Understanding Yourself Through the Letters of Your Name

The bulk of this week’s Torah portion, Nasso, describes the gifts that each of the Twelve Tribes brought for the inauguration of the Mishkan. Although each tribe brought the exact same set of gifts, the Torah nonetheless repeats the gifts each and every time. Some say this is because God held dear what every single tribe brought and wanted to properly acknowledge each one—even though it was all the same. Others say that while each tribe brought the same thing, the way they brought it was different, with each tribe displaying their own unique qualities.

The Midrash famously parallels the Twelve Tribes with the twelve astrological signs of the zodiac. In Yalkut Shimoni (Shemot 418), for example, we are told that

The tribe of Yehudah was in the East, together with Issachar and Zevulun, and corresponding to them above are Aries, Taurus, and Gemini… The flag of Reuben was in the South, together with Shimon and Gad, and corresponding to them above are Cancer, Leo, and Virgo… The flag of Ephraim was in the West, together with Menashe and Benjamin, and corresponding to them Libra, Scorpio, and Sagittarius. The flag of Dan was in the North, together with Asher and Naftali… corresponding to them are Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces…

Another version puts the tribes in order of birth as opposed to their encampments in the wilderness. Thus, Reuben is Aries, Shimon is Taurus, and so on. A third version (noted by Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz) also follows the order of birth, but starting from Rosh Hashanah, so Reuben is Libra and Shimon is Scorpio, etc. Nonetheless, the Midrashic version above is the most common, and the one most frequently adopted in Kabbalistic texts. It was the system used by the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797), and appears as early as Sefer Yetzirah, generally considered the oldest known Kabbalistic text.

As we’ve written before, Sefer Yetzirah goes through the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and explains how God fashioned the universe through them (together with the Ten Sefirot). It divides the alphabet into three major groupings: the “mothers”, the “doubles”, and the “elementals”. The mothers are the three letters aleph, mem, shin, corresponding to air (avir), water (mayim), and fire (esh). The doubles are the seven letters that have two sounds in Hebrew: beit (and veit), gimel (and jimel), dalet (and dhalet, like the English “that”), kaf (and khaf), pei (and fei), reish (and the hard ‘reish), tav (and thav, like the English “three”). Most modern speakers have dropped the jimel, dhalet, and ‘reish from use, while Ashkenazis pronounce the thav as “sav” (much like all Eastern Europeans with an accent, when speaking English, would say “sree” instead of “three”). The remaining single-sounding letters make up the twelve elementals.

On the mystical Tree of Life, the three mothers are the three horizontal lines, the seven doubles are the seven vertical lines, and the twelve elementals are the twelve horizontal lines, as follows:

Sefer Yetzirah gives us further details, paralleling each letter to a cosmic force or entity. As already mentioned, the mothers are the three primordial elements of Creation: fire, water, and air. The seven doubles correspond to the seven major celestial bodies that are visible to the naked eye: the sun and moon, plus Mercury (kochav), Venus (nogah), Mars (madim), Jupiter (tzedek), and Saturn (shabbatai). They also correspond to the seven days of the week. This is why, in most cultures, the days of the week are named after these seven bodies: Saturday for Saturn, Sunday for the sun, Monday for the moon, and so on. In his Discourse on Rosh Hashanah, the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) comments that these seven bodies “rule” over the days of the week, and provides a siman, or mnemonic, to remember them: KaNTzaSh ChaLaM (כנצ״ש חל״ם). The Ramban concludes that Jews, unlike the pagans, name our days of the week in memory of Creation and Shabbat (ie. yom rishon, “first day”; yom sheni, “second day”; yom shelishi, “third day”, etc.)

Finally, the twelve elemental letters correspond to the twelve astrological signs of the zodiac, and the twelve months of the year. To these, we can add the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The result is the following:

Letters and Biblical Figures

If the Twelve Tribes correspond to the twelve elemental letters, which Biblical figures correspond to the mothers and doubles? Sefer Yetzirah (3:2) does suggest that from the three mothers come the “fathers” (avot). However, it does not explicitly say that the fathers are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Generally, the seven doubles are paralleled with the seven lower sefirot, and the seven lower sefirot correspond to the Seven Shepherds of Israel, among whom the patriarchs are already included. So, the three mothers must parallel some other figures. Indeed, we see three major figures in the Torah before Abraham. These are Adam, Noah, and Enoch.

Adam is, of course, the first civilized human, the first to be created, and originally a towering figure whose body shone with blinding light. Noah is at the other end of the pre-Abraham period, and was the righteous one in his generation that merited to recreate a new world. In between is Enoch, of whom the Torah curiously states that he “walked with God and was no more, for God had taken him” (Genesis 5:22).

In mystical traditions, Enoch was taken up by God’s blazing divine chariot (much like Elijah would be far in the future), and was transformed into an angel, usually identified with Metatron. Although the Torah gives us essentially no information on Enoch, the Book of Jubilees (4:17-20) explains that Enoch was the first true sage in history. He was a scribe and an astrologer, created history’s first calendar, and taught people how to accurately count months and years. He was a great prophet in his own right, seeing all of the past and all of the future. So holy was he that he never died, and was transfigured into an angel.

These three figures in Genesis neatly parallel the three mother letters of Creation: Adam being aleph, the first man, made in God’s image (which the letter aleph represents); Noah being mem, alluding to the flood waters; and Enoch being shin, alluding to the flaming chariot that took him to Heaven, and his transformation into a fiery archangel (joining the seraphim, literally the “blazing ones”).

The seven doubles, meanwhile, are the Seven Shepherds. On the Tree of Life, the letter beit leads to Chessed, personified by Abraham; the letter gimel to Gevurah, personified by Isaac; the letter dalet to Tiferet, personified by Jacob; kaf to Netzach, which is Moses; pei to Hod, Aaron; reish to Yesod, Joseph; and tav to Malkhut, David.

To summarize the above:

On a practical note, one can use this information to explore their name (or any Hebrew word for that matter) based on the meaning of its letters. If one understands the qualities associated with each letter, they may derive deeper meaning from their name, and how it may affect their own qualities, strengths, weaknesses, or even their destiny.

It is important to note that although Sefer Yetzirah has Saturn for Friday (and Joseph), and Jupiter for Saturday (and David), there are other traditions. Jupiter (Tzedek) is more fitting for Joseph, called Yosef haTzadik, while Saturn (Shabbatai) is more fitting for Shabbat and King David. Yet another tradition has the moon for King David. On the level of Sefirot, this makes most sense, since the moon is a reflection of the sun much like Malkhut is often said to be a reflection of Tiferet.

