Upsherin - Tisporet - Chalaka

There is a custom that has been practiced by many Jews throughout the entire world for generations, a ceremony celebrating the first haircut of a boy at the age of three. The primary purpose of the hair cutting is for the intention of leaving and essentially revealing the Peyot/sidelocks. Shortly, we will explore the intention and relevance of the Peyot.

The Yiddish name for this ceremony is Upsherin (in Hebrew, 'Tisporet', and for many Arabic speaking Jews, known as 'Chalaka'), derived from the German words Sheren/shear and Auf/off.

...this custom of celebrating a first hair cut seems to have been around for hundreds of years.

While not Talmudic-based, this custom of celebrating a first hair cut seems to have been around for hundreds of years. The student of R. Yitzchak Luria (1534-1572) writes that his teacher took his family and his young son to Rabbi Shimon's gravesite in Meron on the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, the day marking the passing of the 1st-century Sage, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. There he performed his son's first hair cutting with great joy and festivity, "according to the well-known tradition."

In the Torah, we find that Abraham made a great feast the same day that Yitzchak/Isaac was weaned. (Gen. 21:8) The great 11th-century commentator, R. Shlomo Yitzchaki, otherwise known as Rashi, writes that it was when Yitzchak became two years of age, as he entered the age of three. Perhaps this indicates a time of celebration, marking a transitional moment in a child's maturation.

Clearly, a child at the age of three passes through a major transitional period, the journey from babyhood to childhood. It is a time when the child is weaned from being completely dependent on the mother to functioning as an independent being, as we will explain shortly.

This transitional period is somewhat related to the first hair cutting of the boy. In earlier traditional sources, there is discussion as to what age parents should give their boy his first hair cut. One source writes as early as thirteen weeks, two years, while others explore the "ripe old age" of five. Most commonly today, the first hair cut is given at the age of three. Select Chassidic groups perform the Upsherin when the child enters the third year, on his second birthday, while most traditions celebrate on the child's third birthday. [In Israel, there is a strong tradition to do it at the burial site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meron, especially on Lag b’Omer — KOL]

Drawing a parallel between human beings and their environment, a correlation between trees and humans arises. According to Torah law, (Lev. 19:23) we may not indulge in the fruit of trees that were planted for the first three years; this injunction is referred to as the laws of Orlah, literally translated as concealment. It is the fruit of the first three years that are off limits for human consumption; similarly, the child's hair should be left alone for the first years of life, and only afterward can it be cut.

Orlah - Blocked Energy

The human/tree analogy is employed often in the Torah. For example, "A person is like the tree of a field" (Deut. 20:19) or "as the days of a tree, shall be the days of my people" (Is. 65:22) or "He will be like a tree planted near water". (Jer. 17:8)

...our relationship with trees runs quite deep.

In fact, our relationship with trees runs quite deep. Originally mankind's sustenance came only from the fruit of the tree. As G‑d said, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat" (Gen. 2:16) implying that only fruit of the tree you may eat, and not any other form of vegetation.

It is axiomatic that the parallel between humans and trees was drawn as we humans are in so many ways similar to trees. The tree grows in opposite directions; the outer visible part of the tree, the trunk, expanding against gravity towards the sun, whereas the inner concealed roots grow in the direction of gravity. We too grow and expand in body, upward and outward, while the real movement is inward. We give fruit as trees do; and the less dry a person is, the more pliable and gentle they become.

While the parallels may run deep, we need to explore the relationship between the first three years of a human’s life and the first three years of the life of a tree. But first let us understand the meaning of Orlah.

In the Torah, we find the term Orlah in reference to the first three years of fruit (Lev. 19:23) with regard to the foreskin that is removed during circumcision (Gen. 17:11) and in reference to G‑d removing the Orlah from the heart in the future redemption. (Deut. 10:16)

In all three scenarios, the concept of orlah suggests a covering over, a blocking of something within. In the case of the tree, the fruit remains closed from our participation or involvement. For the first three years, the fruit of the tree remains outside of our human domain; the energy within the fruit that gives us our nourishment remains concealed and removed from us, so that we cannot eat it. Similarly, removing the orlah, the foreskin, is an act of revealing; and allegorically, removing the orlah of the heart represents removing the spiritual dirt that lies upon our hearts in order to reveal the deeper levels of self.

