This week’s parasha, Chukat, begins with a description of the “Red Cow”, parah adumah, alone capable of removing the spiritual impurity of death. Some have described the Red Cow as Judaism’s “holy cow”, and have even compared it to the veneration of cows in Hinduism. The parallel is quite inappropriate, since the Red Cow in Judaism was not at all worshipped or honoured in any way, and it was slaughtered and burned to ashes—something that a Hindu would find reprehensible. Cow slaughter (and beef consumption) is prohibited in Hinduism. At least, this is the case today. In ancient times, Hindus actually did eat beef, and cow sacrifices were an important part of Hindu ritual, just as there are many bovine sacrifices in the Torah. In fact, there are an astounding number of parallels between Hinduism and Judaism.
After two parashas that span the first two millennia of civilization, the Torah shifts its focus to the origins of Israel and the Jewish people starting with, of course, Abraham. Abraham is probably most famous for something that he actually isn’t: being the first monotheist. Noah was a monotheist long before Abraham, as was Noah’s son Shem, who was already a priest of the one Supreme God (El Elyon, as in Genesis 14:18). In Jewish tradition, it is said that Shem established the first yeshiva, and the patriarchs studied there. Was Abraham the first monotheist? No, but he is described as being the first person to actively preach monotheism to the world. He took it upon himself to crusade against idolatry—and the immoral behaviours that went with it.
Some of our Sages also state that Abraham invented the concept of a positive mitzvah. This means drawing closer to God not by abstinence and asceticism but through acts of kindness and the performance of physical actions. For this reason, the gematria of “Abraham” (אברהם) is 248, equal to the number of positive commandments in the Torah. Not surprisingly, Abraham is well-known for his legendary hospitality, his great compassion, and his ceaseless efforts on behalf of his fellow man.
Jewish tradition describes Abraham’s house as having a front door on each side so that guests wouldn’t have to look for the entrance. Meals were always on the house, as long as the guest was willing to thank God for it. Of his compassion, we read in the Torah how Abraham questioned God before the destruction of Sodom, seeking to exonerate the people despite their cruelty (Genesis 18). In this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, we read of all the “souls that they had made” (Genesis 12:5), the countless people that Abraham and Sarah inspired and brought closer to God. In fact, the Meshekh Chokhmah (of Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk) on Genesis 33:18 states that Abraham later migrated to Egypt specifically because it was the capital of idolatry and impurity at the time, and Abraham wished to bring some light to that dark place.
What else do we know about Abraham? Extra-Biblical texts reveal some intriguing details in the life of Judaism’s first patriarch.
There are three major opinions as to when Abraham came to know God. The Talmud (Nedarim 32a) holds that he first recognized his Creator when he was three years old. This is deduced from Genesis 26:5, where God says Abraham had “listened to My voice”, ekev asher shama Avraham b’koli. The term “ekev” (עקב) has a numerical value of 172, and since we know Abraham lived 175 years, we learn that Abraham had listened to God’s voice for 172 of them, starting at age 3.
The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204), meanwhile, writes in his Mishneh Torah that Abraham came to know God at age 40 (Hilkhot Avodat Kochavim 1:3). A more commonly-held view is that Abraham came to know God at age 52. This is based on the Talmudic statement that history is divided into three eras: the first 2000 years being the era of “chaos”, the next 2000 years being the era of Torah, and the final 2000 years being the era of Mashiach (Avodah Zarah 9a). Since we know that Abraham was born in the Hebrew year 1948, and the era of Torah started in the year 2000, Abraham must have been 52 when he came to know God.
One way to reconcile these three opinions is as follows: Abraham first realized there must be one God when he was three years old. By age 40, he was ready to begin his life’s work, and set forth in preaching his message. This got him into a lot of trouble, for which he was imprisoned, and ultimately sentenced to death. The Talmud (Bava Batra 91a) clarifies that he was imprisoned for 10 years. Then came the day of his execution. Abraham was thrown into the flames of Ur Kasdim when he was 52, and at this point God actually revealed Himself to Abraham for the first time, miraculously saving him from death. Therefore, there are those who say it wasn’t God who chose Abraham, but Abraham who chose God.
Abraham was already preaching long before he received any kind of prophecy or communication from Hashem. He logically deduced there must be one Creator to this world, and recognized the folly of idolatry on his own. He then took it upon himself to teach this truth, despite never having “heard” anything from God, or being summoned to do so. God chose him precisely because of this incredible initiative. We learn this explicitly from Genesis 18:19, where God says:
For I have known him, that he commands his children and his household after him, that they should keep the way of God, to do righteousness and justice; therefore God brings upon Abraham that which He has spoken of him.