For example, Moses (משה) was famously thrown into the waters (מ) of the Nile as a newborn, led the Israelites through the waters of the Red Sea, and later had his fatal error by striking the rock for water. Meanwhile, he first encountered God at the burning bush (ש) and as a child burned his mouth with a smoldering coal (according to the Midrashic explanation for his later being “heavy of tongue”). In fact, the Arizal taught (Sha’ar HaPesukim on Ki Tisa) that Moses was a reincarnation of Noah, while other mystical texts compare him to an earthly Metatron. Finally, the hei in his name corresponds to Aries and the month of Nisan, symbolizing the pesach offering and the Exodus which happened in that month, under that sign. Thus, we see in the letters of Moses an allusion to essentially every major event of his life, and even his past life.

Thankfully, Sefer Yetzirah provides us with the exact qualities associated with each letter. The seven doubles have both positive and negative aspects clearly stated (4:2-3). The twelve elementals, meanwhile, have a certain “foundation” (5:1), which may be used for good or for evil. The three mothers are described (3:7-9) based on the qualities of their element, fire being “hot” and water being “cold”, etc. They are also paralleled to a body part. While the qualities given in Sefer Yetzirah are not always so clear, there are many commentaries which help to extract the proper meaning. These are elucidated in detail in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s monumental Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation, In Theory and Practice.

Putting it all together, we have:

One can use the chart above to explore the features associated with each letter of their name, as well as the qualities associated with their astrological birth sign, birth month, birth day of the week, and even birth time of day. The positive qualities are potential traits that one has within and should work to express to the fullest, while the negatives are traits that one should be aware of and particularly focused on to repair. 

The Stages of Life According to the Sefirot

This week we begin reading the Book of Numbers (Bamidbar), named after the many demographic statistics found within it. The text opens with God’s command to take a count of the Israelites. We read that only those over the age of 20 were included in the census, as this was the age of eligibility for military service (Numbers 1:3). This may explains why there was a need for a census to begin with. After all, we see in other places in Scripture, and in Jewish law, that taking a count of Jewish people is highly frowned upon. If so, why take a census? By telling us that God instructed to number only those eligible for military service, the Torah suggests this was a necessity for the purposes of military organization and planning. The Israelites had to reconquer their Holy Land, and as we go on to read throughout the Tanakh, face off against many foes. Therefore, as with any army to this day, it would have been absolutely vital to know exactly how many soldiers there were.

‘The Numbering of the Israelites’ by Philippoteaux

The bigger question here is why are only men over the age of 20 eligible for military service? In a related note, Rashi explains (on Numbers 16:27, based on Sanhedrin 89b) that a person is only judged in Heaven for sins committed after the age of 20. It is only at this point that a person is considered a full-fledged adult, and entirely responsible for their actions. The Heavens are well aware of those hormonal, experimental, rebellious teenage years, and do not hold a person responsible for their actions until they are 20. The Zohar (I, 118b) suggests that the young person will, of course, suffer the consequences of their own poor choices in this world, but will not be judged for it eternally.

The Mishnah (Avot 5:22) further confirms that 20 is the age of adulthood, saying that this is the age “to pursue” a livelihood. This Mishnah states that until 20, a young person should be wholly focused on Torah study and mitzvot: at 5, to start learning Scripture; at 10 to start learning Mishnah, and all the laws that this entails; at 13 to start observing the commandments; at 15 to start learning Gemara, and delving further into Judaism; at 18, to get married. At 20, they are ready to enter the real world. The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 14:7) wonderfully ties it all together by stating that God created Adam and Eve as 20 year olds. Based on this, it may be reasoned that in the World of Resurrection—like in Eden—people will inhabit their 20 year old bodies, at the peak of their beauty and vitality.

The Arizal provides a deeper, mystical perspective (see, for instance, the introduction to Sha’ar HaGilgulim). While we often think of the soul as a singular entity, it is actually composed of several parts. The lowest is called nefesh, the basic life force, common to all living things (at least those with blood, as the Torah states in Leviticus 17:11). The next level is ruach, “spirit”, which encompasses one’s good and evil inclinations, along with their drives and desires. The third and, for most people, highest level of soul is neshamah. This is associated with the mind.

A newborn baby is imbued with nefesh, and little else. As it grows, it attains more and more of its ruach, and hopefully has achieved it in full by bar or bat mitzvah age. By this point, a child has learned right from wrong, and understands their good and evil inclinations. It is only at age 20 that a person can access their full neshamah. This is when their mental faculties have developed, and when they can truly overcome their evil inclination. This is why 20 is the minimum age of judgement in Heaven. It is also why 20 is the age of adulthood, and the age at which priests (and soldiers) can begin their service.

The Arizal often notes how, unfortunately, most people never really access their entire neshamah. Many are trapped at the level of ruach for much of their lives—constantly dominated by their evil inclination, with their mental faculties never properly developed. These people have never truly delved into their soul, and might end their life never having realized its purpose. Some are not even at this level, and spend their whole life in the realm of nefesh alone, no different than animals (and newborn babies)—entirely selfish, and mostly just instinctual. Such a person has extremely limited mental-spiritual abilities, regardless of their apparent knowledge or how many PhDs they may have defended. This is called mochin d’katnut, which is all a person has until age 13. From then on, they can develop their higher mental faculties, mochin d’gadlut. Only at age 20 can a person access all levels of their intellect (see Sha’ar HaKavanot, Inyan shel Pesach, derush 2).

Those who have delved into their neshamah and have attained these higher states of mind are capable of going even further. The fourth level of soul opens up to them, called chayah, sometimes associated with the aura. The fifth and highest level is the yechidah, a sort of divine umbilicus that connects a person directly to God and the Heavens. Indeed, the name “Israel” (ישראל) can be split into yashar-El (ישר-אל), “straight to God”. Every Jew has the potential to tap into their inner yechidah, together with the untold spiritual powers it brings along. A person on this level has access to Heavenly secrets, can receive Ruach haKodesh, a “Holy Spirit” or “divine inspiration”, or even attain true prophecy.

