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What to Expect at an Upshernish

What to Expect at an Upshernish

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Photo: Flash90
Photo: Flash90

So, you have been invited to an upshernish. What exactly is an upshernish, and what do you need to know to attend?

The word upshern or upshernish means “hair-cutting” in Yiddish. It is an age-old custom to allow a little boy’s hair to grow untouched until he’s three years old, and on his third Jewish birthday, to invite friends and community members to a festive haircutting ceremony. In Hebrew it’s called a chalakah.

As in one sense an upshernish is a glorified child’s birthday party, there will often be kid-friendly food and activities (such as face paint, balloons, or a craft table) as well as adult refreshments on offer. But this is a celebration for everyone to attend, with or without a little cupcake enthusiast in tow.

What is being celebrated, exactly?

For the first three years of life, the child was a baby—a receiver, not yet ready to give. At the age of three, his development takes a leap. He is now ready to actively participate in the process of his education. The world will soon begin to benefit from the mitzvot—the good deeds—he will perform.

The haircut is significant, and not just because he will look very different afterwards—whereas before he was a long-haired tot, whose hair his mother lovingly tended and who was perhaps sometimes even mistaken for a little girl, he will now be transformed a short-haired little boy. The chapter of his babyhood is closing.

Photo: Flash90
Photo: Flash90

But there is more to this haircut than that.

While all the rest of his hair will be cut short, the child’s peyot (biblically mandated side locks) will be left intact—this is his initiation into the mitzvah of peyot. From this point on, he will also be taught to wear a kippah and tzitzit (four-cornered fringed garment), and he will be increasingly expected to do other mitzvot as well.

The child is not only making a leap from baby to little boy—he is making a leap from baby to proud Jewish boy. This is a transition that is relevant to the entire community, and that becomes more meaningful with the presence of every additional guest.

Photo: Baruch Meir (Brett) Walkow Photography
Photo: Baruch Meir (Brett) Walkow Photography

What to expect?

An upsherin is traditionally a modest event. While it is usually held at home or in a local synagogue, there is plenty of variation (a barbecue in the park, for example). Light refreshments or hors d’oeuvres, buffet style, are the standard fare.

There will usually be lots of mingling and munching time both before and after the ceremony. The details of the hair-cutting ceremony itself are not set in stone. Unlike many Jewish events, there are no Hebrew words involved, as the upshernish is a valued tradition rather than a halachically-mandated event.

Photo: Baruch Meir (Brett) Walkow Photography
Photo: Baruch Meir (Brett) Walkow Photography

What to Wear?

Whatever you would wear to any community event will likely be right for an upshernish. Men are encouraged to wear a kippah (a baseball cap can do in a pinch) and women will probably feel most comfortable in a modest dress or modest skirt and top.

What to Bring?

A gift is appropriate. While this can be any gift appropriate for a three-year-old boy, if it has Jewish value, all the better. Examples include a Jewish puzzle, a collection of Jewish-themed stickers, or an age-appropriate Jewish book. You can also give a gift certificate to a Jewish book store. If you don’t have a Jewish store nearby, you can order just about anything online these days.

Photo: Baruch Meir (Brett) Walkow Photography
Photo: Baruch Meir (Brett) Walkow Photography

The Ceremony:

At some point during the party, someone, usually a family member, will take the stage to welcome everyone to the party and speak a few words of Torah.

The lad, dressed in tzitzit and kipah, will be brought to sit in a chair that may be raised and specially decorated. The honor of cutting the first lock is often reserved for a grandfather or other special guest. All other guests are then invited to approach and cut off a snippet of the little boy’s hair.

In Chabad communities, a charity box will often be put near where the boy is sitting. Guests are invited to give coins to the little boy to put in the box. Coins may be provided for anyone who does not happen to have small change handy. This is a way of signify that this party is about an increase in mitzvot, and is also something that may engage the newly-minted three-year-old.

Did you find this informative? This is part of a series of “What to Expect” articles that offer visitors a basic understanding of Jewish rituals and traditions.

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Susan Plattsburgh August 4, 2017

Thank you for this informative article! We have been invited to an upshernish in September and did not know what was appropriate to bring. Much appreciated! One further question: are non-Jews also welcome, generally? Reply

Chabad.org Staff via chabadone.org January 23, 2017

To Joan Yes! Reply

Joan January 23, 2017

Are women allowed to cut a lock of hair as well as men? Reply

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