Tag Archives: Sha’ar HaKavanot

The Origins and Kabbalah of Kaddish

This week’s parasha begins with the passing of Sarah, the first Matriarch. We read how Abraham “eulogized Sarah and bewailed her” (Genesis 23:2). Today, the ritual most associated with Jewish death and mourning is undoubtedly the recitation of Kaddish. This has become one of those quintessentially Jewish things that all Jews—regardless of background, denomination, or religious level—tend to be very careful about. It is quite common to see people who otherwise never come to the synagogue to show up regularly when a parent or spouse dies, only to never be seen again as soon as the mourning period is over. Kaddish has become so prevalent that it has gone mainstream, featured in film and on TV (as in Rocky III and in the popular Rugrats cartoon), on stage (in Angels in America and Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony no. 3), and in literature (with bestselling novels like Kaddish in Dublin, and Kaddish For an Unborn Child).

 

Sylvester Stallone, as Rocky Balboa, recites Kaddish for his beloved coach and mentor. 

And yet, the origins of Kaddish are entirely clouded in mystery. It isn’t mentioned in the Tanakh, nor is there any discussion of reciting Kaddish for the dead in the Mishnah or Talmud. Even in the Rambam’s monumental Jewish legal code, the Mishneh Torah—just over 800 years old—there is no discussion of a Mourner’s Kaddish. Where did it come from?

Praying for Redemption

The Talmud refers to Kaddish in a number of places (such as Berakhot 3a, for example), though not in association with mourning the dead. Around the same time, we see a prayer very similar to Kaddish in the New Testament (Matthew 6:9-13), which has since become known as the “Lord’s Prayer” among Christians. This suggests that Kaddish existed before the schism between Judaism and Christianity, and this is one reason scholars date the composition of Kaddish to the late Second Temple era.

Many believe that it was composed in response to Roman persecution. The text of the Kaddish makes it clear from the very beginning that it is a request for God to speedily bring about His great salvation. It certainly makes sense that such a prayer would be composed in those difficult Roman times. In fact, the first words of Kaddish are based on Ezekiel 38:23, in the midst of the Prophet’s description of the End of Days (the famous “Gog u’Magog”), where God says v’itgadalti v’itkadashti. The Sages hoped the travails they were struggling through were the last “birth pangs” of the End Times.

In Why We Pray What We Pray, Barry Freundel argues that Kaddish was originally recited at the end of a lecture or a Torah learning session—as continues to be done today. It likely came at a time when public Torah learning or preaching was forbidden, as we know was the case in the time of Rabbi Akiva. So, the Sages ended their secret learning sessions with a prayer hoping that the Redemption would soon come, and they would once more be able to safely preach in public.

If that’s the case, how did Kaddish become associated with mourning the dead?

The Mourner’s Kaddish

Freundel points out that the earliest connection between Kaddish and the souls of the dead is from the Heikhalot texts. These are the most ancient works of Jewish mystical literature, going as far back as the early post-Second Temple era. (Scholars date the earliest texts to the 3rd century CE). One of these texts reads:

In the future, the Holy One, blessed be He, will reveal the depths of Torah to Israel… and David will recite a song before God, and the righteous will respond after him: “Amen, yehe sheme rabba mevorach l’olam u’l’olmei olmaya itbarach” from the midst of the Garden of Eden. And the sinners of Israel will answer “Amen” from Gehinnom.

Immediately, God says to the angels: “Who are these that answer ‘Amen’ from Gehinnom?” [The angels] say before Him: “Master of the Universe, these are the sinners of Israel who, even though they are in great distress, they strengthen themselves and say ‘Amen’ before You.” Immediately, God says to the angels: “Open for them the gates of the Garden of Eden, so that they can come and sing before Me…”

The Heikhalot connect Kaddish (specifically its central verse, “May His great Name be blessed forever and for all eternity…”) to a Heavenly prayer that will be recited at the End of Days, when the souls in Gehinnom will finally have reprieve. We can already start to see how this might relate to mourning, or spiritually assisting, the recently deceased.

This is related to another well-known story that is by far the most-oft used as the origin of Kaddish. In this narrative, a certain great sage—usually Rabbi Akiva, but sometimes Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai—sees a person covered in ash and struggling with piles of lumber. The poor person explains that he is actually dead, and his eternal punishment (reminiscent of popular Greek mythology) is to forever gather wood, only to be burned in the flames of that wood, and to repeat it all over again. The Sage asks if there is anything he could do to help, to which the dead man replies that if only his son would say a particular prayer, he would be relieved of his eternal torment.