Sefirot of Life

In most years (like this year), parashat Bamidbar is read right around the holiday of Shavuot. This holiday commemorates the divine revelation at Mt. Sinai, an event traditionally compared to a “wedding” between God and Israel. The Torah does not specify a date for this holiday, instead saying that one should count 50 days from Passover. In fact, the Sages call Shavuot “Atzeret”, as if it is the conclusion of Passover, just as the holiday of Shemini Atzeret is the conclusion of Sukkot (yet still a standalone holiday in its own right).

The mochin above (in blue) and the middot below (in red) on the Tree of Life

While Shavuot is likened to a marriage, Passover is described as a new birth. The Sages see the Israelites emerging out of the split Red Sea like a newborn baby coming out of the waters of the womb. There are exactly seven weeks between the first day of Passover and Shavuot, and each week corresponds to one of the seven middot, the seven “lower” sefirot of the mystical Tree of Life. By putting these ideas together, we can conclude that the transition from the first sefirah to the seventh—from Passover to Shavuot—represents the development from birth to marriage. Fittingly, one can draw a very close parallel between the qualities of these sefirot and the major stages of life.

The first sefirah is Chessed, kindness, and is always associated with water. Chessed represents the time in the life-giving waters of the mother’s womb. This is a stage of life that is entirely chessed, requiring no effort on the part of the person at all. They are completely sustained by their mother. Just as the Israelites emerged out of the Red Sea at the end of Passover—at the end of the Chessed week—the embryonic phase ends with birth.

This thrusts the person into Gevurah: severity, restraint, difficulty, the very opposite of Chessed. The newborn phase is the most difficult. The baby is unable to express itself, and has no power to do anything on its own. It spends much of its time in pain and discomfort, crying and misunderstood. Every little ache is literally the worst pain it ever felt in its short life. But that phase soon ends and opens the door to a much better world.

Early childhood is the easiest time of life. A child has all of its needs taken care of, and spends most of his or her time in play. There is no need to work, study, or struggle. A child is showered with constant affection and attention. They are full of energy, curiosity, and innocence. The third sefirah, Tiferet, is also associated with this kind of youthful innocence. (The forefather Jacob, who embodied Tiferet, is described in the Torah as tam, “innocent”.) Tiferet is “beauty” and it is also known as Emet, “truth”, apt descriptions for childhood.

Then comes Netzach: persistence, competitiveness, ambition. This sefirah corresponds neatly to the pre-teen and early teen years, the first half of puberty. The negative quality of Netzach is, naturally, laziness and a lack of motivation—especially common in this age group. But there is also a great deal of competitiveness and a need to win (having not yet learned to lose gracefully). Most of all, there is a sense of immortality (netzach literally means “eternity”), and the carelessness and poor choices that come with that attitude.

The second half of the teen years, up until age 20, is when the young person finally starts to mature. The worst part of puberty is behind them, and the beauty and splendour of youth emerges. This is Hod, “majesty” or “splendour”, the fifth sefirah. Hod is associated with humility and gratitude (lehodot is “to thank”). In these years, the youth start to develop some inner modesty, and begin to understand a little bit about how the world works. Because of that, they are full of ideas, and full of idealism. Being social is very important, and the first real feelings of love for others is here. Fittingly, the fifth sefirah is embodied by Aaron, whom the Mishnah describes above all as a most loving person (Avot 1:12).

At 20, one enters adulthood. This is the sefirah of Yesod, “foundation”. It contains the most difficult qualities to rectify, namely sexuality. Yesod is where most fail, and the Sages describe the final (and most difficult) era before Mashiach’s coming as the one where Yesod is a particular problem, as we see all around us today. There is heavy judgement in this sefirah, too, just as one begins to be judged in Heaven at age 20. Yesod is the last step before the concluding sefirah of Malkhut, “Kingdom”, where everything comes together. Yesod is therefore quite literally the last and greatest test. Most of us spend much of our lives struggling in Yesod more than in any other sefirah. Our entire generation is struggling with this sefirah in particular more than any other. Only with the proper rectification of Yesod—in a holy, wholesome, unified marriage; a true reunion of soulmates—can one enter the Kingdom.

And it is only following all of this that one can ascend ever higher in the sefirot, for they do not end with these lower seven. There are three more “higher” sefirot: the mochin. First comes the pair of Binah, also called Ima, “mother”, and Chokhmah, also called Aba, “father”. On the simplest of levels, being parents is essential to achieving these rectifications. In fact, the Arizal teaches that Aba has an even deeper face (and phase) called Israel Saba, the “grandfather”. At the very end, we reach Keter, the “crown”, the highest sefirah. It corresponds to the highest soul, yechidah, and to the highest universe, Atzilut. This is the face that Daniel described as Atik Yomin, “Ancient of Days”. A holy, ancient human being whose hair is like “pure wool” (Daniel 7:9). This is a completely rectified person, a transcendent being. Such a person is like a projection of pure Godliness in this world. This is the stage of life we should all yearn to one day experience.

‘The order of the Israelite camp in the Wilderness’ by Jan Luyken c. 1700


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The Mystical Meaning of Exile and Terrorism

This week we once again read a double parasha, Behar and Bechukotai. The latter is famous for its list of blessings, and curses, should Israel faithfully follow God’s law, or not. In Leviticus 26:33, God warns that “I will scatter you among the nations, and I will draw out the sword after you; and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste.” These prophetic words have, of course, come true in Jewish history. Israel has indeed been exiled to the four corners of the world, and experienced just about every kind of persecution. Yet, within every curse there is a hidden blessing.

‘The Flight of the Prisoners’ by James Tissot, depicting the Jewish people being exiled to Babylon.

The Talmud (Pesachim 87b) states that the deeper purpose of exile is for the Jews to spread Godliness to the rest of the world. After all, our very mandate was to be a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6) and to spread knowledge of Hashem and His Torah. How could we ever accomplish this if we were always isolated in the Holy Land? It was absolutely necessary for Israel to be spread all over the globe in order to introduce people to Hashem, to be a model of righteousness, and to fulfil the various spiritual rectifications necessary to repair this broken world.

The Arizal explains that by praying, reciting blessings, and fulfilling mitzvot, a Jew frees the spiritual sparks trapped within the kelipot, literally “husks”. This idea hearkens back to the concept of Shevirat haKelim, the “Shattering of the Vessels”. The Arizal taught that God initially crafted an entirely perfect universe. Unfortunately, this world couldn’t contain itself and shattered into a multitude of pieces, spiritual “sparks” trapped in this material reality. While God had rebuilt most of the universe, He left it to Adam and Eve to complete the rectification through their own free will. They, too, could not affect that tikkun, and the cosmos shattered yet again. The process repeated itself on a number of occasions, the last major one being at the time of the Golden Calf.

