Tag Archives: Arabic

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.

Secrets of the Star of David

Star of David on the 1000-year old Leningrad Codex (1008 CE).

This week’s double parasha is Vayak’hel-Pekudei, which speaks of the Sabbath, the construction of the Tabernacle, and the formal establishment of the priesthood. One of the things described is the creation of the Menorah. This seven-branched candelabrum is perhaps the oldest symbol of Judaism. We discussed in the past how King David had the Menorah emblazoned on his shield (with the words of Psalm 67), and this was the famous magen David, “shield of David”. Yet, strangely, the term magen David today is associated not with the Menorah symbol but with the so-called “star of David”. Stranger still, this hexagram was historically known not as the “star of David” but rather as the “seal of Solomon”! Where did this symbol come from, what is its significance, and how did it become associated with the Jewish people?

Alchemy and Mysticism

Star of David in the Capernaum synagogue

The hexagram is a relatively simple shape and is found in art and architecture across Europe and Asia. While few ancient synagogues bear the star, many churches do. The most famous synagogue to have the star is the one discovered in 1866 in Capernaum (Kfar Nachum), a village on the Galilee initially founded by the Hashmoneans following their Chanukah victories. This synagogue is actually more popular among Christians, since the gospels of Luke and Mark describe how Jesus preached there. Archaeologists have also found the symbol on the seal of one Yehoshuah ben Asayahu in the remains of the ancient city of Sidon. The seal is dated all the way back to the seventh century BCE.

The great scholar Gershom Scholem (see his Kabbalah, pgs. 362-368) pointed out that the hexagram was used by alchemists to represent the fusion of fire (the up-triangle) and water (the down-triangle). This may have a connection to a Jewish teaching on the meaning of the term oseh shalom bimromav, which describes God as making peace in the Heavenly realms. One explanation is that here in the lower world, water and fire are unable to co-exist, while up in the Heavens God is able to unify these opposing forces. This divine power was demonstrated with the seventh plague in Egypt, which was “hail with fire” intertwined (Exodus 9:24). The fact that it was the seventh plague in particular may be noteworthy, since the Star of David has seven parts: the six points of the star and the inner hexagon.

The three axes (x, y, z) of our three-dimensional reality, and the six faces (or six directions) that they produce.

That seven-based arrangement has a great deal of significance in Judaism. It represents Creation, with the six days of the week and the special Sabbath. This itself is a reflection of the fact that all physical things in this universe exist in three dimensions, ie. within a “cube” of six faces, while the seventh represents the inner, spiritual dimension. The same arrangement is found in the mystical Tree of Life, where the lower sefirot are arranged as six “male” qualities and the seventh, “female” quality (Malkhut). Because of this, the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572) arranged his Passover seder plate in a hexagonal style, with each of the components corresponding to one of the lower sefirot, while the three matzahs correspond to the higher sefirot (Chokhmah, Binah, Da’at), and the plate itself (or the cup of wine) paralleling the seventh and final Malkhut. 

The Pesach Seder Plate. There is a debate whether the Arizal intended the items to be placed in a star shape, or with two triangles one atop the other. The latter is likely as it more closely resembles the Tree of Life diagram.

This arrangement of seven (or more specifically, of three-three-one) is found within the Menorah, too, that most ancient of Jewish symbols. For this reason, some argue that the opinion of the Shield of David having the Menorah and the opinion of it having the hexagram are really one and the same. They both reflect a divine geometry of 3-3-1. The sefirot are arranged in the same 3-3-1 manner, and corresponding to them are the seven shepherds of Israel: Chessed, Gevurah, and Tiferet parallel the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Netzach, Hod, Yesod parallel the next three great leaders of Moses, Aaron, and Joseph; and Malkhut (“Kingdom”) naturally stands for David. David is at the centre of the star, so it is fitting that the star is named after him.

The first row of three (called by the acronym CHaGa”T), is followed by the second row of three (called NeHe”Y), and then the singular, “feminine” Malkhut (or Nukva), which receives from all the others.

Yet, it isn’t clear when and why the symbol became known as the “Star of David”. Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman points out that it may come from the fact that in Ancient Hebrew script the letter dalet has a triangular shape (much like the Greek delta), thus making “David” (דוד) appear as two triangles. Whatever the case, the symbol is already described as magen David, the “Shield of David”, in 14th century Kabbalistic texts, as Scholem points out. However, in those days it more commonly went by another name: the Seal of Solomon.

Ancient Hebrew Script. The letter dalet is a triangle.

The Seal of Solomon

In medieval texts, the hexagram is most commonly referred to as the “seal of Solomon”. The earliest texts that mention it are actually Islamic texts, not Jewish ones. They speak of a special ring that King Solomon had which allowed him to interact with jinn spirits (the root of “genie”) both good and bad. Although the texts are Arabic, they are clearly based on more ancient Jewish teachings. In fact, the earliest reference to a special ring possessed by Solomon which allowed him to defend from evil spirits is in the Talmud.

In what is likely the longest story related in the Talmud (Gittin 68a-b), we are told of how Solomon sought to find the special shamir “worm” which would allow him to cut the stones for the Temple without using iron tools. He found the shamir’s whereabouts from the prince of demons, Ashmedai, whom he was able to subdue thanks to his special ring. In an incredible twist, Ashmedai gets a hold of Solomon’s ring and banishes the king from his own kingdom, turning him into a pauper, while Ashmedai himself took the throne impersonating Solomon! Thankfully, this “new” Solomon’s strange behaviour was soon noticed, and the real Solomon eventually made his way back to the palace to reclaim his throne, and his ring.