The nature of that prayer varies from one story to the next. In some, it is the Shema, in others it is Barchu, and in others it is a reading of the Haftarah (see, for example, Kallah Rabbati 2, Machzor Vitry 144, Zohar Hadash on Acharei Mot, and Tanna d’Vei Eliyahu Zuta 17). It is only in later versions of the story that the prayer the son must say is Kaddish. Whatever the case, between the Heikhalot texts, and these Midrashic accounts, we now have a firm connection linking Kaddish with the deceased.

I believe there is one more significant (yet overlooked) source to point out:

The most important part of the Kaddish is undoubtedly the verse yehe sheme rabba mevorach l’olam u’l’olmei olmaya. As we saw in the Heikhalot above, this is the part that especially arouses God’s mercy. The Talmud (Berakhot 3a) agrees when it says essentially the same thing about the entire congregation reciting aloud “yehe sheme hagadol mevorach”. These special words are based on several Scriptural verses, such as Psalm 113:2 and Daniel 2:20. It also appears in Job 1:21.

Here, Job suffers the death of all of his children. Upon hearing the tragic news, he famously says: “…naked I came out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In Hebrew it reads: Adonai natan, v’Adonai lakach, yehi shem Adonai mevorach. The parallel is striking. The first person in history to recite the great “yehe sheme rabba” upon the death of a family member is none other than Job. In some way, Job may be the originator of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

Birth of a Custom

Officially, the earliest known mention of reciting Kaddish for the dead is Sefer HaRokeach, by Rabbi Elazar of Worms (c. 1176-1238). Shortly after, his student Rabbi Itzchak of Vienna (1200-1270) writes in his Ohr Zarua that Ashkenazim have a custom to recite Kaddish upon the dead. He explicitly states that Tzarfati Jews (and as an extension, Sephardic Jews) do not have such a custom.

That much is already clear from the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204), the greatest of Sephardic sages in his day, who makes no mention of a Mourner’s Kaddish anywhere in his comprehensive Mishneh Torah. (The Rambam does speak about the regular Kaddish, unrelated to the dead, which is recited throughout the daily prayers.) We see that in his time, Kaddish was still a strictly Ashkenazi practice. Why is it that Ashkenazi Jews in particular began to say Kaddish for the dead?

Most scholars believe the answer lies within the Crusades. The First Crusade (1095-1099) was a massive disaster for Europe’s Ashkenazi Jews. While the Crusades were meant to free the Holy Land from Muslim domination, many local Christians argued that there was no need to fight the heathen all the way in the Holy Land when there were so many local Jewish “heathens” among them. The result is what is referred to as “the Rhineland massacres”, described by some as “the First Holocaust”. Countless Jews were slaughtered.

‘Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099’ by Émile Signol

Like in the times of Roman persecution a millennium earlier, the Ashkenazi Sages sought comfort in the words of Kaddish, beseeching the coming of God’s Final Redemption, and at the same time seeking to honour the poor souls of the murdered. It therefore isn’t surprising that Rabbi Elazar of Worms is the first to speak of Kaddish for the dead, as his hometown of Worms (along with the town of Speyer) was among the first to be attacked, in May of 1096.

It is important to remember that Rabbi Elazar was a member of the Hasidei Ashkenaz, the “German Pietist” movement known for its mysticism and asceticism (not to be confused with the much later Hasidic movement). The Hasidei Ashkenaz would have been particularly well-versed in Heikhalot and Midrashim. Everything points to this group as being the true originators of reciting Kaddish for the dead.

The practice spread from there. Indeed, there was a great deal of Jewish migration in those turbulent times. For example, one of the greatest Ashkenazi sages, Rabbeinu Asher (c. 1250-1327), was born in Cologne, Germany, but fled persecution and settled in Toledo, Spain. His renowned sons, Rabbi Yakov ben Asher (Ba’al HaTurim, c. 1269-1343), and Yehudah ben Asher (c. 1270-1349) continued to lead the Sephardic Jewish community of Toledo. And it was there in Toledo that was born one of the greatest of Sephardi sages, Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575), author of the Shulchan Arukh, still the primary code of Jewish law.

In the Shulchan Arukh we read how reciting Kaddish at a funeral is a must (Yoreh De’ah 376:4). We are then told that there is a custom based on the Midrash to continue reciting Kaddish for twelve months, though only for a parent, and possibly only for a father. The reasoning for the latter is entirely different: since it is a father’s obligation to teach his son Torah, by reciting Kaddish the son demonstrates that the father had fulfilled the mitzvah, and left behind a proper Jewish legacy.

