What Is an Upshernish?

It is a time-hallowed Jewish tradition to allow a boy’s hair to grow untouched for the first years of life.1 On his third Jewish birthday, friends and community members are invited to a festive haircutting ceremony: the upshernish (“shearing”) in Yiddish, or chalakah in Hebrew. The peyot (side locks) are not cut to the skin, thereby fulfilling the biblical commandment that Jewish males should not “round the corners of their heads.”2 Some communities, particularly Sephardic ones, delay the upshernish to, varyingly, ages four, five, six, and even seven.

Read What to Expect at an Upshernish

Beyond the haircut, the upshernish includes certain customs:

  • The child should wear a kippah and tzitzit throughout the ceremony. He continues to wear them regularly from this day on.3
  • The child should recite the verse Torah tzivah lanu Moshe morasha kehillat Yaakov, “The Torah that Moses commanded us is a legacy for the congregation of Jacob.”4
  • The child should be given money to place in a charity box.5
  • Ideally, the ceremony should take place, at least partially, in a holy setting such as a synagogue or house of study.

See the complete list of upshernish customs

The Origins

Credit: Israeli Government Press Office
Credit: Israeli Government Press Office

Although you won’t find mention of the upshernish in the Talmud or Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), it has been observed in Jewish communities for many generations.6

Exactly when this custom started is unclear. The earliest recorded mention is in the highly-regarded responsa of the 16th-century rabbinic authority Rabbi David Ibn Zimra (the Radbaz).7 There, he addresses the custom to perform this haircut at the gravesite of Samuel the Prophet.

A few decades later, Rabbi Chaim Vital testifies that his teacher, the Arizal, took his three-year-old son to the resting place of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meron to cut his hair for the first time.8 He does not speak of the Arizal’s act as an innovation, but as an observance of the ancient and revered custom.9

The Upshernish: A Foundation

The upshernish signals the beginning of the child’s journey through life as an observant Jew. Sporting his newly-formed peyot, and the kippah and tzitzit he will now wear, he becomes identifiably Jewish.

Why Specifically at Age Three?

When a child turns three, his father is obligated to teach him how to read the Torah and follow its directives.10 The upshernish is also an educational ceremony, guiding the child in the observance of a new mitzvah. Hence a child’s third birthday signals the beginning of his formal Jewish education, an appropriate time for the upshernish ceremony.11

Some deduce that the Torah hints to age three as the proper time for a child’s first haircut, based on the verse where the word Vehitgalach - “And he shall shave his hair”12 is written with the letter gimmel enlarged, since the numeric value of the letter gimmel is three.13

A Fruitful Child

Others point to a Midrashic source.14 When a Jew plants a fruit tree, the Torah teaches that he may not partake of its fruit during the first three years of its growth. The fruits of the fourth year must be sanctified and brought to Jerusalem to be eaten there.15 This prohibition is called orlah, meaning “uncircumcised” or “concealed.” During those first years, the nourishing qualities contained in the fruit are not yet apparent; they are concealed within the fruit and we are forbidden to access them.

The Midrash explains that this law can be applied to a Jewish child,16 since the Torah compares man to a tree.17 In his first years, a child cannot speak clearly or fully comprehend. During this time there are few tangible returns for a parent’s efforts. When the child turns three and is now able to communicate and understand, we sanctify him (like the fruits of the fourth year) by educating him in the observance of Torah and mitzvot.18 We inaugurate this process by cutting his hair and leaving the peyot, thereby fulfilling a mitzvah which will serve as a springboard to further mitzvot in his life ahead.

The First Shearing

Others compare the upshernish to the mitzvah of reishis hagez,19 the Biblical commandment to gift the first shearings of one’s sheep to the priests.20

As mentioned, upon reaching his third birthday a child starts to produce. The words of Torah he begins to speak at this age are his first “shearings” which are sanctified for G‑d. We commemorate this by shearing the child’s hair for the first time on his third birthday.

Why the Peyot?

A group of Hasidic boys © Mushka Lightstone
A group of Hasidic boys © Mushka Lightstone

The Torah decrees that Jewish males must leave their peyot unshorn. Sefer Hachinuch explains that it was the practice of the pagan priests to completely shave their heads21 in order to emulate the idols they worshipped, which, for obvious reasons were hairless.22 Therefore, the Torah specifically commands us to leave peyot to demonstrate our rejection of those beliefs and our commitment to G‑d.

This is the message that we impart to the child as he begins his life as an observant Jew. We are educating him to hold strong to the Jewish way of life, and urge him not to be swayed by outside forces. The peyot visually reinforce this idea23.

The Kabbalistic Approach

As noted above, the upshernish is linked with the the Biblical commandment to gift the first shearings of one’s sheep to the priests. The Jewish mystics associate sheep and the whiteness of their wool with the attribute of Divine mercy—the quality of unalloyed kindness. Hair, on the other hand, represents the attribute of Divine judgement. By cutting the child’s hair at the upshernish, we remove the element of judgement and allow the attribute of kindness to shine on the child.24

By celebrating the upsherin with joy and fanfare, we demonstrate to the child that a life directed by Torah and mitzvot is a joyous one. We hope and pray that this will bring us to the fulfillment of the verse, “Educate a child according to his way, [so that] even when he grows old, he will not turn away from it.”25