Nonetheless, with each passing phase in history, more and more of those lost, trapped sparks are rediscovered and restored to their rightful place. The mystical mission of every Jew is to free those sparks wherever they go. The Arizal speaks of this at great length, and it permeates every part of his teachings. Eating, for example, serves the purpose of freeing sparks trapped within food—which is why it is so important to consume only kosher food, and to carefully recite blessings (which are nothing but fine-tuned formulas for spiritual rectification) before and after. The same is true with every mitzvah that we do, and every prayer we recite.

Thus, while exile is certainly difficult and unpleasant, it serves an absolutely vital spiritual purpose. This is why the Midrash states that exile is one of four things God created regretfully (Yalkut Shimoni on Isaiah, passage 424). It is why God already prophesied that we would be exiled—even though we hadn’t yet earned such a punishment! And it is why God also guaranteed that we would one day return to our Promised Land, as we have miraculously begun to do in recent decades.

Four, Five, or Eight Exiles?

In Jewish tradition, it is said that there are four major exiles: the Babylonian, the Persian, the Greek, and the Roman. We are still considered to be within the “Roman” or Edomite (European/Christian) exile. Indeed, the Roman Empire never really ended, and just morphed from one phase into another, from the Byzantine Empire to the Holy Roman Empire, and so forth.

Babylonian Shedu

This idea of four exiles originated with Daniel’s vision of four great beasts (Daniel 7:3-7). The first was a lion with eagle wings—a well-known symbol of ancient Babylon. Then came a fierce bear, an animal which the Talmud always likens to the Persians. The swift leopard represents the Greeks that conquered the known world in lightning speed under Alexander the Great. The final and most devastating beast is unidentified, representing the longest and cruelest exile of Edom.

The Midrash states that Jacob himself foresaw these exiles in his vision of the ladder (Genesis 28). There he saw four angels, each going up a number of rungs on the ladder equal to the number of years Israel would be oppressed by that particular nation. The last angel continued to climb ever higher, with Jacob unable to see its conclusion, alluding to the current seemingly never-ending exile.  The big question is: why are these considered the four exiles. Haven’t the Jewish people been exiled all around the world? Have we not been oppressed by other nations besides these?

The Arizal explains (Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Re’eh) that while Jews have indeed been exiled among all seventy root nations, it is only in these four that all Jews were exiled in. Yet, he maintains that any place where even a single Jew has been exiled is considered as if the entire nation was exiled there. The Arizal further explains that these four exiles were already alluded to in Genesis 2:10-14, where the Torah describes the four rivers that emerged from Eden. Each river corresponds to one exile. The head river of Eden that gives rise to the other four corresponds to the very first exile of the Jews, the exile within which the Jewish people were forged: Egypt, the mother of all exiles.

Elsewhere, the Arizal adds that there is actually a fifth exile, that of Ishmael (Etz Ha’Da’at Tov, ch. 62). History makes this plainly evident, of course, as the Jewish people have suffered immensely under Arab and Muslim oppression to this very day. The idea of Ishmael being the final exile was known long before the Arizal, and is mentioned by earlier authorities. In fact, one tradition holds that each exile has two components:

We know that before the Babylonians came to destroy the Kingdom of Judah and its capital Jerusalem, the Assyrians had destroyed the northern Kingdom of Israel with the majority of the Twelve Tribes. We also know that the Persians were united with the Medians. Technically speaking, Alexander the Great was not a mainstream Greek, but a Macedonian. While he was the one who conquered Israel, his treatment of the Jews was mostly fair. It was only long after that the Seleucid Greeks in Syria really tried to extinguish the Jews. Thus, the doublets are Assyria-Babylon (Ashur-Bavel), Persia-Media (Paras-Madai), Macedon-Greece (Mokdon-Yavan), with the final doublet being Edom-Ishmael. The latter has a clear proof-text in the Torah itself, where we read how Esau (ie. Edom) married a daughter of Ishmael (Genesis 28:9). The Sages suggest that this is an allusion to the joint union between Edom and Ishmael to oppress Israel in its final exile.

The Arizal certainly knew the above, so why does he speak of a fifth exile under Ishmael, as well as a fifth (original) exile under Egypt?

The End is Wedged in the Beginning

One of the most well-known principles in Kabbalah is that “the end is wedged in the beginning, and the beginning in the end”. What the Arizal may have been hinting at is that the final Ishmaelite exile is a reflection of the original Egyptian exile. Indeed, the Arizal often speaks of how the final generation at the End of Days is a reincarnation of the Exodus generation. (According to one tradition, there were 15 million Jews in ancient Egypt, just as there are roughly 15 million in the world today.) The first redeemer Moses took us out of the Egyptian exile, and we await Moses’ successor, the final redeemer Mashiach, to free us from the Ishmaelite exile.

In highly symbolic fashion, the land of ancient Egypt is currently occupied by Muslim Arabs. The Ishmaelites have quite literally taken the place of ancient Egypt. Come to think of it, the lands of all the four traditional nations of exile are now Ishmaelite: Bavel is Iraq, Paras is Iran, Seleucid Greece is Syria, and the Biblical land of Edom overlaps Jordan. The four rivers of Eden would have run through these very territories. It is quite ironic that Saddam Hussein openly spoke of himself as a reincarnated Nebuchadnezzar, seeking to restore a modern-day Babylonian Empire. Meanwhile, each day in the news we hear of the looming Syria-Iran threat. Just as Egypt was the mother of all four “beasts”, it appears that the four beasts converge under a new Ishmaelite banner for one final End of Days confrontation.

There is one distinction however. In the ancient land of Egypt, all Jews were physically trapped. We do not see this at all today, where very few Jews remain living in Muslim states. Nonetheless, every single Jew around the world, wherever they may be, is living under an Ishmaelite threat. Muslims in France, for example, have persistently attacked innocent Jews in horrific acts—so much so that recently 250 French intellectuals, politicians, and even former presidents banded together to demand action against this absurd violence and anti-Semitism. Similar acts of evil have taken place all over the world. This has been greatly exacerbated by the recent influx of Muslim refugees to the West, as admitted by Germany’s chancellor Angel Merkel who recently stated: “We have refugees now… or people of Arab origin, who bring a different type of anti-Semitism into the country…”

In 2017, Swedish police admitted that there are at least 23 “no-go” Sharia Law zones in their country.

