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A Jewish Boy’s First Haircut

A Jewish Boy’s First Haircut

Musings from the mother of a newly “upsherined” boy


Not long ago, my husband and I planted a tree. We watered it and provided it with light and sustenance. We dreamed of the day when it would reach maturity and tower over us. But as we nurtured our crop and watched it grow, the unexpected happened. We too began to develop and blossom.

That tree is our three-year-old son. And just as Jewish law requires a farmer to leave a newly planted tree unharvested for the first three years as a gift to G‑d, we left our son’s hair untouched.

Recently, we celebrated his upsherin, in which we cut his hair for the first time. Although I had longed for the day when I would not have to battle his unruly curls, I approached the milestone with reluctance. An upsherin, which literally means “shearing off” in Yiddish, marks the beginning of a child’s formal Jewish education. But it also marks the end of his babyhood.

When my husband first told me of his family’s observance, I produced a myriad of arguments. I wanted a cherubic-looking baby with neatly cropped hair, and didn’t have time for grooming long tangled hair. Besides, the custom clashed with my modern sensibilities. Such traditions are more appropriate for chassidic Jews in tightly insulated communities, where everyone adheres to a rigid brand of Judaism. How would I explain his appearance? Everyone would mistake him for a girl.

But I also marveled that the tradition has been carried down through generations of my husband’s family. It is a joyous expression of faith that connects his ancestors to their descendants in a meaningful way. Living Jewishly, I realized, is more than following a series of dos and don’ts. It is a lifestyle we can make richer and more fulfilling through spontaneous acts that make our religion come alive. I decided that continuing the tradition must supersede my own preference.

The root of the upsherin is a verse in the Torah which compares man to a tree. Just as a tree emerges from a tiny seed to grow tall and bear fruit, so a small child grows in knowledge and bears the fruit of his good deeds. Therefore, just as the Torah requires that newly planted fruit trees grow unharvested for three years and then have their fruits offered to G‑d, the tradition calls for leaving a boy’s hair uncut.

Age three also marks a turning point in a child’s intellectual development. In the first months of my son’s life, I saw few “fruits,” or tangible manifestations of my child-rearing efforts. Now, however, I see the harvests of holiness and rewards of his education. He actively participates in religious rituals, reciting the blessings and prayers with enough fervor to inspire an atheist.

But his long mane took some getting used to. He refused to wear a ponytail or hat, so I couldn’t hide his growing mass of curls. As I strolled around town with my hippie, everyone commented on my beautiful girl. My modern and non-Orthodox friends were shocked that someone like me would keep such an “old world” tradition.

In time, as my son grew taller and his hair grew longer, the tradition grew on me. I found beauty and meaning in it, and embraced it as my own. When I explained the custom to others, most found it as lovely as I did. If they didn’t, I assured them that my son’s head start on long hair would spare him from a long-haired rebellion in the teens. When strangers complimented my girl, I thanked them and demonstrated the truth by changing his diaper on the spot.

I soon discovered that I was not the only mother outside of Borough Park whose son resembled a flower child. Numerous modern Orthodox families have adopted the custom in recent years, and are finding creative ways to celebrate it. Some travel to Tzfat to cut the hair at the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Others take the child to a yeshivah, where the child is serenaded with biblical verses.

Planning my son’s upsherin was intimidating, because I had never attended one. Luckily, I had a Lubavitch friend, Zalman Shmotkin, who filled me in on the details. He provided us with an assortment of beautiful ideas, and we adapted them to reflect our personalities. We learned that it is preferable to hold an upsherin in a holy place and to have a righteous person cut the hair. So we made it in our synagogue, and gave the first snip to a rabbi we admire. It is also customary to dip the child’s fingers in honey and place them on Hebrew letters, to bring home the sweetness of learning. Instead we had Torah-shaped lollipops, a cake with a little Torah on top and a musician playing Hebrew music.

Our rabbi spoke eloquently, but my son, dressed in checkered pants and a matching vest, stole the show. He stood up on a chair and sang Torah Tzivah Lanu Moshe with as much gusto as a guy in a beer commercial. Then it was haircut time. Our rabbi took the first cut—at the precise spot, he announced, where my son will someday place his tefillin. I squeezed my eyes shut, half expecting the same cries I heard at his bris (circumcision), which seems like it was just yesterday. But when I looked up, he was grinning. The only teary eyes were mine.

