The Upsherin Hair Cutting Ceremony
If you are in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, you might notice male toddlers running around with long, flowing hair. These little boys have not reached their third birthday yet. In these communities, it is traditional to perform a boy's first haircut on his third Hebrew birthday. The haircutting ceremony is called an upsherin in Yiddish, which comes from the phrase "to cut off." Sephardic communities refer to it as chalakah.
The upsherin marks the boy's transition into the Jewish educational system at three years of age. From this point forward, he will begin wearing a kippah, the traditional male headcovering, and tzitzit, a fringed four-cornered undershirt. He will also learn how to recite blessings (known in Hebrew as brachot) when performing mitzvot and recite the Shema, the Jewish statement of faith.
This custom was first mentioned in a book called "Sha'ar Hakavanot" ("The Gateway of Intention"), written by Rabbi Chaim Vital. Rabbi Vital was a student of the noted 16th century Jewish mystic the Arizal.
Why does this tradition exist? As with many Jewish traditions, the upsherin has biblical origins. In the Book of Leviticus, the Torah commands those who plant trees to leave their fruits alone for the first three years. The Torah frequently compares people to trees, because they need the same four basic elements to survive: soil, air, water and fire. The ground provides a place for the tree to take root, whereas the Torah gives Jews their spritual foundation. Air helps the tree perform photosynthesis, and the Hebrew word for "soul" comes from the Hebrew word "to breathe." Water sustains a tree, just as Torah sustains the Jews. Fire, in the form of sunlight, keeps trees alive, while the warmth of friends and family is the cornerstone of the Jewish community. Thus, it became a tradition to cut a boy's hair when he turned three years old.
A family will hold an upsherin hair cutting ceremony in their home or at their local synagogue. They invite friends and relatives to celebrate their son's journey into Jewish learning. It is also popular to hold upsherins at the graves of tzaddikim (holy people). It is not uncommon for Israeli Jews who carry on the tradition of the upsherin to hold the event at Meron, the burial site of Rabbi Shimon, author of the mystical book the Zohar.
During the ceremony, the three year old boy will wear a kippah and tzitzit. Guests take turns cutting one lock of hair at a time, although the honor of cutting the first lock is reserved for a rabbi or a cohen (a member of the priestly class). While the upsherin marks the first time a boy will have his hair cut, the goal is not to cut off all of his hair. His "barbers" will leave sidelocks, known in Hebrew as peyot. Peyot are taken from the commandment in Leviticus not to crop the hair on the sides of the head too closely. The father or rabbi will deliver a brief commentary relating to the Torah. Afterwards, the guests will snack on light refreshments.