It is important to note that when Scripture speaks of the End of Days, it is not describing a regional conflict, but an international one. The House of Ishmael is not a local threat to Israel alone, or only to Jewish communities, but to the entire globe. Every continent has felt the wrath of Islamist terrorism, and whole communities in England, France, and even America have become cordoned off as “sharia law” zones. Ishmael is even a threat to himself. Muslims kill each other far more than they kill non-Muslims. In 2011, the National Counter-Terrorism Center reported that between 82% and 97% of all Islamist terror victims are actually Muslim. All but three civil wars between 2011 and 2014 were in Muslim countries, and all six civil wars that raged in 2012 were in Muslim countries. In 2013, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom showed that 10 of the 15 most intolerant and oppressive states in the world were Muslim ones.

The Torah wasn’t wrong when it prophesied (Genesis 16:12) that Ishmael would be a “wild man; his hand against every man, and every man’s hand against him, and upon all of his brothers he will dwell.” Every Jew—and every human being for that matter—is experiencing an Ishmaelite exile at present.

The Exile Within

There is one more way of looking at the four exiles: not as specific nations under whom we were once oppressed, but as four oppressive forces that have always constrained Israel, and continue to do so today. These are the four root issues plaguing the Jews, and keeping us in “exile” mode.

The first is Edom, that spirit of materialism and physicality embodied by Esau. Unfortunately, such greed and gluttony has infiltrated just about every Jewish community, including those that see themselves as the most spiritual. The second, Bavel, literally means “confusion”, that inexplicable madness within the Jewish nation; the incessant infighting, the divisiveness, and the sinat chinam. Yavan is Hellenism, or secularism. In Hebrew, the word for a secular Jew is hiloni, literally a “Hellene”. Just as this week’s parasha clearly elucidates, abandoning the Torah is a root cause of many ills that befall the Jews. Finally, there is Paras. It was because the Jews had assimilated in ancient Persia that the events of Purim came about. Paras represents that persistent problem of assimilation.

It is important to point out that assimilation is different from secularism. There are plenty of secular Jews that are also very proud Jews. They openly sport a magen David around their neck, worry every day about Israel, want their kids to marry only other Jews, and though they don’t want to be religious, still try to connect to their heritage, language, and traditions. The assimilated Jew is not that secular Jew, but the one that no longer cares about their Jewish identity. It is the Jew that entirely leaves the fold. Sometimes, it is the one that becomes a “self-hating” Jew, or converts to another religion. Such Jews have been particularly devastating to the nation, and often caused tremendous grief. Some of the worst Spanish inquisitors were Jewish converts to Catholicism. Karl Marx and the Soviet Communists that followed are more recent tragedies. Not only do they leave their own people behind, they bring untold suffering to their former compatriots.

While there may be literal Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Edomites out there, the bigger problem for the Jewish people is the spiritual Bavel, Paras, Yavan, and Edom that infects the hearts and minds of the nation: infighting, assimilation, secularism, materialism. It is these issues that we should be spending the most time meditating upon, and expending the most effort to solve. Only when we put these problems behind us can we expect to see the long-awaited end to exile.

The Mystical Purpose of the Omer

“Bringing the Omer to the Kohen” by Ahuva Klein

In this week’s parasha, Emor, we read of the commandment to count the Omer. Each of the forty-nine days between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot must be enumerated. In Temple times, this went along with a special “wave-offering” consisting of sheaves (omer in Hebrew) of barley. The Torah doesn’t clearly spell out why this must be done. However, a big clue is given from the conspicuous interplay between the words Emor (the name of the parasha) and Omer (the mitzvah commanded in this parasha).

The difference between Emor (אמר) and Omer (עמר) is just a single letter: an aleph replaced with an ayin. Our Sages point out that when two words differ in such a way, there is a special connection between them. The letter aleph is the first in the alphabet, with a value of one, representing the One God. (In fact, an aleph is composed of two yuds joined by a vav, the sum of which is 26, equal to God’s Ineffable Name, Yud-Hei-Vav-Hei). Each Hebrew letter is also a word with its own meaning. “Aleph” means “master” or “chief”, once more hinting to God being the Master of the Universe. Ayin, meanwhile, means “eye”. The eyes are the tools with which we see this physical world. Because of this, the eyes mislead us, distracting us from the truth that everything is truly One. Indeed, the Shema that we recite twice daily cautions not to follow “after your eyes”. The aleph therefore represents spirituality, while the ayin represents physicality.

The Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570) suggests that Israel represents the unique, spiritual nation among the seventy root nations of the world that are trapped in physicality, the value of ayin being 70. Here (Pardes Rimonim 13:3), he gives the most famous example of the interplay between aleph and ayin: The Sages state that Adam and Eve were initially created as beings of light (אור). Only after consuming the Forbidden Fruit did their light disappear, replaced with fragile skin (עור). Other examples of such parallel terms described in mystical texts include “me” (אני) and “poor” (עני), “nothingness” (אין) and “eye” (עין), and the words in question: “emor” (אמר) and “omer” (עמר).

“Emor” means to speak. It is one of three major roots for “speaking” in Hebrew. The Zohar (I, 234b) explains that ledaber (לדבר) refers to simple, day-to-day speech; le’emor (לאמר) is to speak from the heart; and lehagid (להגיד) is to speak from the soul. For more practical examples, a simple, everyday Torah insight is called a dvar (דבר), while a long and in-depth discourse is a ma’amar (מאמר), and on Pesach we have a particularly special text that comes straight from the soul called the haggadah (הגדה). The form of speech we are interested in here is emor—speech of the heart.

What is the connection between this type of speech and the Omer?

32 Paths of Wisdom

Sefer Yetzirah, perhaps the oldest Jewish mystical text, explains how God brought about the universe. It begins by stating that God created through 32 Paths of Wisdom. These 32 paths are the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the 10 Sefirot (as explained here). Sefer Yetzirah tells us that the first letters God forged were aleph, mem, and shin, which brought about the three primordial elements: air (avir or ruach), water (mayim), and fire (esh). These central letters therefore stand at the three horizontal axes of the Kabbalistic “Tree of Life”. The Arizal elaborates (Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh, drush 2) that God then brought about the substances of the first day of Creation: light, water, and space, ie. or (אור), mayim (מים), and rakia (רקיע). As we read in the Torah, these were the only things in existence at the end of Day One.

The three horizontal lines of the Tree of Life correspond to the paths of the letters Aleph, Mem, and Shin.

