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Kabbalah of Judaism’s Four Holy Cities

In this week’s parasha, Re’eh, a unique term appears a whopping five times: l’shakhen shmo sham, a place where God will choose “to rest His Name there”. Outside of this parasha, the term only appears once in the rest of the Tanakh. It refers to the only place where Jews are allowed to bring any sacrifices to Hashem (Deuteronomy 12:11), and where Jews should pilgrimage on the major holidays to “rejoice before God” (Deuteronomy 16:11). Although the Chumash doesn’t explicitly say where this place is, it is of course referring to Jerusalem, as we learn later in the Tanakh (for example, I Kings 11:13).

“Pilgrimage to the Second Jerusalem Temple” by Alex Levin

Why doesn’t the Chumash itself name Jerusalem? This is because the Israelites were still in the Wilderness at the time, and at that point they brought their sacrifices in the mobile Mishkan, or “Tabernacle”. In the Wilderness, the Mishkan was the place where God’s Presence rested. Even when the Israelites entered the Holy Land, it took many years for them to reconquer and settle all of it, so the Mishkan remined mobile. The Talmud (Zevachim 118b) lists all the places where the Mishkan was parked:

After 39 years in the Wilderness (since the Mishkan was built and inaugurated a year after the Exodus), it was in Gilgal for 14 years. Half of that time was spent conquering and half dividing up the land among the Tribes. The Mishkan was then placed in Shiloh and remained there for 369 years. However, there was no king in Israel then, and no leader arose to build a permanent Temple. The Talmud states that when Eli the Priest died, Shiloh was destroyed so the Mishkan was moved to the town of Nov. Later in the Tanakh we read how Nov, too, was destroyed, so the Mishkan was moved to Gibeon. When David became king he first reigned for seven years from Hebron. After that, he acquired Jerusalem and brought the Mishkan there. Henceforth, Jerusalem became the seat of the Davidic dynasty, and the place where God’s Name would rest forever.

What makes Jerusalem so special?

Centre of the Universe

Jerusalem’s Temple was built atop Mount Moriah, and the Holy of Holies over a special stone. The Talmud (Yoma 54b) states that this stone, even shetiyah, the Foundation Stone, is literally the point from which God created the universe. The Sages find proof in Psalms 50:1-2, which states: “God spoke and called the Earth, from the rise of the sun until it sets, out of Zion all beauty God shone forth.” That initial burst of light in Creation was at this very point atop Jerusalem.

The word “Zion” itself implies a foundation of sorts. In the Tanakh, we read how the Jebusites built a massive fortress there, metzudat tzion, which the Sages say means an “outstanding fortress”, one with such strong foundations that none could conquer it. Until King David, that is. The Jebusites scoffed at David when he approached with his armies, thinking that their fortress was unconquerable. David proved them wrong, then renamed the fortress after himself, and called the city ‘Ir David, “City of David” (see II Samuel 5).

Long before it was known as City of David, or Zion, and before it was settled by Jebusites, it was already famous as a holy mountain. Upon it, various priests would come to offer incense. This is where the name Moriah comes from, literally mor, “myrrh” (or “incense”), and Yah, “God”. The first priest active there was Melchizedek, identified with Shem, the son of Noah. The Torah calls him a “priest of God, the Most High” and introduces him as the “king of Shalem” (Genesis 14:18). The Book of Jubilees tells us how Noah divided up the Earth among his three sons, and Shem received all the holy places, including Zion (Jubilees 8:19).

Shem built his home on Zion, and called it Shalem, a place that was “wholesome” and “peaceful”. Later on, God commanded Abraham to take Isaac upon Mt. Moriah. At the end of that episode, we read how Abraham called the place Hashem Yireh, since this is the place where “God is seen” (Genesis 22:14). The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 56:10) states that this holy site now had two names: Yireh and Shalem. Each of these names was given by a holy man, so which would stick? In order not to favour one holy man over another, the two were combined to create Yerushalem, or Yerushalayim, “Jerusalem”.

