The man with the long hair

A Nazirite is a man or woman who adopts for a certain period of time (or for the rest of their lives) an extremely elevated spiritual lifestyle, dedicating their days to meditation, prayer, transcendence, and complete service of G‑d (as discussed in Num. 6:1-21).

The Bible imposes three restrictions upon a nazirite, which according to Jewish law apply even today: (see Rambam, Hilchot Nazirut; Sefer Hachinuch Mitzvot #368-377)
(a) A nazirite is forbidden to drink wine or eat any grape product;
(b) A Nazirite's hair may not be cut;
(c) A nazirite may not become defiled and contaminated.

Though it is uncommon to encounter a nazirite nowadays 1, we do have a tangible legacy of the Nazirite persona, in the form of a child. In some fashion, each of us was raised by our own parents as a nazirite.

...it is uncommon to encounter a nazirite nowadays...

First, parents usually keep their children off wine. Second, parents keep their children away from contaminated environments; and finally, it is a long-standing Jewish custom, dating back hundreds, maybe thousands, of years, for parents to let their sons' hair grow long and cut it for the first time only at the age of three.

This practice of giving a male child his first "boy's haircut" only after he reached three years of age, is known today in the Jewish world as an "Upshernish" ("haircut" in Yiddish), and is practiced in many Jewish communities the world over. During this ceremony, the boy's hair is cut, but special caution is taken to leave the hair between the ears and the hairless portion of the face, known as earlocks, or "peyot" in Hebrew. The reason for this is because the Bible prohibits the Jew from totally removing the hair of that location where the skull is joined to the jawbone, at the side of the ear. (Lev. 19:27. Cf. Rambam, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 12:1. Shulchan Aruch Yorah Deah 181:1) What is the reason for this tradition? 2

The same question applies to a nazirite. We can understand how abstaining from wine and from contamination are conducive to fostering holiness and spirituality in a person's life. But why would the Torah instruct a nazirite to let his hair grow long? How does the possession of long, uncut hair, contribute to a life of transcendence?

To understand all of this, we must take a journey into the mystical world of hair.

What is hair?

Jewish mysticism believes that hair contains profound energy….

In our modern terminology, hair is defined as "a collective term for slender, threadlike outgrowths of the epidermis of mammals, forming a characteristic body covering." However, Jewish mysticism believes that hair contains profound energy. The Zohar, one of the ancient Kabbalistic texts, sees every strand of hair as "harboring entire universes". One of the most profound sections in the Zohar, known as the Idra Rabba, a commentary on this week's Torah portion (Naso), is dedicated almost exclusively to discuss hair and its source in the divine reality. According to the Zohar, "…from the hair of a person you can know who he is." (Zohar, Naso, Idra Rabba 129a)

Kabbala discusses the paradox of hair, where on one hand it is rooted in a tubular pit of the epidermis, known as the hair follicle, and is nourished by the blood vessels in a papilla that extends into the follicle and into the root of the hair. This makes it part of the bodily structure. Yet on the other hand, hair contains neither blood vessels nor nerves, therefore not generating any pain upon their removal from the rest of body (Ohr Hatorah, parashat Emor p. 588-593).

The Kabbala of Hair

So how does Jewish mysticism view the significance of hair?

Hairs act as "straws" transmitting profound and inaccessible energy. Each strand of hair, shaped like a straw (the form of the Hebrew letter vav), communicates a level of soul-energy that due to its intensity cannot be communicated directly, only through the "straw" of hair, through the contracted, and curtailed medium of hair, which dilutes the intense energy.

Now, the Kabbala distinguishes between "fine hair" and "coarse hair" - the fine hair decorating the cranium, present immediately during birth, and the coarse hair of the beard, appearing only at a male's entry into adulthood. The hair that links the "fine" and the "coarse" are the peyot, the hair extending from the skull, down the jawbone, after which it merges with the beard.

The hair growing on top of the cranium, the "fine hair", represents the deeply concealed energy stemming from the interior of the skull, identified by Kabbala as the location for the super-conscious formations of the human psyche. The deepest and most primal forces of our psyche, the supra-rational desires and cravings of the soul formulated even prior to the birth of cognition, are associated in Jewish mysticism with the skull, defined as "the crown over the brain", or simply as "keter", which means the crown. Keter is seen as the most lofty and elevated part of the soul, its link to G‑d, Who also transcends reason and logic.

The hair of the male beard, on the other hand, the "coarse hair", represents the energy stemming from the sub conscious cognitive impressions of the human psyche, located within the higher and lower brain. This dimension of the human soul is known in Kabbala as "Mocha Stima'a" (or "the hidden cognition"), and stands one rung below the level of keter.

(This is the mystical reason for the feminine body not developing a beard. As mentioned above, the mystical function of hair is to access, in a contracted and curtailed fashion, energy that is inaccessible due to its profundity. Women, however, are naturally more in tuned with their sub conscious cognition, and therefore do not require the "straws" of hair to access that level of self.)