You may have already noticed that the initials of these three things make aleph-mem-reish (אמר), “emor”. Amazingly, it is exclusively this verb of speech that the Torah uses in describing God’s creation: v’yomer, God spoke (ויאמר), and everything came to be. It is this form of speech that contains within it the very power of Creation.

Even more amazingly, the Zohar we saw above states that this is speech from the heart. The heart is a special organ for, unlike any other organ, it literally intertwines with every single living cell in the human body, ensuring that the tiniest bodily component receives oxygen and nutrients. So, too, does God permeate the entire universe, and is intertwined with even the tiniest bit of matter, ensuring its continual existence. In Hebrew, “heart” is lev (לב), which has a value of 32, once more alluding to those 32 paths of Creation.

Better yet, the 32 paths correspond to the 32 times that God (Elohim) is mentioned in the account of Creation. It is only after the account of Creation ends, at the 33rd instance, that the Torah introduces us to God’s Ineffable Name. So, too, during the Sefirat haOmer period, we have 32 days before we reach the climax of the whole Omer period, the 33rd day, the holiday of Lag b’Omer. Of course, man is a microcosm of the universe, so it is only fitting that the human body has a spinal cord with 31 pairs of nerves emerging out of it, sitting beneath the all-important 33rd component, the brain.

With this in mind, we can understand the connection between Emor and Omer.

Rectifying Speech

The Sefirat haOmer period is meant to be one of rectification and purification. Upon the Exodus, the Israelites spent these 49 days preparing to receive the Torah at Sinai. We relive this experience each year, and likewise work on ourselves in these seven weeks. When we count the Omer each night, we quote from the verse in this week’s parasha: “And you shall count for yourselves from the morrow after the day of rest, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the waving [omer hatenufah]; seven weeks shall there be complete; until the morrow after the seventh week shall you count fifty days…” (Leviticus 23:15-16) and then we add, in many versions of the prayer, “in order to purify the souls of Your people Israel from their impurity.” The very purpose of the Omer is personal development and purification. How do we purify ourselves?

The greatest sin that needs to be atoned for is improper speech. The Talmud (Yoma 44a) states that it was for this sin in particular that the Kohen Gadol entered the Holy of Holies just once a year, on Yom Kippur. Conversely, as we saw above, proper speech has the power to create worlds. Impure speech can be immensely destructive while pure speech can rectify anything. King Solomon similarly wrote that “death and life are in the hand of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). It is through the mouth that we speak, and the tongue is its primary organ. Beautifully, the mouth, too, contains 32 teeth to parallel the 32 paths of Creation, with the central 33rd component being the tongue.

More than anything else, the purpose of the Omer (עמר) is to allow us to rectify our speech (אמר). The Torah itself hints to this in the verse above, calling the special offering of these 49 days the omer hatenufah, where the latter word can be split (תנו פה) to mean “give mouth”, or “teach the mouth”. Each of the seven weeks that the Torah prescribes correspond to one of the seven mystical middot of the Tree of Life. In the Omer period, we are meant to rectify these seven “lower” Sefirot (hinted in the term Sefirat HaOmer). We do not mention the three “higher” sefirot above. We can understand why this is so, for the Sages say the upper sefirot are the mochin of the mind, while the lower seven are the middot of the heart—and as we saw above, it is the speech of the heart that we are particularly focusing on. The final Sefirah is called Malkhut, “Kingdom”, which Patach Eliyahu (Tikkunei Zohar 17a) says is פה, the mouth. The very culmination of the Sefirat HaOmer period is the purification of speech.

The mochin above (in blue) and the middot below (in red).

Rabbi Akiva’s Students

The Sefirat HaOmer period overlaps with the tragic deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. As is well-known, the students died because they lacked respect for one another. How exactly did they disrespect each other? Although we have discussed in the past that they were probably killed by the Romans during the Bar Kochva Revolt, the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) cryptically states that they died of a disease called croup. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Sotah 35a) suggests that croup is the standard Heavenly punishment for a person who commits slander. We may learn from this that Rabbi Akiva’s students spoke negatively about each other, and thus deserved their cruel death penalty.

Rabbi Akiva’s students ceased to die on the 33rd of the Omer, as if God was hinting at their misuse of the tremendous powers of speech. One of Rabbi Akiva’s surviving students, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, himself had to hide from the Romans for 13 years because he spoke negatively about the authorities. It was he who ultimately fixed the 33rd of the Omer as a holiday. Although this was the day of his death, it was also the day he revealed the depths of Kabbalah, and the teachings that would eventually be compiled into the Zohar. Lag b’Omer is a celebration of this mystical wisdom, much of which is focused on the powers of divine speech.

To bring it all together, we find that the term “lag” (לג) actually appears in the Torah. It is found only in one passage, Leviticus 14, where it refers to a measure of oil, log hashamen. This was a special oil used in the purification procedure for a metzora, loosely translated as a “leper”. The Sages teach that a person would be afflicted with this illness if they spoke negatively about another, motzi shem ra, hence the term “metzora”. Like the Omer, the log hashamen was also a “wave-offering”, a tenufah. Afterwards, the oil was sprinkled and poured upon the leper in order to purify them. If “log” (לג) hints to the oil used to purify improper speech, and Omer (עומר) is the inverse of emor, itself alluding to impure speech, then Lag b’Omer (לג בעומר) takes on an entirely new meaning.

Chag sameach!

The Mysterious Custom of Upsherin

In this week’s double Torah portion (Acharei-Kedoshim) we read that “when you will have planted all manner of trees for food, its fruit shall be forbidden; three years shall it be forbidden to you, it shall not be eaten.” (Leviticus 19:23) This refers to the mitzvah of orlah, where a newly-planted tree must be left unharvested for its first three years. Seemingly based on this, a custom has developed to leave the hair of newborn boys uncut until age three. On or around the boy’s third birthday, a special celebration is held (called upsherin or halakeh), often with family and friends taking turns to cut a bit of the boy’s hair. Henceforth, the boy is encouraged to wear a kippah and tzitzit, and his formal Jewish education will begin. It is said that just as a tree needs the first three years to establish itself firmly in the ground before it can flourish and its fruit be used in divine service, so too does a child.

