday, 12 December, 2021 - 7:19 pm


The custom to have a celebration for the cutting of the hair of a boy at three years old goes back over five hundred years, recorded in a work by Rabbi David Ibn Zimra (1479-1573), known as the Radbaz,[1] to perform this haircut at the gravesite of Samuel the Prophet. Kabbalist Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), disciple of Rabbi Joseph Karo, Rabbi Moses Alshich and foremost disciple of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) also records in Sha-ar Hakavanot:[2]


The custom in Israel to visit on the 33rd day of the Omer – Lag Ba-omer – to the tomb of the Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son Rabbi Elazar, who are buried in Maron, as is known, and eat and drink and be joyous there – I saw my teacher of blessed memory (Isaac Luria) go there once on the day of Lag Ba-omer – his and all the members of his family, and remain there for the first three days of that week. This was the first time after he came from Egypt. I do not, however, know whether this was when he had already become fluent and knowledgeable in the wonderous wisdom (Kabbalah) that he acquired afterwards.


He further writes:


Rabbi Yonatan Sagish – disciple of the Rabbi Isaac Luria - testified to me that a year before I went to study with my teacher of blessed memory, he brought his young son there (tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) with all the members of his family, and cut his hair, as is the known custom, and made there a day of feasting and celebration.


While the custom appears explicitly to be recorded in Jewish legal works and the works of the Kabbalah in the 16th century, there is an indication that it dates back to the medieval period in the 13th century. The custom appears to have been to celebrate the cutting of the hair for the first time of a child on the intermediate days of the festival - Chol Ha-moed.[3] This is suggested by Rabbi Joseph Karo:[4]


A child can be shaved during the holiday, even if he was born before the holiday (and this is even allowed in public) (this follows from the Mordechai).


This custom, then, was sufficiently established, that it overrides the prohibition of cutting one’s hair of the festival.[5] This was also the custom in the 18th century, as recorded by Rabbi Jonah Nabon (Jerusalem, 1713 - 1760).


Rationale – Torah study


While the custom seems to go back to the medieval period, there is no rationale given as a reason for the celebration. In Shalaot u’teshuvot Arugat Habosem, it offers a biblical support (se-mach) for the custom, based on the Midrash in Parshat Kedoshim on Leviticus 19:23-24:


When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before the L-ord.


Midrash Aggadah states: ‘the fourth year is when the father sanctifies the child to the study of Torah.’ This, then, suggests, the primary rationale of the custom is educational. As the child matures cognitively and is able to be taught the Torah, one should begin to study with the child Torah, perform the mitzvot - and celebrate the occasion to do so.


Why celebrate a haircut? Leave peyot


Screenshot 2021-12-13 at 18.32.33.pngThe celebration in connection with a haircut (upshernish) indicates a further concept. In addition, it is not the haircut in itself that is celebrated, but rather the fact that by cutting the hair of the child, the peyot (corners of the head) are left, thus performing the biblical commandment in Leviticus (19:27): ‘You shall not round off the side-growth on your head.’ This is the reason mentioned by Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneerson (1880-1950):[6]


With regard to [a child’s first] haircut, the upsherinish: It is a matter of great [significance] among the customs of the Jewish people. It’s essential purpose is to train the child to leave peyot. From the day of the haircut [when] the peyot are left, it is customary to carefully train the child to wear a tallit kattan and to recite the morning blessings, the Grace after Meals, and the Shema before retiring.


Jewish identity


According to Ibn Ezra, the leaving of the sides of one’s head is an expression of one’s Jewish identity, since abstaining from this is due to the fact that it is something that the non-Jewish nations do, and thus a desire to be separated from them. Similarly, Sforno states: ‘Seeing that it is part of revering the L-rd and honouring Him not to desecrate our own bodies which He sanctified to enable us to serve Him, the Torah begins with a list of prohibitions designed to emphasise this point. ‘You shall not round off the side-growth on your head’ - we must not desecrate our heads by removing its hair as is the custom of gentile clergy or fools and drunkards.


Virtue of cutting one’s hair


The fact that the celebration is, however, the cutting of the hair, indicates there may be something of spiritual significance in the haircut itself. This however would seem in contradiction with the virtue of the laws of vows, pertaining to a nazir in Numbers (6:2): ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If anyone, man or woman, explicitly utters a nazirite’s vow, to set himself apart for the L-ord. A person who wishes to totally dedicate oneself to G-d, takes a vow not to cut one’s hair.’ Sefer Ha-chinuch (374:2) states: ‘And this is the holiness of the nazirite and his loftiness, as he departs from the physical.’ Similarly, the Mishnah states in Ethics of the Fathers (3:13): ‘Vows a fence to abstinence.’[7] In tractate Yevamot, it states: ‘Rava said, you must sanctify yourself by refraining from that which is permitted to you by Torah law.’ Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555-1631) comments on the latter:[8] holiness in this context - that one should refrain from that which is permitted, whereby the person becomes holy - refers also to a nazir, who is referred to as consecrated, as it states in Numbers:[9] ‘Throughout the term of his vow as nazirite, no razor shall touch his head; it shall remain consecrated until the completion of his term as nazirite of the L-ord, the hair of his head being left to grow untrimmed.’ This would suggest there is no virtue in cutting the hair in itself.


Not being a nazir brings G-d into the world


In Jewish thought, however, a higher spiritual level than abstinence is the idea than one should not need to take any kind of vow at all. The reason for this is, since the ultimate purpose of creation is the lower worlds. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) writes in the Tanya:[10]


The ultimate purpose [of creation] is this lowest world, for such was His blessed will that He shall have satisfaction when the sitra achra is subdued and the darkness is turned to light, so that the Divine light of the blessed En Sof shall shine forth in the place of the darkness and sitra achra throughout this world, all the more strongly and intensely, with the excellence of light emerging from darkness, than its effulgence in the higher worlds, where it shines through "garments" and in concealment of the Countenance, which screen and conceal the light of the blessed En Sof, in order that they should not dissolve out of existence.


Bringing G-d into the lowest world through refinement would require that a person should not negate the world, through vows, including that of the nazarite, but rather that a person should be in a state whereby they do not need to make any vows at all.[11] Accordingly, the idea that a three year old child celebrates one’s coming of age into Jewish education and the performance of mitzvot through a hair cutting, is also a declaration that a child is on a healthy spiritual path that one need not adapt abstinence – negating the world – as a pathway to G-d, but rather embracing the idea that the ultimate purpose of creation and of the study of Torah and mitzvot is to bring G-d into all aspects of existence, thereby completing the purpose of creation. 





[1] Sha-a lot u-teshuvot Radbaz 2:238.

[2] Inyan Sefirat Ha-omer, Drush 12 (p. 87a) -

[3] Sha-a lot u’teshguvot, Ginat Veradim. Kuntres Gan Hamelechii 62. Yechaveh Da’at 5:35.

[4] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 531:6.

[5] Moed Katan 13b. Shulchan AruchOrach Chaim 531.

[6] This citation is from the letter the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, would send parents in connection with the Upsherinish of their children.

[7] See Hosea 4:11: "Promiscuity, wine and new wine take the heart."

[8] Chidushei Agadot on Yevamot 20a.

[9] Numbers 6:5.

[10] Tanya, ch. 36.

[11] Likkutei Sichot 13:107-8.



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