As we snipped off his baby locks, we symbolically cut my son away from my umbilical cord and pushed him towards adulthood. I watched as the scissors were passed from our rabbi to our parents and friends, and felt my child moving away from the security of my womb into the larger community.

When it was all over, we made a circle around my son and danced. He was enthusiastic about his new hairdo, which was finished off by a professional barber. Peering into the mirror, he proclaimed, “I’m a man!”

Most parents save the hair for posterity. We gave it away to a better cause. The morning after the upsherin, I mailed my son’s golden curls to Locks for Love, an organization that makes wigs for children who lost their hair to cancer. It was uplifting, knowing that someone else will benefit from my son’s upsherin.

For the next few days I kept staring at my son, who suddenly looked older. My baby was gone, replaced by a toddler. I vowed to savor this new stage by memorizing his antics and capturing him on camera. But I foresaw the future: fewer kisses, less handholding and bedtime stories.

Eventually he will want to plant his own garden, and will move out from our house into his own. The peace and quiet I had craved when he was born will return more quickly than I had anticipated. Sometimes I wish man was more like a tree, unchanging and rooted in time and place through centuries. But I know that this is not our calling. As we grow, we travel away from our roots into new homes, friendships and careers. We aim to make our mark on the world, but as the seasons change, our works are forgotten. Much of our accomplishments are as fleeting and temporary as the leaves that bloom in the spring and fall in the autumn.

But I am comforted, knowing of the small things we can do that are everlasting. We can plant a tree. We can create happy memories. We can pass on a beautiful custom to our children. That, after all, is the ultimate gift we can give our descendants.

Someday, I hope, as my son’s branches extend to form new seedlings, he will say as much to his children.

Deena Yellin is a reporter at a daily newspaper in New Jersey. Her work has been published in The Jerusalem Post, Newsday and The New York Times.
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Milana New York August 16, 2016

Wow it was beautiful and what a explanation my suns 3 birthday is coming up and I wanted to explain what this is all about but didn't know how to put the words but you said it so beautifully and so touching and so true thank you . Can't wait until he gets a haircut he doesn't let me brush his hair it's beautiful and long but it's a lot of work . I want to make him a potty but I want the party to have meaning and explanation of what the ritual is so others that don't understand or think this is not necessary understand thank you very much. Reply

Joshua October 14, 2014

How beautiful! Even though I am not Jewish, I am always in awe with the traditions and the wonderful things you do to make your heritage and your relationship with G-d come alive! There is truly no richer a culture than that of the children of Israel. May your son one day and with the same conviction teach his children the beautiful traditions and commandments G-d has planted in him through you! Reply

Rachel D. Philadelphia September 1, 2012

Not married just yet, but I'm praying that
G-d willing when that time comes, my firstborn will be male (personal and practical reasons)... and now will be looking forward to upsherin! Definitely beautiful! Reply

Jack March 14, 2012

Upsherin When I was in Meah Shearim many years ago in the spring, I observed a bearded man cutting the hair off several young boys and placing the cut hair in a barrel which contained a fire. Can someone tell me what this custom was ? Thanks Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma March 13, 2012

a beautiful story The "mane" thing is always about LOVE, and this is about LOVE and so I respect the traditional custom, as this is done, being about a symbolic connectivity, to G_d, to what is Divine, and surely for this reason, it must be respected.

Many Jews are not of this persuasion, but I do deeply believe we need to understand each other, and that there are many iterations of love, each one, valuable, and each to be respected and honored. We need to educate each other in that dignity and respect.