God chose Abraham because he was already teaching others to be more Godly! At age 52, the God that Abraham had been preaching about for so long finally revealed Himself, in miraculous fashion. This sets off a new 2000-year era, that of Torah and prophecy, spanning from Abraham until the times of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, who compiled the Mishnah, thus putting the Oral Torah in writing for the first time.
Abraham the Kabbalist
The Talmud (Bava Batra 91a) states that Abraham was world-famous for being an unparalleled astrologer and healer. According to tradition, he was also a great mystic. It is believed that he authored, or in some other way originated, Sefer Yetzirah, the “Book of Formation”, one of the most ancient Kabbalistic text. The book explains how God fashioned the universe through the Hebrew letters. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 67a) suggests that mastery of this text would allow the mystic to create ex nihilo, out of nothing, and such was done by Rav Oshaya and Rav Chanina every Friday afternoon. These two rabbis would create a chunk of veal, and make a barbecue!
It appears the same was done by Abraham. We read in Genesis 18:7 that when the angels visited him, Abraham hastened to “make” a calf, v’imaher la’asot oto. The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush Wisser, 1809-1879) comments on the Torah’s strange choice of verb by stating that Abraham literally created a calf through the wisdom of Sefer Yetzirah. This is why, he explains, the next verse has Abraham serving butter and milk. It is unthinkable that Abraham would serve veal with dairy—an explicit Torah prohibition—unless the veal was of his own creation, and was therefore not real meat that once had a soul. Abraham may have been the first person to serve vegan burgers.
Where did Abraham get this wisdom? According to one tradition, the angel Raziel (literally “God’s secret”) taught these mysteries to Adam. Adam passed it down to his son Seth, and onward it went down to Noah, then to his son Shem. Midrashic texts have Shem teaching Abraham, circumcising Abraham (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 29), and even ordaining Abraham as a priest (Midrash Aggadah, Genesis 14:19).
Alternatively, Abraham received mystical knowledge on his own. Kabbalah implies something “received”, and is often seen as being conferred directly by the Heavens to those who are worthy. In his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, the Ravad (Rabbi Avraham ben David, c. 1125-1198) lists the names of the angels that taught our patriarchs this mystical wisdom:
The master of Shem was Yofiel. The master of Abraham was Tzadkiel. The master of Isaac was Raphael. The master of Yakov was Peliel. The master of Yosef was Gabriel. The master of Moshe Rabbeinu was Metatron. The master of Elijah was U’maltiel. Each of these angels passed down Kabbalah to his disciple, whether through a book or orally, in order to enlighten him, and to inform him of future events.
According to the Book of Jubilees (12:25), Abraham was also taught Hebrew directly from Heaven. It had been lost following the Great Dispersion of the Tower of Babel. Now, the Holy Tongue was restored. Of course, it wouldn’t have been possible for Abraham to learn Kabbalah and the mysticism of Sefer Yetzirah without knowledge of Hebrew, upon which it is all based. Interestingly, the Book of Jubilees (11:6) also paints Abraham as a great engineer. He first became famous for inventing a seed-scattering device attached directly to a plow, as well as a method for keeping birds from eating the seeds of farmers.
The Torah tells us that at the end of his life, Abraham gave over his entire inheritance to Isaac, his rightful heir, but left various matanot, “gifts”, for his other children (Genesis 25:6). He then sent those other children eastward, to live outside the borders of Israel, so that it would be clear that the Holy Land belongs solely to Isaac and his descendants. What were these gifts? The Sages state that these were kernels of mystical wisdom to take with them. Some say this was white magic, and others black magic. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a) associates it with impure wisdom of some sort. Many see in these gifts the mystical wisdom that would give rise to the ancient religions of the Far East. So perhaps there is a connection after all between the Hindu concept of Brahman—and the Hindu priestly caste of Brahmins—with the name Abraham.
While Abraham is generally seen as a forefather—whether biological or spiritual—of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, he is also a forefather of many other nations through his many other children that we often forget about (see Genesis 25). Our Sages say he is called “Avraham” because he is av hamon goyim, the father of a multitude of nations. He might very well be the father of all the world’s major religions, too.
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.
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.
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.