[According to traditional Judaism] At what age can a Jewish boy have his first haircut? What is the reason this might differ for the different streams in Judaism?
Some Jews follow the custom known as Upsherin, that celebrates a boy’s first haircut at the age of three. In the long history of Jewish ritual, this custom is fairly new - originating with the Kabbalists (Jewish mystics) as recently as the late 16th or early 17th century. Connected to the holiday of Lag B’Omer, boys would not only receive their first haircuts, but that day would also mark the beginning of their formal Jewish education.
Today, the upsherin ritual tends to be followed mainly by some Hasidic sects, however, it has gained a small measure of popularity with individuals across the denominational spectrum. There are different reasons given for the upsherin tradition: The first reason has to do with the law of Orlah, which teaches that one cannot take fruit from a fruit-bearing tree until after 3 years. Since Deuteronomy 20:19 has been interpreted to mean that a man is ’like a tree in the field,’ he too should not have his hair cut until he is three. Another reason may be connected to the idea that demons would be trying to hurt this young boy (especially the demon, Lilith), so therefore his parents would want to confuse the demons by making him look like a girl, with long locks of hair. Some suggest that since three is the age of wearing kippah and tallit katan, this previously unprotected child would now be safe to cut his hair after this age.
As for the question of why some denominations might not be observing this ritual equally, I would suggest a couple of different answers: It is a fairly new ritual, not to be found in the Torah, nor in most classic codes of Jewish law. It is not a law but rather, a custom, which implies that there is an element of choice involved. Also, since it seems to have been handed down by kabbalists, only streams of Judaism which were entrenched in kabbalistic thought and practice would have made this a priority. Upsherin is also geared only to boys – to their education, and to their ‘unique’ religious gear, and therefore may not speak to those wishing to raise their children in a more egalitarian setting. Lastly, while there are those who love this ritual not only because of the Orlah connection but also because it marks the beginning of the boy’s Jewish education, many are turned off by the connection of this ritual to Lilith and to demons.
There is a tradition, originally practiced by Sefardim and Hasidim in Israel to refrain from cutting the hair of boys until the age of three. They would assemble on Lag B’Omer (The thirty third day of the Omer) in Meron, Israel at the gravesite of the great Talmudic kabbalist, Rav Shimon Bar Yochai.In the midst of bonfires, dancing and joy, the hair of the young boys would be cut and placed in the bonfires.One of the earliest references to this custom to cut the hair of boys upon reaching the age of three is found in the writings of Rav Chaim Vital (Sha’ar HaKavanot) who contends that his Rebbe,Isaac Luria, the Ari HaKodesh,(1534-1672) cut the hair of his son upon reaching the age of three.
A number of reasons are presented. 1. The Bible contends that “a person is like the tree of the field.” (Deut.20:19) Just as it is forbidden to eat fruit less than three years old, (Leviticus 19:23) so too should mark the first three years of a boy’s life.,He should be natural (Of concern is whether the analogy to trees mandates a specific procedure.) 2. At the age of three, Jewish boys commence Torah learning and the performance of Mitzvot. .Cutting of the hair at age three is a dramatic manifestation of the fact that a new stage of life has begun.3. Due to the fact that a child at three is trained to perform Mitzvot ,his hair is cut to frame (and leave) his sidelocks (Peyot) (This rationale would be of no interest to the non Hassidic community who do not have long, uncut Peyot)) 4.This custom is based upon Kabbala.(Once this mystic source is noted, then all rational explanations cease.It appears that many Jews are more stringent in performing customs based upon Kabbala than actual Mitzvot from the Bible or the Shulchan Aruch. Somehow the mystic unknown provides a degree of fear and punishment to those who may reject this custom.(kawshe sakkanta maiissura)
The custom was transported to Europe and America and is strictly observed by the Hassidic and Yeshiva world.In other communities the custom is not universally observed In the modern Orthodox community many do not follow this custom at all.
According to tradition, a boy receives his first haircut (upsherin: Yiddish for “to shear off”) at age three. He also receives his kippah and tsitit at that time. This corresponds to the Torah that compares “man” with a tree. (Leviticus 19:23) Just as a newly planted tree must remain unharvested for three years, so a boy remains unshorn until age three. But it is an expansion of text to liken one with the other; it is not law. This has become tradition so as to accord significance to every human endeavor. Reform Judaism accords no such tradition to be followed, but does suggest meaning and memory to each rite of passage. And the first haircut for both boys and girls allows for the building of memories and personal history.
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