Jerusalem, Zion, City of David, Moriah, Shalem, Yireh—all are names for this holy place, each signifying something of its incredible past. Indeed, it is said that Jerusalem has seventy different names, just like God, the Jewish people, and the land of Israel, and just as the Torah has seventy different faces. Whatever the case, it is the city that “brings everyone together” (Psalm 122:3) and has the power to “make all Israel friends” (Yerushalmi Chagigah 3:6).

Gate to Heaven

The Midrash states that Zion is the place through which all the blessings from Heaven enter this world, and the place through which all blessings descend upon the Jewish people (Yalkut Shimoni, Ezekiel 392). At the same time, it is the place through which all of our prayers ascend to Heaven, too. This is why Jews always pray towards Jerusalem. And if they are in Jerusalem they pray towards the place where the Holy of Holies stood.

More amazing still, some say that Mt. Moriah is the peak upon which God gave Israel the Torah! In other words, Moriah is one and the same as Sinai. The Midrash (Shocher Tov 68) states that God took off a chunk of Moriah (like a piece of challah) and transplanted it to the Sinai wilderness. After He gave the Torah, He put that chunk back in Jerusalem. This is why the Talmud (Ta’anit 16a, with Tosfot) states it is called Moriah, from root hora’ah, “instruction”, the same as the root of Torah. On Mt. Moriah the Torah was given! And from here, the “fear” or “awe” (mora) of God entered the world.

“Jacob’s Ladder” by Stemler and Cleveland (1925)

There is a further allusion to this in that the gematria of Sinai (סיני) is 130, equal to sulam (סלם), “ladder”, referring to the Heavenly Ladder that Jacob envisioned (Genesis 28:12). This vision also took place upon Mt. Moriah. Afterwards, Jacob called the place Beit El, “House of God”, for he had foreseen that the Holy Temple would be built there. Jerusalem is therefore a “ladder to Heaven”, and a place through which angels enter and exit our world.

Having said all that, it is easy to understand why Jerusalem is so important to the Jewish people. It is mentioned over 600 times in the Tanakh (and, it is fitting to add, not once in the Koran). It has had a nearly continuous (with minor blips) Jewish habitation and presence for some 3000 years. When the Second Temple was destroyed, the Roman historian Tacitus estimated a Jewish population in Jerusalem of 600,000, while Josephus counted over a million.

Even in the most difficult of days, Jews hung on to their holy city. When the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) arrived in 1267 following the horrors of the Crusades, he still managed to find two Jewish families. By the Ottoman period in the 16th century, Jews once again formed the largest proportion of the population. In 1818, Robert Richardson found that Jews, while not the majority, made up the single largest group of people in the city, and estimated there were twice as many Jews as Muslims. Prussian consul Ernst Gustav Schultz noted something similar in 1844 (counting 7210 Jews to 5000 Muslims, and 3390 Christians), as did Swiss explorer Titus Tobler two years later (7515 Jews to 6100 Muslims, and 3558 Christians).

Today, there are over half a million Jews in Jerusalem. At the time of the Temple’s destruction, the Midrash records that there were a total of 481 synagogues in Jerusalem, each with a Torah school inside (Yalkut Shimoni, Ezekiel 390). A study in the year 2000 found that Jerusalem now has over 1200 synagogues. This is undoubtedly more than at any time in its history. The borders of Jerusalem today are larger than they have ever been, and the city is flourishing in every way. Indeed, this is one of the great prophecies of the End of Days, and Jerusalem will only grow further, as the Talmud (Bava Batra 75a-b) states:

In the time to come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will add to Jerusalem a thousand gardens, a thousand towers, a thousand palaces, and a thousand mansions; and each will be as big as Sepphoris in its prosperity…

Four Holy Cities

A 19th century map of the Four Holy Cities

While the entire land of Israel is holy, and Jerusalem is undoubtedly its focal point, it is often said that Judaism has four holy cities. In addition to Jerusalem, the other three are Hebron, Tzfat, and Tiberias. Where did this notion of four holy cities come from?