Linking two universes

Now the question is if there is any way to link the super-conscious forces of the soul, the keter dimension, with the cognitive structure of the psyche? Can we ever mentally experience who we really are out in deepest space? Even after the keter energy was filtered into hair strands, is there hope for us to internalize this infinite light within the finite vessels of cognition?

Without the two side locks curtailing, contracting and metamorphosing the new-clear energy of keter, none of it would be expressed….

Men of spirit from the days of yore have struggled with this dilemma. Judaism's answer to this question is - the peyot, the two rows of hair lingering down the jaw bone, that link the hair of the cranium to the hair of the beard. In Kabbala, these two rows of hair symbolize the contracted transmission of the super-conscious keter energy, to the sub conscious mental (Mocha Satima'a) energy, so that the infinite and unconstrained atomic power of the soul's crown can ultimately be contained and internalized within the mental framework of the human condition.

Without the two side locks curtailing, contracting and metamorphosing the new-clear energy of keter, none of it would be expressed or experienced within the person's conscious life. Only by having the keter energy filtered through the hair on the skull, and then re-filtered a second time via the peyot, can the deepest energy of the soul become articulated in the lower chambers of consciousness.

[This may also be the reason why the great kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria did not allow his peyot to grow very much below his ears and have them hang over the sides of his beard, as is the custom of Yemenite, Moroccan and most Chassidic Jews. Rather he would trim his peyot with scissors to ensure that they just reached his beard. This "style" was embraced by the Chabad school and many other Ashkenazic and Sefardic communities. In the former style, the emphasis is on overwhelming the beard (representing the deep cognitive impressions) with the "peyot", representing the flow of the soul's pristine desire and emotion. This indeed is the spiritual path of Yemenite and many Chassidic Jews. In Chabad, however, the goal has always been to link between the atomic energy of the soul and the mental framework of the mind, represented by the connection of the peyot with the beard. 3]

The Man Who Gazes at His Pristine Self

A nazirite is a human being who…attempts to go back to the primal formations of his soul….

All of the above is valid, however, in the case of an ordinary human being, in whom the hair of the cranium can transmit the intensity of the keter feature of the soul only via the peyot. The hair atop of the skull on its own (without the further filtering through the peyot) cannot convey that keter energy, due to its tremendous power and intensity. Therefore, the Torah instructs us to leave our peyot and beards intact, for these are the containers through which we access the holiness of our souls. There is no mitzvah, however, in letting the hair above the skull grow long.

However, a nazirite is a human being who, through a profound process of meditation and transcendence, attempts to go back to the primal formations of his soul. Such a person, says the Torah, ought to let his hair grow and grow, since each strand transmits and brings to the fore tremendous holiness and profundity, the supra rational link of the soul to G‑d.

A nazirite needs not his peyot to filter the energy and bring it down to the lower brain-level; a nazirite is able to experience something of his true self without even the most refined masks.

The Secret of a Child

This may be the deeper reason for the Jewish custom of letting a child's hair grow freely till the age of three. During the first years of a child's life, what is most exposed in his life is his keter dimension - his primal, basic formations. During the first years, a child has not yet matured enough to allow his or her mind to filter through every experience and stimuli. At that time, a child is like a dry sponge, absorbing everything in a very deep place.

Though we often perceive children as lacking in the ability to internalize as much as we can, in truth, their level of internalization is far deeper - straight to the primal part of the soul, without traveling through the multi layers of mental cognitive structure. If you wish to know your pristine experiences, spend some real time with your child. There you will encounter your own keter, your own inner self, expressed in the long strands of hair decorating the crown of his soul, the skull.

After three years of age, the process of mental frame working and processing begins to increase significantly. This is the time when a child learns more and more to process the world around him via his conscious mind and heart, not via his super conscious core. It is at this point that we must begin to help the child build a bridge between his innate yearnings and his outer persona, between his soul and his mind.

That is why we give him a haircut, and we create a bridge - the peyot that carry down the keter soul energy into his lower brain, which as he grows older will develop a beard. This is the moment we generate the link between the majesty of his soul and the depth of his brain.

Bursting Through the Peyot

This is the deeper meaning behind the Torah's prediction that the Mashiach will "burst through the peyot of the Moabite nation." (Num. 24:17) Moab represents wisdom and intelligence. Nowadays, we must preserve the peyot in order to communicate the supra rational energy into the framework of rationality. But when Mashiach comes, the doors of our perception will be cleansed, granting us the ability to gaze at our core without flinching an eye. The core energy of the soul will come to the fore in its full vigor, not requiring the contraction and concealment represented by the peyot.

In that sense, our young children carry in their hair the light of Mashiach.

[Based on Zohar, Writings of the Ari, Likutei Torah, and other sources of Kabbala and Chassidut]

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