Revealing the Peyot

On a simple level, a little boy whose hair is long will have Peyot/sidelocks which are hidden. By means of a haircut, the child’s Peyot are now revealed.

The difference between a pre-Upsherin state and a post-Upsherin one is that in the former, the Peyot are intermingled together with the hair of the head; there is no distinction between the hair of the head and the hair running down the side of the head. Through the Upsherin, which is an act of Havdalah/separation a distinction is made. The Peyot then serve both to set a distinction, a border, and simultaneously, to allow for a deeper connection between the head hair and the eventual facial hair, and between the child and the people around him.

Peyot are indistinguishable for the person who goes with long, unkempt hair. Long hair, as will shortly be explored, represents untamed, unbridled and unrestrained energy. An energy that Mitpashet/extends non-restrictively into all directions and places, free flowing and wild. A small baby boy running about before his Upsherin with his long hair flowing behind him represents a little bundle of energy, brimming with life and exuberance. A beautiful thing for a young developing child, securing his ego, being wild; and yet it is a period of life with no borders or understanding of others. In these early years of life, the prime saying of the youngster is, ‘it’s mine,’ or ‘I want it.’

Mimicking the cosmic process of creation, where initially came Tohu/chaos then Tikun/correction, a child, for the first few of years of life, functions in a reality of Tohu on all levels of existence, both in a state of chaos and being the source of chaos for others.

The cosmic force of Tohu is marked by ego, non-interconnectivity and non-responsibility...

The cosmic force of Tohu is marked by ego, non-interconnectivity and non-responsibility; it is a reality in which each Sefira is on its own, and there is no room for others or for interplay. As a result, there is a meltdown of the world of Tohu and, eventually, there emerges a universe of Tikun. Children until three years of age orbit in the world of self-absorbed Tohu. There is no room for sharing toys or understanding others. The way they see it, they need to Mitpashet/spread themselves over as many things as possible, and claim everything in sight as their own. If such behavior would continue throughout life, if ego would never be checked or counterbalanced, there would ultimately be an internal meltdown.

Being of the world of Tohu, this young child runs about wild, with long uncut hair; the child is hairy as the physical embodiment of Tohu is the Biblical character of Esau, Yaakov’s older brother, to whom the Torah first relates in terms of hair. (Gen. 25:25)

Now that the child has reached a "ripe" age of three, a haircut is due, facilitating a movement into the world of Tikun. We are born wild, yet there is no genuine spirituality without ethics, which means a taming of the wild, the idea of Tikun.

Getting a haircut and leaving the Peyot symbolically represent this movement into Tikun, a level of maturity, setting a limit to the child's Hispashtut. Taking the wild, untamed, undisciplined, chaotic reality of babyhood and now cutting off the long hair and setting a border. Peyot, as previously mentioned sets a boundary, gives a limitation to how much of the person extends outwards. At this point, the child has enough understanding and awareness of others that he can be educated and introduced to a proper framework to exist in a more delineated, descriptive Tikun existence-a world of order, egolessness and sharing.

The border, symbolic of the Peyot, in fact allows for greater integration; as the child feels secure in whom he is and can appreciate who the other is as well. In Hebrew, a haircut is called Tisporet, from the root word 'Safar', which means haircut, but also boundary. The word 'Safar' is related to the word Sapir, meaning 'sapphire'. From the boundary of the haircut and Peyot, a new illumination arises as the child shines brightly as a sparkling sapphire.

There is an overall movement from Tohu into Tikun, from immaturity to maturity. Yet the purpose is always integration, to learn to move into maturity of Tikun without ever completely letting go of the passionate energy of Tohu. The purpose is to be responsible people without losing the near simplistic, joyful casual manner of being a child. As we mature, we need to learn to channel the infinite light of Tohu into the vessels of Tikun.

[Excerpted from the author’s book, Upsherin: Exploring the Laws, Customs & Meanings of a Boy’s First Haircut (available for purchase at //]