In 1492, the Spanish expelled all of their Sephardic Jews. It is reported that the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II said of his Spanish counterpart at the time something along the lines of: “They tell me that Ferdinand of Spain is a wise man, but he is a fool, for he takes his treasure and sends it all to me.” Bayezid sent his navy to bring many of those Jews to his empire, especially to the cities of Thessaloniki and Izmir. Others went to Europe, North Africa, or even the New World, while some headed straight for the Holy Land.

In 1516, the Ottoman Turks conquered the Holy Land, allowing even more Jews to settle there. Many Jews relocated, particularly to Hebron and Tzfat, in addition to Jerusalem. Just a few decades later, the great Donna Gracia (1510-1569) and her nephew Don Joseph Nasi (1524-1579) sought to re-establish a semi-autonomous Jewish state in the Holy Land (three centuries before the Zionist movement!) and actually received a permit from the Sultan to settle Jews in Israel. Don Joseph particularly liked the Tiberias area, and was officially given the title “Lord of Tiberias” by the Ottoman throne.

By 1640, the Jewish communities of Jerusalem, Hebron, and Tzfat were very large, though still struggling financially. Throughout history, it was customary for Jewish communities in the diaspora to send money in support of Jewish communities in the Holy Land. This was seen as both a huge mitzvah—supporting those brave Jews that risked so much to stay in their ancestral land—as well as a way for Jews in the diaspora to participate in the monumental mitzvah of dwelling in the Promised Land. The Jewish communities in Jerusalem, Hebron, and Tzfat regularly sent emissaries across the diaspora to collect funds. Around 1640, the leaders of these three communities got together and decided to unite their funds. They became known as the “Three Holy Cities” (or by their acronym יח״ץ), and sent a single emissary to collect on behalf of all three. By 1740, the Jewish population of Tiberias had grown large enough that they joined the fund, too, and thus was formed the “Four Holy Cities”. (Some say that the Four Cities first merged earlier, in the late 16th century.)

Still, while the concept of “Four Holy Cities” might be recent, it is by no means meaningless or coincidental.

Four Aspects of Judaism

Why did Jews migrating to Israel choose to settle in these four cities in particular? It was not by random chance that Jews yearned to settle in them! These cities are indeed of greatest significance to the Jewish population, which is why Jews went there in the first place. Jerusalem has already been discussed; what of the others?

Tzfat is first mentioned in the Talmud as a place where signal fires were lit so that all the surrounding towns would know the new moon had been announced (Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashanah 11b). By the end of the 16th century it had become renowned as the centre of Kabbalah, and was the home of greats like the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570) and the Radbaz (1479-1589), the Arizal (1534-1572) and Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620). It is where Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) produced the Shulchan Arukh, still the foremost code of Jewish law.

Hebron was King David’s first capital before he built Jerusalem. It was there that he was accepted as king by the nation, and where he was anointed by the elders of Israel (II Samuel 5:3). It is the birthplace of the Davidic dynasty. Meanwhile, Hebron is home to the Cave of the Patriarchs, the resting place of the forefathers and foremothers of Israel. It is explicitly mentioned in the Torah multiple times. Later, it would become a centre of Jewish mysticism, too, like Tzfat, and was home to the great Kabbalists Rabbi Malkiel Ashkenazi (d. 1620) and Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas (1518-1587), among others.

Tiberias is actually built on an older Biblical town. It is quite ironic that it is referred to as Tiberias, named after the Roman emperor Tiberius (42 BCE-37 CE). To the ancient Jews it was “Rakat”, as we read in the Tanakh and Talmud (Joshua 19:35, Megillah 5b). Tiberias did not participate in the Jewish revolts against the Roman Empire, and was spared both in 70 CE and in 135 CE. This is why many Jews resettled there, and it is where the Sanhedrin was re-established around 150 CE. Rabbi Akiva was buried in Tiberias, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai called it home. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi lived there, too, and it is where he put together the Mishnah. The Talmud Yerushalmi followed, and was similarly composed in Tiberias.

