Source: Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly: "Belief and Practice: Jewish Hair-Cutting Ceremony"
Judaism Glossary (Document)
The practice of some Jewish parents to wait until their sons are three years old before cutting their hair for the first time -- known as upsherin in Yiddish, or chalakeh in Hebrew -- dates back as far as the 16th century. Although not widely practiced, the upsherin illustrates key facets of Judaism: the importance of education, the practice of tzedakah (charity), the centrality of family and community, and the view that religion permeates every aspect of life -- even a haircut.
Because it is only a custom and not Jewish law, there isn't one correct way to perform an upsherin. Traditions vary and are carried down through generations. For some, it is customary to have the upsherin in a holy place, such as the gravesite of a revered rabbi, a synagogue or a yeshiva (a Jewish house of study). Others have the ceremony in their homes, reception halls or other public spaces.
A rabbi often makes the first cut. Scissors are then passed around, and parents and guests are invited to take a snip. Usually, a barber is brought in to finish up with a professional cut. Among Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox families, the hair is cut to form payot, Jewish side curls, in observance of the biblical commandment not to cut the hair on the sides of the head.
It is typical for Jews to commemorate life-cycle events with acts of charity, and the upsherin is no exception. Some Jews weigh the hair that is cut and give an equivalent amount to charity. Others donate the cut hair to organizations that make wigs for children who have lost their hair to cancer. The little boy in the video gives his guests coins to drop in a box that has been designated for charity.
For many Orthodox boys, the upsherin marks the day when they begin to regularly wear a yarmulke and tzitzit. The upsherin also marks the beginning of a boy's formal education. To emphasize the sweetness of learning, it is customary for the child to lick honey off a Hebrew letter, as shown in the video. Sometimes children eat cupcakes or lollipops with Hebrew letters on them or indulge in other sweets connected to learning Hebrew and the Torah.
Among traditionally Orthodox Jews, only boys celebrate an upsherin. However, the upsherin is becoming increasingly popular among Jewish Renewal families who have adopted the custom and are finding creative ways to celebrate it with both boys and girls.
Rabbi YISRAEL DEREN (Director, Chabad Lubavitch, Fairfield County, CT): The upsherin is a ceremony that marks a little boy's third birthday. It marks the beginning of a little boy's formal education. As far as we are concerned, there is nothing more important than education.
The Bible talks about a human being, referring to a human being as "ki ha'adam etz hasadeh" -- the man's compared to a tree in the field. From an educational perspective, a tree grows best when it has deep and solid roots.
Now, we find with the tree, the Bible tells us that the first three years, its fruits are not to be eaten. We sort of extrapolate from there -- from a mystical perspective -- and wait three years before we cut a little boy's hair for the first time.
We've actually combined two ceremonies at once here, because another tradition that we have, which is that a child, upon beginning the educational process, is brought into the schoolroom wrapped in a tallit, a prayer shawl. When Berel was brought in, the assembled showered him with sweets -- the notion that his life should be a sweet one.
And a chart with the Hebrew alphabet is placed before the child, and the teacher will take some honey and smear it on the first letter of the alphabet and let the child lick from the honey, symbolizing the notion that learning is a sweet experience, learning is a delightful experience.
One by one, everybody walks up to Berel and takes a snip of his hair. The haircutting itself becomes an educational experience. It's a mitzvah, where you cut the hair and you leave the payot, the hair along the side. And the central message here -- that every aspect and every element of our lives ultimately can be endowed and therefore must be endowed with a higher and divine purpose, so that even a haircut acquires a religious significance.
Traditionally, the child has a couple of coins that he gives out to everybody who comes over and encourages that person to give that coin to charity. In fact, what he or she simply is really doing is "tzedakah" -- righteousness, the right thing, the proper and appropriate thing ...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Mazel tov.
Rabbi DEREN: ... which is to take what we have and use it to make the world around us a better place. So he's helping somebody else do the mitzvah. The other person is doing the mitzvah and, meanwhile, acts of goodness and kindness begin to multiply. Now imagine if everybody walked out of here and encouraged another couple of people to do that and they, in turn, encouraged another couple of people to do that. We believe that every human being truly does have the ability to change the entire world, one good deed at a time.
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