Question: What is Upsherin?
Answer: Up What?
Have you ever seen young boys from observant Jewish families wearing long ponytails, making them look more like flower children than orthodox Jews?
Traditional Jews often wait until a boy's third birthday before giving him his first haircut. The haircut is then performed during a festive celebration called an upsherin.
Upsherin means to "shear off" in Yiddish. It derives from the German words scheren, which means "to shear" and auf, which means "off."
The custom is based on biblical verses (Deut.20:19 and Lev. 19:23, 27) that compare man to a tree. Just as a tree matures from a tiny seed to fruit-bearing tree, likewise a child grows more knowledgeable and bears fruit via good deeds. Just as the Torah requires newly planted fruit trees be allowed to grow unharvested for three years, a child's hair can be left uncut for three years.
"Orlah" (off-limits) is the term for all the unharvested fruit which grows on a tree the first three years. Just as orlah fruit is off-limits for three years, a child's hair can be let alone for three years.
The tradition dates as far back as the 16th century and has connections to Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). Rabbi Chaim Vital, in Sha'ar HaKavonot, wrote that his teacher, "Isaac Luria, cut his son's hair on Lag B'Omer, according to the well known custom."
The Number Three
In additional to the Torah verses about orlah, there are additional reasons why three years is a fitting age for a first haircut.
The upsherin is the third in a series of "cuts" symbolizing a child's movement away from his mother and into the world. First the umbilical cord is cut after the birth, then the foreskin is cut during the bris. The haircut marks the beginning of the child's movement into society. At three, a child is ready to be less dependent on his mother and to interact more independently with other adults and friends.
Age three also marks a turning point in a child's intellectual development. In orthodox circles, three year old boys officially begin to learn Torah. It is traditional to give the child his first tzitzit (fringes of the tallit prayer shawl) at the upsherin. Some people also use this celebration as a time to introduce the child to the Hebrew alphabet.
In a way, the shearing off of baby hair symbolizes movement from babyhood to childhood. Perhaps this first haircut clarifies to the child, on an emotional level, that his life is changing and expectations of him will also change.
How To Upsherin
As a custom, there is no one correct way to celebrate an upsherin. Upsherin ideas can be adapted to reflect the child and his family's personalities.
Some people prefer to hold an upsherin in their home, but often people prefer it to be in a synagogue or other holy place.
An old custom is to dip the child's fingers in honey and place them on Hebrew letters or to have the child lick honey off of cards with Hebrew letters. Today people instead often make cupcakes or lollipops with Hebrew letters on them, a cake with a Torah on it, and other sweets connected to learning Hebrew and Torah.
Divrai Torah (words of Torah) are often prepared and spoken by a rabbi, the parents or other relatives. The boy is often blessed for success in Torah. The child can sing Torah Tziva Lanu Moshe -- "The Torah was commanded to us through Moses, an inheritance for all the Jewish people" (Deut. 33:4).
When it is time to cut the hair, the first cut is generally taken at the spot where the child will someday place his tefillin (small box containing Torah passages worn on the forehead during weekday morning prayer services). The scissors, then, are usually passed around as family and friends each take a snip. In the end, often a professional barber is brought in to give the boy a real haircut.
The child often receives his first tzitzit during the upsherin. Hebrew music and dancing around the child can make the occasion more joyous for all.
In Israel, many boys get their first haircut on Lag B'Omer at the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in Meron, Israel. Why? The bonfires lit on Lag B'Omer are symbolic of the light of the Torah which was revealed by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in his book of Kabbalah called The Zohar (Bright Light). The upsherin marks the onset of the child's entrance into Torah learning. Often the hair from the haircuts is thrown into the bonfires.
Evolution of the Custom
After the upsherin, some people weigh the boy's hair, and then give an equivalent value to charity. Others donate the hair itself to organizations that make wigs for children who lost their hair to cancer.
Today, some families who practice progressive Judaism hold upsherin for girls and give their daughters tzitzit.