It is quite amazing to see that as late as 500 years ago, Mourner’s Kaddish was still defined in very narrow terms, and described as more of a custom based on Midrash than an absolute halachic necessity. How did it transform into a supreme Jewish prayer?

Enter the Arizal

As with many other Jewish practices we find so common today, it looks like it was the influence of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572), history’s foremost Kabbalist, that made the Mourner’s Kaddish so universal, and so essential. Fittingly, he was the perfect candidate for the job, being the product of an Ashkenazi father and a Sephardi mother, and ending his life as the leader of the Sephardi sages of Tzfat.

The Arizal discussed the mysteries of Kaddish at great length. Like most of his teachings, they were put to paper by his primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620). The latter devotes a dozen dense pages to Kaddish in Sha’ar HaKavanot. He first explains the various forms of Kaddish recited during the regular prayer services. In brief, we find that Kaddish is recited between the major prayer sections because each part of the prayer is associated with a different mystical universe, and a different Heavenly Palace, and Kaddish facilitates the migration from one world to the next.

Recall that Kabbalah describes Creation in four universes or dimensions: Asiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, and Atzilut. The four sections of prayer correspond to the four ascending universes: the morning blessings and the first prayers up until Hodu correspond to Asiyah; the Pesukei d’Zimrah corresponds to Yetzirah; the Shema and its blessings parallel Beriah; and the climax of the prayer, the Amidah, is Atzilut, the level of pure Divine Emanation. For this reason, the Amidah is recited in complete silence and stillness, for at the level of Atzilut, one is entirely unified with God.

The Arizal delves in depth into the individual letters and gematrias of Kaddish, its words and phrases, and how they correspond to various names of God and Heavenly Palaces. He relays the proper meditations to have in mind when reciting the different types of Kaddish, at different stages of prayer. To simplify, the Arizal teaches that Kaddish helps us move ever higher from one world to the next, and more cosmically, serves to elevate the entire universe into higher dimensions. We can already see how this would be related to assisting the dead, spiritually escorting the soul of the deceased higher and higher through the Heavenly realms.

More intriguingly, Rabbi Vital writes that Kaddish is meant to prepare the soul for the Resurrection of the Dead. He goes on to cite his master in saying that Kaddish should be recited every single day, including Shabbat and holidays, for an entire year following the passing of a parent. He says that Kaddish not only helps to free a soul from Gehinnom, but more importantly to help it attain Gan Eden. It elevates all souls, even righteous ones. This is why one should say Kaddish for a righteous person just as much as for a wicked person, and this is why it should be said even on Shabbat (when souls in Gehinnom are given rest). Rabbi Vital then says how the Arizal would also say Kaddish every year on the anniversary of his father’s death, which is now the norm as well.

Ironically, while Kaddish began as an Ashkenazi custom, Rabbi Vital writes that the Arizal made sure to recite Kaddish according to the Sephardi text!

Repairing the World

Another interesting point that Rabbi Vital explains is why Kaddish is in Aramaic, and not Hebrew like the rest of the prayers. He reminds us the words of the Zohar that both Hebrew and Aramaic are written with the exact same letters because these are the Divine Letters of Creation, but Hebrew comes from the side of purity and holiness, while Aramaic is from the “other side” of impurity and darkness. Hebrew is the language of the angels, while Aramaic is the language of the impure spirits. The angels speak Hebrew, but do not understand Aramaic, while their antagonists speak Aramaic, and do not understand Hebrew. When we learn Torah and Mishnah, in Hebrew, we please the angels who take our words up to Heaven. When we learn Talmud and Zohar, in Aramaic, we destroy those dark spirits who cannot stand the fact that a person is using their tongue for words of light and holiness.

The same applies to our prayers. The bulk of our prayers are in holy Hebrew, the language of angels. Kaddish is in Aramaic because it is meant to elevate us, and the universe around us, into higher dimensions. In this vital task, we cannot risk elevating the impure spirits along with us, contaminating the upper worlds. Thus, by saying it in Aramaic, we push away the impure spirits who are unable to withstand us using their language in purity. Those evil forces are driven away, and we can ascend and rectify in complete purity.

This, in brief, is the tremendous power of Kaddish. This is why we recite it so many times over the course of the day. And this is why every Jew is so mysteriously drawn to this prayer and ritual, possibly above all others. Deep inside the soul of every Jew—regardless of background, denomination, or religious level—is a yearning to repair the world, to destroy the impure, to uplift the universe, and to recite loudly: “May His great Name be blessed forever and for all eternity…”

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 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.