The Talmud does not state that the ring had a hexagram on it, but rather that it had God’s Name engraved upon it. It is Arabic texts that first connect the ring to the hexagram. Some attempt to distinguish between the “Star of David” and the “Seal of Solomon” by suggesting that the hexagram of the former is made up of overlapping triangles while the hexagram of the latter is intertwined:

This argument seems to be without any foundation; the two symbols are one and the same, with the Star of David often depicted intertwined and the Seal of Solomon depicted overlapping (sometimes within a circle).

“Seal of Solomon” on a 19th-century Moroccan coin.

A Symbol for Israel

Hexagram on ‘Seder Tefillot’, the first siddur printed in Central Europe. (From Scholem’s ‘Kabbalah’, pg. 365)

Gershom Scholem argues that Jews in the 18th and 19th centuries were looking for a unifying symbol to represent themselves, something like the cross of the Christians or the crescent moon of the Muslims. In the city of Prague, the hexagram had been associated with Jews since the 14th century. It was back in 1354 that King Charles IV of Bohemia granted the Jewish community its own flag, with the hexagram upon a red banner. It soon started to appear on the synagogues of Prague. In 1512, the first modern siddur was printed in Prague and, not surprisingly, had the hexagram on its cover. After the Jews’ vital assistance to the city’s defences in 1648, the community was granted another royal flag, now with a yellow star on a red banner. This flag has been used by the community ever since.

The timing couldn’t be better (or worse). Just a few years later, the Shabbatean heresy would begin, and Prague was soon one of the movement’s strongholds. It appears that the Shabbateans adopted the symbol and used it in secret to identify each other. Scholem points out that use of the star was one of the reasons Rabbi Yakov Emden accused Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz of being a closet Shabbatean (a controversy we have discussed previously).

Star from 5th century CE Byzantine Church uncovered at Khirbet Sufa in the Negev

Interestingly, among the Shabbateans the symbol was known as Magen ben David, the Shield of the Son of David, ie. the Shield of the Messiah. This makes sense considering they believed that Shabbatai Tzvi was Mashiach. This isn’t too different from that star-bearing Capernaum synagogue where Jesus supposedly preached. Not too far away from Capernaum in Israel, a 5th century Byzantine church was uncovered, also with the hexagram symbol. Another ancient church in Tiberias displays the star. Perhaps early Christians believed the hexagram was a symbol of their purported Ben David, too! Indeed, to this day one of the Pope’s mitres (the ceremonial hat) has the hexagram prominently displayed upon it.

Pope Benedict XVI with a star of David mitre

Scholem suggests that the symbol is referred to as Magen ben David in older Kabbalistic texts that predate the Shabbateans (which is where they would have gotten it). Since Kabbalistic teachings date back to at least the Second Temple period, it is possible that even in the time of Jesus there was a tradition of the hexagram being a messianic symbol. In truth, calling it the Shield of David is problematic, since the accepted tradition is that David’s shield had the Menorah upon it. It was Solomon that apparently used the hexagram to shield from demons. And Solomon is literally a ben David, the son of King David, the very first potential Mashiach ben David in history.

Mashiach’s role is to reunite all of the Jews in Israel, and to restore the original Twelve Tribes. The twelve vertices of the hexagram are said to refer to the Twelve Tribes of Israel, all reunited as one. Meanwhile, the land of Israel itself is often described in sevens: the seven Canaanite nations, and the seven shepherds to whom it was promised; the “seven species” through which the land is praised, and the seventy names that the land is known by (see Midrash HaGadol on Genesis 46:8). It is therefore most appropriate that the Zionist movement which sought to restore the Jews to their ancestral land chose the hexagram as its symbol.

While the secular Theodor Herzl drew up a flag that had seven golden stars on a white banner, it was the Orthodox-born and raised David Wolffsohn that came up with the modern flag of Israel, basing the design on the tallit. Wolffsohn responded to Herzl’s call to create a flag for the Jews by stating: “We have a flag—and it is blue and white. The tallit with which we wrap ourselves when we pray: that is our symbol. Let us take this tallit from its bag and unroll it before the eyes of Israel and the eyes of all nations.”

By this point in history, the Star of David was used by Jewish communities and synagogues across Europe and beyond, so it was natural for it to be emblazoned upon the blue and white tallit-flag. Around the same time, the Orthodox Jewish scholar Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) wrote The Star of Redemption, where he used the hexagram to explain the relationship between God and man. Previously, Rosenzweig had resolved to convert to Christianity, then decided to spend one more day as a Jew on Yom Kippur. That day, in a small Orthodox shul in Berlin, Rosenzweig experienced a mystical revelation and an awakening. He became a pious baal teshuva, and a passionate champion for traditional Judaism. His popular “star of redemption” added further meaning to Israel’s new flag.

Rosenzweig’s ‘Star of Redemption’

There is one last irony in all of this: the same hexagram was used by the Nazis to degrade the Jews in their attempt to eradicate the nation (likely based on the use of a yellow badge forced upon Jews in some medieval-era towns centuries earlier). To proudly fly the Star of David today is to demonstrate that we are still here, stronger than ever, and we are not going anywhere. We took those stars off of our beaten and bloodied robes and put them on our tanks and jets. And now we await Mashiach ben David, Magen ben David, to come and take command of them. It is, after all, his symbol.