Lag B’Omer 1970 in Meron. Photo from Israel’s National Photo Collection

Indeed, the Torah makes a comparison between trees and humans in other places. Most famously, Deuteronomy 20:19 states that fruit trees should not be harmed during battle, “for is the tree of the field a man?” The tree is not an enemy combatant, so it should be left alone. Although the plain meaning of the verse is that the tree is not a man, an alternate way of reading it is that “man is a tree of the field”. Elsewhere, God compares the righteous man to a tree firmly rooted in the ground (Jeremiah 17:8), and in another place compares the entire Jewish nation to a tree (Isaiah 65:22).

Having said that, the custom of upsherin is essentially unknown in ancient Jewish sources. It is not mentioned anywhere in the Talmud, nor in any early halachic codes, including the authoritative Shulchan Arukh of the 16th century. Where did this very recent practice originate?

Lag b’Omer and the Arizal

The first Jews to take up this custom were those living in Israel and surrounding lands under Arab Muslim dominion in the Middle Ages. We see that Sephardic Jews in Spain and Morocco did not have such a custom, nor did the Yemenite Jews. In fact, Rav David Bar-Hayim points out that Yemenite Jews did not even have a custom to abstain from haircuts during Sefirat HaOmer at all. This is particularly relevant because the upsherin ceremony is often connected with the Sefirat HaOmer period, with many waiting until Lag b’Omer for their child’s first haircut, and taking the boy to the grave of Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) in Meron for the special ceremony.

It appears that the earliest textual reference to upsherin is from Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), the primary disciple of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572). Because of this, many believe that upsherin is a proper Kabbalistic custom that was instituted by, or at least sanctioned by, the great Arizal. In reality, the text in question says no such thing. The passage (Sha’ar HaKavanot, Inyan HaPesach, Derush 12) states the following:

ענין מנהג שנהגו ישראל ללכת ביום ל”ג לעומר על קברי רשב”י ור”א בנו אשר קבורים בעיר מירון כנודע ואוכלים ושותי’ ושמחים שם אני ראיתי למוז”ל שהלך לשם פ”א ביום ל”ג לעומר הוא וכל אנשי ביתו וישב שם שלשה ימים ראשו’ של השבוע ההו’ וזה היה פעם הא’ שבא ממצרים אבל אין אני יודע אם אז היה בקי ויודע בחכמה הזו הנפלאה שהשיג אח”כ. והה”ר יונתן שאגי”ש העיד לי שבשנה הא’ קודם שהלכתי אני אצלו ללמוד עם מוז”ל שהוליך את בנו הקטן שם עם כל אנשי ביתו ושם גילחו את ראשו כמנהג הידוע ועשה שם יום משתה ושמחה

On the custom of Israel going on Lag b’Omer to the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Elazar his son (who are buried in the town of Meron as is known) and to eat and drink and rejoice there—I saw that my teacher, of blessed memory [the Arizal], that he went there once on Lag b’Omer with his whole family and remained there for three days, until the start of the sixth week [of the Omer]. And this was that one time, when he came from Egypt, but I do not know if he was then knowledgeable in this wisdom that he would later attain. And Rav Yonatan Sagis related to me that in the first year before I went to him to learn with my teacher of blessed memory, he took his small son with his whole family and there they cut his hair according to the known custom, and he held a feast and celebration there.

First, what we see in this passage is that the Arizal apparently only visited Meron on Lag b’Omer once, when he just made aliyah from Egypt, and before he had become the pre-eminent Kabbalist in Tzfat. (Some say this was actually before he made aliyah, and was simply on a trip to Israel.) Lag b’Omer is the 5th day of the 5th week of the Omer, and the Arizal stayed there for the remainder of the fifth week. Rav Chaim Vital wonders whether the Arizal was already an expert mystic at the time or not. Once he became the leader of the Tzfat Kabbalists, the Arizal apparently never made it a point to pilgrimage to Meron on Lag b’Omer. Rabbi Vital notes just that one time in the past, and it almost seems like once the Arizal was a master mystic, he understood there was nothing particularly mystical about it. In any case, nothing is said here of cutting hair.

The next part of the passage is more problematic. To start, it is unclear whether Rabbi Vital means that he and the Arizal went to study with Rav Yonatan Sagis, or that he and Rav Sagis went to study with the Arizal. We know that Rabbis Sagis and Vital were later both students of the Ari. However, when the Ari first came to Tzfat he was essentially unknown, and was briefly a disciple of other Kabbalists, namely the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570). In fact, the Arizal only spent a couple of years in Tzfat before suddenly passing away at a very young age. Whatever the case, it is unclear from the passage whether it was the Arizal or Rav Sagis who was the one to take his son for a haircut on Lag b’Omer. Based on the context, it would appear that it was Rav Sagis who did so, not the Arizal, since we already learned that the Arizal did not make it a point to pilgrimage to Meron.

The nail on the coffin may come from an earlier passage in the same section of Sha’ar HaKavanot, where we read:

ענין הגילוח במ”ט ימים אלו לא היה מוז”ל מגלח ראשו אלא בערב פסח ובערב חג השבועות ולא היה מגלח לא ביום ר”ח אייר ולא ביום ל”ג לעומר בשום אופן

On the matter of shaving during these forty-nine days [of the Omer], my teacher of blessed memory did not shave his head [hair], except for the evening of Passover and the evening of Shavuot, and would not shave his hair at all [in between], not on Rosh Chodesh Iyar, and not on Lag b’Omer.

According to the Arizal, one should not shave at all during the entire Omer period, including Lag b’Omer! If that’s the case, then the Ari certainly wouldn’t take his child to Meron for a haircutting on Lag b’Omer. It must be that the previous passage is referring to Rav Sagis. Nowhere else in the vast teachings of the Arizal is the custom of waiting until a boy’s third birthday (whether on Lag b’Omer or not) mentioned. Thus, the Arizal was not the custom’s originator, did not expound upon it, and most likely did not even observe it.

So where did it come from?

A Far-Eastern Custom

While no ancient Jewish mystical or halachic text before the 17th century appears to mention upsherin, a similar custom is discussed in much older non-Jewish sources. The Kalpa Sutras of the ancient Hindu Vedic schools speak of a ceremony called Chudakarana or Mundana, literally “haircutting”. It is supposed to be done before a child turns three, usually at a Hindu temple. It is explained that the hair a child is born with it connected to their past life, and all the negative things which that may entail. Removing this hair is symbolic of leaving the past life behind and starting anew. Interestingly, a small lock of hair is usually left behind, called a sikha, “flame” or “ray of light”, as a sign of devotion to the divine. This is surprisingly similar to the Chassidic custom of leaving behind the long peyos at the upsherin.

