First haircut is 3-year-olds rite of passage into Judaism

Looking downright angelic, 3-year-old Shalom Dov Ferris sat perched on a makeshift throne — a dining room chair topped with a booster seat, draped with a sheet — and presided over the living room filled with children and adults, about 60 people in all.

Balloons, happy birthday plates and napkins, and goody bags made to look like tallitot — colored in blue stripes with strings hanging from the corners — decorated the room. In the center was a long table containing bowls of coleslaw, potato salad, guacamole and chips, and heated chafing dishes filled with hot dogs wrapped in bread. On another table against a back wall were two oversized birthday cakes studded with jellybeans and decorated with brightly colored frosting.

Although better attended than most, it looked like any child's birthday party.

But this wasn't an ordinary party.

Shalom's father, Yehuda Ferris, is the rabbi at Chabad House of Berkeley. Members of that community, family and friends had come to the Ferris' house on a rainy Sunday morning to celebrate Shalom's third birthday and to witness his first haircut, a ritual known as upsherenish or upsheren.

Looking like a picture of sweetness, Shalom was dressed in a tie, a maroon vest, plaid pants and a yarmulke for the occasion. His soon-to-be-sheared soft, fine, wispy curls circled his head.

Before Shalom was brought into the room, Ferris explained that the Torah compares man to the trees of the field. Since the branches of a tree are not cut during its first three years, so a boy's hair is not cut until his third birthday.

"As with sheep, the first shearing belongs to God," Ferris said, adding that the side locks or payot are left uncut. "You should not round off the side of your face." This custom, he explained, was probably a reaction to the practices of idolaters at the time the ritual was first introduced, and the payot are left uncut "lest we become idolaters."

When his mother, Miriam, carried the birthday boy into the room, everyone applauded.

"Do you want to get a haircut?" his father asked, to which Shalom gave an enthusiastic yes. After he was seated, Shalom got a multicolored, swirled lollipop and a tzedakah box. Each person who cuts the hair is expected to give Shalom something to deposit in the box, Ferris explained.

And this is no ordinary first haircut. It marks a Jewish boy's induction into Jewish education and life. Tomorrow, Shalom will be wrapped in a tallit and carried into school for the first time to officially begin the study of Torah. He'll sit on the teacher's lap, read honey-covered letters of the alef-bet, lick off the honey, and then the other children will throw candy at him. The lesson is simple: Learning is sweet.

"It's sweeter than honey and better than money," Ferris said.

Standing at a microphone, Ferris acted as sort of a master of ceremonies, explaining the ritual, making jokes and calling up people to take a snip of his son's hair.

Obviously well prepared for the event, Shalom sat quietly as his father summoned a Kohen to make the first snip. After the Kohens came the Levites. There being none, he then invited the other guests to come up. Even Mom got a turn, and as the locks were cut, they were carefully placed in a Ziploc bag.

"You do not have to wash your hands after cutting the hair," Ferris said. He added that there used to be a custom of weighing the hair after it was all cut, and then the father would donate the value of the hair's weight. It's a custom that Ferris was relieved to say is no longer practiced.

Video, digital and even disposable cameras recorded the ritual, and Ferris told the story of when Moses Maimonides was being knighted.

"He forgot what he was supposed to say, so when the queen brought the sword down he said, 'Manish tanah ha'lilah ha zeh,'" Ferris said. Confused by this rather unorthodox response, the queen turned to one of her guards and asked, "Why is this knight different from all other knights?"

One of the mitzvot that Shalom will be expect to keep will be wearing the tzitzit — an undergarment without side seams and with strings hanging from the four corners — under his shirt. This is to remind him to keep the 613 mitzvot. In keeping with the occasion, Shalom was given two baby-sized ones, both with choo choo trains painted on them.

When the hair cutting was done, the party began. Adults chatted and ate while the children ran around.

"It's bittersweet," said Miriam Ferris of this lifecycle event. Shalom is the youngest of her nine children. While it's hard to see her children grow up, she's philosophical about it. "You don't want them to be babies forever."

And to those who mourn the loss of Shalom's lovely curls, she said, "They don't have to comb it every day while he sits there and struggles."