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Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

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< Q21.8.2 TOC Q21.8.4 >

Question 21.8.2:
What is Upsherin? I know it relates to the cutting of the hair of boys at age 3, but tell me more.

Answer:

Amongst Ashkenazic Jews, this custom is called upsherin, a Yiddish word from the same root as the English "shearing". Upsherin is prevalent in Chassidic and Sepharadic communities, communities that share a number of Kabbalistically derived custom.

The more popular reason given for the custom is the law of "arlah", that one may not use fruit from a tree until its fourth year. In explaining the prohibition against needlessly killing fruit trees, or wastage in general, the Torah (Deut) uses the expression "for a man is a tree of the field" (what you waste now could cost lives later). This expression could be taken to compare people with trees. Since the "tree of the field" isn't harvested for three years, neither do we cut a boy's hair.

But why just boys?

Those who keep the custom of upsherin also wait until the child turns three before giving him a yarmulka and tzitzis to wear. Also, the day of upsherin the child is taken to a teacher and shown the alef-beis. In "the old country" the child would start cheder (single-classroom school), now this formalized "start of education" is done instead. This gives an explanation about why boys in particular.

The obligation to educate girls in Torah is functional—you can't be a good Jew without knowing Judaism. However, for boys there is in adddition an obligation to study Torah as an end in itself. Since upsherin marks the start of the mitzvah of education, it's therefore tied to gender. The educational aspect also adds a second layer of meaning to the custom. The prohibition of using fruit of a young tree is called "arlah". The same word used for an uncircumcised foreskin. Circumcision is commonly used as a symbol of removal of barriers; both in Jewish tradition, and in Paul's letters where he writes of "circumcision of the heart". Here we see "circumcising" the mind and head, removing the "arlah", as a preparation for schooling. Add to the change in self image of the haircut and starting to wear tzitzis and yarmulka, and upsherin becomes a rite of passage from babyhood to childhood.


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