Hindu Sikha and Chassidic Peyos

From India, the custom seemingly moved across Asia to Arabia. One Muslim tradition called Aqiqah requires shaving the head of a newborn. Of this practice, Muhammad had apparently stated that “sacrifice is made for him on the seventh day, his head is shaved, and a name is given him.” An alternate practice had Muslims take their boys to the graves of various holy people for their first haircut. The Arabic for “haircut” is halaqah, which is precisely what the Sephardic Jews of Israel called upsherin. Thus, it appears that Jews in Muslim lands adopted the custom from their neighbours. However, many of them waited not until the child is three, but five, which is when the Mishnah (Avot 5:22) says a child must start learning Torah. (In this case, the practice has nothing to do with the mitzvah of orlah or any connection to a sapling.)

In the early 19th century, Rabbi Yehudah Leibush Horenstein made aliyah to Israel and first encountered this practice of “the Sephardim in Jerusalem… something unknown to the Jews in Europe.” He was a Chassid, and in that time period many more Chassidim were migrating to Israel—a trend instigated by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk (c. 1730-1788), the foremost student of the Maggid of Mezeritch (Rabbi Dov Ber, d. 1772), who in turn was the foremost student of the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, 1698-1760) the founder of Chassidism. These Chassidim in Israel adopted the practice from the local Sephardim, and spread it to the rest of the Chassidic world over the past century and a half.

While it has become more popular in recent decades, and has been adopted by other streams within Orthodoxy, and even many secular Israelis and Jews, upsherin is far from universally accepted. The Steipler (Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, 1899-1985) was particularly upset about this practice (see Orchos Rabbeinu, Vol. I, pg. 233). When a child was brought before Rav Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik of Brisk (1886-1959) for an upsherin, he frustratingly replied: “I am not a barber.” Other than the fact that it is not an established or widespread Jewish custom, there is a serious issue of it being in the category of darkei Emori, referring to various non-Jewish (and potentially idolatrous) practices.

Not So Fast

While there is no mention of the upsherin that we know today in ancient Jewish mystical or halachic texts, there is mention of something very much related. In one of his responsa, the great Radbaz (Rabbi David ibn Zimra, c. 1479-1573) speaks of a practice where some people take upon themselves a “vow to shave their son in the resting place of Samuel the Prophet” (see She’elot v’Teshuvot haRadbaz, siman 608).

Recall that Samuel was born after the heartfelt prayer of his mother Hannah who was barren for many years. She came to the Holy Tabernacle in Shiloh and vowed that if God gave her a son, she would dedicate him to divine service from his very birth, and he would be a nazir his entire life (I Samuel 1:11). This means that he would never be allowed to shave or trim the hair of his head, just as the Torah instructs for anyone taking on a nazirite vow. There is something particularly holy about this, and we see earlier in Scripture how an angel comes to declare the birth of the judge Samson and instructs the parents to ensure he would be a nazirite for life, and that no blade ever come upon his head (Judges 13:5).

The Tanakh goes on to state that once Samuel was weaned, Hannah took him to the Tabernacle and left him in the care of the holy priests so that he could serve God his entire life. How old was he when he was weaned? While it doesn’t say so here, there is an earlier case where the Torah speaks of a child being weaned. This is in Genesis 21:8, where we read how Abraham through a great feast upon the weaning of his son Isaac. Rashi comments here (drawing from the Midrash and Talmud) that Isaac was two years old at the time. For this reason, many Chassidic groups actually perform the upsherin at age two, not three.

Back to the Radbaz, he was born in Spain but was exiled with his family in the Expulsion of 1492. The family settled in Tzfat, where the Radbaz was tutored by Rabbi Yosef Saragossi, the holy “White Saint” credited with transforming Tzfat from a small town of 300 unlearned Jews to a holy Jewish metropolis and the capital of Kabbalistic learning. In adulthood, the Radbaz settled in Fes, Egypt and his fame as a tremendous scholar and posek spread quickly. In 1517, he moved to Cairo and was appointed Hakham Bashi, the Chief Rabbi of Egypt. There, he founded a world-class yeshiva that attracted many scholars. Coming full circle, it was here in the yeshiva of the Radbaz that the Arizal began his scholarly career. In the last years of his life, the Radbaz wished to return to the Holy Land, and made his way back to Tzfat. It is possible that the Arizal left Egypt for Tzfat in the footsteps of his former rosh yeshiva. Ironically, the Radbaz (who lived to age 94, or even 110 according to some sources) would outlive the Arizal (who died at just 38 years of age).

While neither the Arizal nor his old teacher the Radbaz discuss cutting a three-year-old’s hair in particular (or doing it at the tomb of Rashbi), the Radbaz does speak of a personal vow that one may take to cut their child’s hair at the tomb of Samuel the Prophet. This practice comes from emulating Hannah, who took a vow with regards to her son Samuel. Samuel went on to be compared in Scripture to Moses and Aaron (and the Sages say Moses and Aaron combined!) Of course, Hannah never cut her child’s hair at all, but perhaps there is something spiritual in treating the child like a nazirite until the child is “weaned”.

In any case, the question that the Radbaz was addressing is what one must do if they took up such a haircutting vow but are unable to fulfil it because the authorities prohibit Jews from going to the grave sites of their ancestors. From here, some scholars conclude that the Ottoman authorities at the time really must have prohibited Jews from going to the grave of Samuel, near Jerusalem. Thus, it is possible that those Jerusalem Jews who had a custom of going to Samuel’s grave decided to journey to another famous grave instead. Perhaps it was in these years of the early 16th century that the custom to go to Rashbi in Meron (instead of Shmuel near Jerusalem) evolved.

So, there may be something to the upsherin custom after all. Of course, we still don’t know when the practice of going to Samuel’s grave emerged. That appears to have been a local custom (or possibly not a custom at all, but a personal vow) of Jerusalem’s medieval Jewish community. It, too, may have been influenced by neighbouring Muslims who went to the graves of their saints to cut their children’s hair.

Whatever the case, we see that foundations of upsherin are not so clear-cut. Contrary to popular belief, it is neither a universally accepted Jewish custom, nor a mandatory halachic requirement. It did not originate with the Arizal either, although we do see some basis for it in the writings of the Radbaz. For those who wish to uphold this custom, they have upon whom to rely, and should meditate foremost upon the holy figures of Hannah and Samuel, who appear to be the spiritual originators of this mysterious practice.