By Judi Markowitz
My grandson, Nosson, just had his very first haircut. This was no ordinary visit to the salon or barbershop. It was an upsherin —a celebration when an Orthodox Jewish boy reaches three years of age. It is a rite of passage. At this time, parents introduce their young son to the formal Jewish educational process.
Learning to read the Hebrew alphabet and davening (praying) are emphasized. Torah study becomes the main focus now. At the celebration, the three-year-old receives a yarmulke (round head covering) and tzitzis. This is a garment worn under clothing which is similar to a T-shirt, except it has no sides. There are knotted tassels attached to the four corners. The tzitzis serve as a constant reminder of the mitzvahs of the Torah. A young boy is encouraged to perform mitzvot (Divine commands). Of course, this is a work in progress for any three-year-old.
Some Jewish scholars compare human life to the life of a tree. It is said that waiting three years to cut a boy’s hair can be compared to waiting for fruit to be harvested. This idea stems from the hope that this child will “eventually grow tall like a tree and produce fruit: knowledge, good deeds, and a family of his own.”
This tradition began in the 16th century in Safed, Israel and is connected to the teachings of the mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria, also known as the Arizal. According to custom, he took his own son to the city of Meron to have his upsherin. It was performed by the tomb of another great mystic, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. He is the author or the Zohar, otherwise known as the Kaballah – Jewish mystical thought. From that time, moving forward, the tradition is associated with Luria’s name when a child receives his first haircut on his third birthday.
My oldest grandson, Moshe (Nosson’s brother) even traveled with his family to Meron to celebrate his upsherin when he was three years old. While living in Israel, they took a day trip from Jerusalem to visit the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. It was a special moment to be at this holy site where they prayed, rejoiced, and cut Moshe’s hair. Moshe is now nine years old and still remembers this sacred day.
Since hair cannot be cut before the tender age of three, some boys need to wear their hair in a ponytail or in clips until then. As a result, it may be difficult to discern a child’s sex, until the clothing is closely examined. My grandsons never had to endure stares or questions — boy or girl? The three boys had short hair that looked perfectly coiffed — as if they had been to a salon many times. But make no mistake, they each awaited the day they would be able to join the ranks of those they admired — their father, grandfather, and other men in the community.
The upsherin took place on Friday, January 20th at my grandchildren’s school in the classroom of Rabbi Weiss. It was planned on the official Jewish date of Nosson’s birthday. Rabbi Weiss had also performed this ritual for my grandson Yehuda the previous year. The rabbi is an engaging and charismatic man. His first-grade students listened attentively as he discussed the relevance of the event and made the ceremony fun for all.
Nosson was ready for his special day. He was carried into the room by his father, wrapped in a tallis (prayer shawl) and then placed on a chair so all could behold the event. Nosson knew he would be receiving his very own yalmulke and tzitzis because his family had talked about it for months in preparation. When he was barely two years old, his brother Yehuda had an upsherin, and Nosson would put on the sacred gear and pretend he was a “big boy.”
Now it was his moment to shine, and he was eager — that is until he looked around the room and turned into a statue. Nosson was wide-eyed and took in the classroom filled with boys watching (no coed classes) —he was clearly nervous. But understanding the day was for him, Nosson stood perfectly still as pictures and videos were taken.
Then the yalmulke was placed on Nosson’s head by Rabbi Weiss, followed by the tzitzis given to him by his father, Todd. Next, the proud parents gingerly sniped a lock of Nosson’s hair and the scissors were handed over to Rabbi Weiss. My husband Jeffrey and I took turns as well. Other family members joined in this festive ceremony too.
Nosson remained unbelievably cooperative as he glanced at the snippets of hair being placed in a bag for keepsake. Chana Tova, my daughter-in-law, monitored closely so that we only cut hair from the back of Nosson’s head. She didn’t want too much taken off before he would go to a barber later that day for a professional haircut.
Another detail that is given attention on this special day is sideburns — otherwise known as peyot. Torah observant men, particularly Chasidim, are distinguishable because of their long, curly peyot at the side of their face. But other observant Jews wear them at varying lengths — very short to a visible lock of hair either tucked behind the ear or left in full view.
After the haircutting ceremony, Rabbi Weiss invited the boys in the class to dance and sing in celebration of the event. They excitedly sprang from their seats and joined hands in a large circle. My son Todd was holding Nosson and danced around joyfully. Nosson was then placed on his shoulders for a whirl of a good time. He was still apprehensive but enjoyed the attention.
This wasn’t my first rodeo — because of Yehuda’s upsherin, it was actually my second. It was truly a learning curve for me and Jeffrey. We both grew up in Jewish homes and celebrated the major holidays — Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover. My parents left their orthodox roots behind and I had never heard of an upsherin — that is until my son Todd began his religious journey.
Todd traveled to Israel in 2003 to study in a Yeshiva and upon his arrival he was greeted by the staff and then whisked off to a celebration — an upsherin. Todd was taken in by the joy and elation of those present at this festive occasion. He didn’t yet know the relevance of this ceremony, but the explanations followed and Todd’s formal Jewish education began.
Milestones come in many shapes and forms. Watching my grandson take his first steps in the Jewish learning community brings me immeasurable joy. I was unaware of various traditions and practices within the religion. Ever since my son embraced Orthodox Judaism I have been fortunate to participate in numerous religious celebrations and learn more about the observant community. I admire and respect their commitment to Judaism. The continuum of learning never stops regardless of age — whether it’s three or 93.
Judi Markowitz is a retired high school English teacher of 34 years. She primarily taught 12th grade and had the pleasure of her three sons gracing her classes. In addition, she taught debate, forensics, and Detroit film. Judi has four adult children and seven wonderful grandchildren. She is married to Jeffrey Markowitz, whom she met in high school.
Judi grew up in Oak Park, Mich. which had a stellar school district, with excellent teachers. The city provided activities for all–and there were even sidewalks. Judi moved to Huntington Woods as an adult, which is a half mile from her childhood home. She wanted the same experience for her children as she had growing up, and Huntington Woods provided that. The View from Four Foot Two is Judi’s first book.