Local rabbi and son make haircutting pilgrimage to rebbes gravesite

On Monday evening, June 21, Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi boarded a New York-bound flight with his almost 3-year-old son, Yaakov Meir.

At 5:15 a.m., the pair landed at JFK, and half an hour later, they were in line at “the Ohel,” the Queens gravesite of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died 10 years ago.

Even in the predawn hours, the lines snaked out into the streets, said Zarchi.

The spiritual leader of San Francisco’s Congregation Chevra Thilim was one of thousands of Lubavitchers who came from all over the world to pay their respects on their leader’s 10th yahrzeit. (The rebbe died June 12, 1994, but yahrzeits commemorate the Hebrew date, which was Tammuz 3.)

The rabbi and his son waited for more than two hours, before reaching the grave. For Zarchi, who grew up attending the gatherings the rebbe held especially for children, it was a way to transmit the deceased leader’s teachings to his son.

But it was even more than that. Yaakov Meir was born on the evening of the rebbe’s yahrzeit. As the rabbi and his wife, Chani, will be hosting an upsherin, or hair-cutting ceremony, in San Francisco on Sunday, June 27, Zarchi decided to do one ceremonial snip at the rebbe’s grave.

Chassidic boys do not have their hair cut until their third birthday. The ritual signifies the beginning of his Jewish education, and that is the time that he begins wearing a kippah and tzitzit.

While people waited in line, they wrote notes

asking for blessings, reminiscent of the blessings or advice people used to ask from Schneerson when he was alive.

The pieces of paper are read and then torn into pieces in front of the grave.

Zarchi said he was carrying blessings for others in San Francisco.

Also asking for blessings was Rabbi Yosef Langer, director of Chabad of S.F., who made the journey. Langer asked specifically for a blessing for his mentally disturbed son Avi, who last month set fire to his parents’ home.

As for Yaakov Meir, Zarchi said his son had a 3-year-old’s understanding of what was happening.

Zarchi shared a Chassidic teaching that says that even when a child does not understand everything, his soul takes it in.

“He’ll see all those who dedicate their lives to bringing Judaism to those they don’t even know,” said Zarchi. In addition, he said, there was mystical significance in going to your spiritual leader for your first hair cut, originating back to a directive from the founder of Chassidism, the Ba’al Shem Tov.

“Even though we’re doing the celebration in San Francisco, we wanted the first snippets of hair to be cut at the rebbe’s side,” said Zarchi.

They returned to the gravesite at 9 that evening, and it was just as crowded as before. Thousands of people had still not gotten in by the time the yahrzeit was officially over.

Zarchi said many of those waiting were clearly not observant, and many more were not Jewish at all.

They waited several more hours, managing to cut a bit of Yaakov Meir’s hair among the crush of people.

But he understood that it was no ordinary day.

“The poor kid got to bed at 3 a.m.,” Zarchi said.


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Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."