Upsherin upsurge: Back-to-roots haircut ritual began in the 1500s

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Bulletin Correspondent

Like the fruit of a tree, the hair of a Jewish son grows wild for his first three years, according to Chassidic and Sephardic traditions. When the boy turns 3, his hair is cut at a ceremony known as upsherin or hachlakah, marking his introduction to learning Torah and wearing tzitzit or ritual fringes.

"A person is like a tree of the field," says Rabbi Yehuda Ferris of Chabad of Berkeley, referring to Deuteronomy 20:19. "We symbolically apply the metaphor of a tree to a child's growth."

After centuries of relative obscurity, upsherin, "to shear off" in Yiddish, or hachlakah, which means "to make smooth" in Hebrew and Arabic, is enjoying newfound popularity. In modern Orthodox and Jewish Renewal communities across the country, parents are introducing their families and friends to this ancient custom.

Earlier this year in Berkeley, Jonathan Schorsch and his wife, Gail, invited family and friends to celebrate the upsherin of their son, Emanuel. The outdoor party included a festive barbecue and klezmer music as well as rituals. Rabbi Eliezer Finkelman of Congregation Beth Israel officiated.

Before honored guests cut Emanuel's hair, his father explained the history and traditions of upsherin, such as weighing the cut hair and giving a comparable amount of money to tzedakah.

Emanuel ate a cupcake decorated with a Hebrew letter, as well as other foods inscribed with biblical verses to open his heart and symbolically feed his appetite for learning. "We'll hope that it works," Jonathan Schorsch said.

The verses of Isaiah 50:4-5, written in frosting, flocked Emanuel's birthday cake, while a hard-boiled egg, a symbol of life, cyclicality and purity, was inscribed with the following verse from Ezekiel 3:3: "And he said to me, `Son of man, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.' Then I ate it: and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey."

The Schorsches also introduced newer customs, inviting guests to decorate Emanuel's tallit katan (child's prayer shawl) and a silk wallhanging with biblical themes. "It's really quite nice that something new is emerging out of preserving the old customs…in a kind of transformed way,'' says Daniel Boyarin, Taubman professor of talmudic culture at U.C. Berkeley.

"Jews are hungry for Yiddishkeit and Yiddishkeit is slipping through our fingers from day to day because we're getting more modern and more secular," says Boyarin, a close family friend of the Schorsches. "Even religious Jews are losing a sense of separate identity. So by rescuing as much minhag, as many customs, as possible, we're really rescuing the texture of Jewish life."

Upsherin dates as far back as the 16th century, when Reb Haim Vital is recorded saying that his teacher, "Isaac Luria, cut his son's hair on Lag B'Omer, according to the well known custom."

Today on Lag B'Omer in Israel, Chassidic and Sephardic families mark the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, the author of the Zohar, with bonfires, barbecues and haircutting ceremonies at the rabbi's grave on Mount Meron. The haircuts are an opportunity to create sidelocks or payot.

Upsherin celebrates the growth of a child to a new stage in the context of community and tradition, says Blu Greenberg, author of "How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household. "It's a lovely idea that everything you do you don't take it for granted," Greenberg says. "That's the power of ritual. Everything you do makes you aware."