I think your little "flower child" has probably blossomed into a fine young man. Reply

Elderfich ABUJA, NIGERIA March 13, 2012

UPSHERIN This ancient tradition has been with us in Igbo Land in Nigeria, West Africa. It is a holy practice, keep it and cherish it. Reply

Aliza Waterbury, Connecticut March 13, 2012

So beautifully written! Reply

Sandy new city, ny March 8, 2011

I agree! Deena,
I found your story so inspiring! I am also a more "modern" Orthadox Jew. I grew up Conservative, and the whole upsherin idea was totally foreign to me as well. Just like you, it was my husband's family's custom to do it, and I reluctantly agreed, with the same hesitation that you had. Also, just like you, I have come to enjoy his long hair and the babyhood and innocense it represents. Your story has inspired me to really see the significanse of this coming event (this Sunday!) and to see at as a beautiful beginning to my son's education. Thanks for your story! Reply

M H Brooklyn, NY United States June 29, 2010

to charles A minhag is not just a custom that immigrated from the shtetel and it is definitely not a distraction. Our sages say "minhag Yisroel Torah hi", a Jewish custom is (to a degree) actual Torah. As commentaries and the Rebbe discuss numerous times, it is in the details and customs that we celebrate and transmit the love of Judaism. Customs are truly the spirit of the Jewish law. Reply

Alice Stern Charleston, SC April 13, 2010

Gifts What is an appropriate gift to bring for the child? Reply

Anonymous Montreal, Quebec November 23, 2009

To Charles Jackson Firstly, it is a dangerous thing to make light of a 'minhag' (custom). If it is not your minhag then don't do it, but to make light of it because it is not a halacha, is actually against halacha.

Also, how in the world can such a beautiful event be a distraction from the real responsibility of parents??? Reply

Debby New York November 5, 2009

Cry Maybe I'm just hormonal, but this article made me cry. My son will have his upshirnish in a couple of months and it is a milestone I am looking forward to celebrating, but at the same time I am Deena put it so well. The beauty and wonder of watching your children grow up while at the same time wishing you can freeze time... But we and our children have a mission to do. Good luck to all parents preparing our children to be strong, proud, moral Jews. Reply

Chaya Bachar Sequim October 3, 2009

Josiah I am not orthodox, but I am the godmother of a child. My friend Daniel is Hassidic and his first born son, Josiah Chaim, is having his third birthday on October 4th - the day of his upsherin. To celebrate, they will come to my hometown (they live in Brooklyn) so that I can be one of the first to cut his hair. Josiah is proud of becoming a 'little man' at last. He said to me , "Now i wait to become a REAL man' (as in reference to his Bar Mitzvah 10 years from now :) Reply

Anonymous Montgomery, Al August 10, 2009

upsherin This is beautiful. It may be only a "custom" but if it encourages the child and parents to focus on moving forward to Torah training is it not wonderful?

Thank you to whoever spoke of the girls. We have only recently turned to more Torah observance and that was helpful. Reply

charles jackson new york, ny August 2, 2009

hair cutting it is but a custom with virtually no halachik support or reason.

there are a lot more important things to worry about, and, more importantly, it is a distraction from the real responsibility of parents Reply

Estee Toronto, ON via April 30, 2009

Lovely Truly considerate and well thought out decision to wait. There is a lot of value in putting a "Dagesh" (emphasis) on transitions for youth and this seems to be significant for Mendel too, as indicated by his comment. Very cute and a wonderful display of introspection and faith. Looking forward to the Toronto version. Reply

liz maimi, fl April 29, 2009

What a wonderful story! I am also planning my son's upsherin and have never attended one. I didn't realize how this special and holy time in my life would affect me and my family. Reply

Julie Augusta, Georgia via February 25, 2009

a girl a girl starts lighting shabbat candles at the age of 3 Reply

andrea huvard camarillo, ca August 5, 2008

upsherin My son will be having his upsherin in 2 weeks and we are all excited and anxious about our little "tarzan" turning into a "real boy". You story was inspiring and beautiful. We belong to a mixed congregation..small town-only game around! and our Rabbi prefers to do the upsherin at home. The consensus in our family is just to give him a little trim...we don't mind that daily he is called a girl! Reply

Naftali Silberberg, Editorial Team August 1, 2008

Re: What About the Girls? While there is no corresponding ceremony for girls, there is another rite Jewish girls are initiated into at a young age – that of lighting Shabbat and Jewish holiday candles. Girls begin lighting candles when they reach the age when they can recite the special blessing recited for this mitzvah—usually around the age of two. Reply