Tiberias continued to have a large Jewish population for centuries. The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) was buried there in 1204. The city was completely destroyed during the Mamluk period, and when Rabbi Moshe Bassola (1480-1560) visited in 1522, he found nothing but a few households and many marauding Arabs. This is where Donna Gracia and Don Joseph come into the picture, receiving a permit from the Ottomans in 1561 to rebuild the city and settle Jews there. It was Don Joseph who rebuilt its ancient walls (dating back to the time of the Biblical Joshua), and planted its first orchards.

In short, these three additional Holy Cities all played instrumental roles in Jewish history. Without their flourishing Jewish communities—which produced the Mishnah and Talmud Yerushalmi, the Shulchan Arukh and the bulk of Kabbalah—Judaism as we know it would not exist. So, while the notion of “Four Holy Cities” may have formally originated in the 18th century, its spiritual origins go back much further.

Each city can be said to parallel a different facet of Judaism. Hebron plays a big role in the Chumash, while Jerusalem is the primary locale of the rest of Scripture, the Nevi’im and Ketuvim. Tiberias is the home of the Mishnah and Talmud, while Tzfat is the capital of Kabbalah. Hebron represents the Patriarchs, Jerusalem represents the Prophets, Tiberias the ancient Sages, and Tzfat the Kabbalists. In fact, each of these four cities symbolizes something even greater.

The Four Elements

Ancient texts from all around the world, as well as Jewish mystical texts, speak of four primordial elements: air, water, fire, and earth. Sefer Yetzirah, one of the oldest Kabbalistic texts, explains how God formed all of Creation starting with these fundamental entities. First came the most ephemeral and intangible of them: air. This came out of God’s Spirit, which itself came out of the Ten Sefirot (1:9-10). Then came “water from breath” (1:11), and then “fire from water” (1:12). These three elements correspond to the three “mother” letters of the Hebrew alphabet: Aleph (for avir, “air”), Mem (mayim, “water”), Shin (esh, “fire”). Only much later was created the most physical and tangible of the elements, earth.

These four primordial elements neatly correspond to the four scientific elements upon which all life is built: hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon (sometimes abbreviated as “HONC”). Hydrogen is the key element in water (its name literally means “water-maker”), and it is specifically those intermolecular hydrogen bonds that give water most of its incredible properties. Oxygen is what feeds a flame, and without it no fire burns. Nitrogen makes up 78% of our air, while carbon fills our earth, whether in coal, oil, diamonds, or countless other substances.

The Four Holy Cities also correspond to those four primordial elements. Tzfat is atop a mountain, and with an elevation some 900 metres above sea level, is the highest city in Israel. It is quite literally “up in the air”. Tiberias, meanwhile, rests on the shores of Israel’s most important body of water, the Galilee. Hebron is associated with that plot of earth that Abraham purchased, and within which the patriarchs are buried. And Jerusalem is where the Eternal Flame, esh tamid, burned for centuries, and will be reignited once more in the near future.

Four Holy Cities Summary Table

The 24 Ornaments of a Bride and Tikkun Leil Shavuot

In this week’s parasha, Emor, we read the command to count the days between Pesach and Shavuot. The Torah doesn’t explicitly say why we should do this. The Zohar (III, 97b) comments on the parasha that when the Torah says to count sheva shabbatot temimot (“seven complete [or pure] weeks”) there is a hint in there that we are supposed to become tamim, “pure”.  The point is to purify ourselves over these seven weeks in preparation for the great revelation at Sinai which took place on Shavuot. The Sages always describe the Sinai Revelation as a wedding between God and His people. In fact, the Zohar compares the counting of the seven weeks to a woman’s counting of seven “clean days” following menstruation and before immersing in the mikveh, after which she can reunite with her husband.

On the next page, the Zohar goes on to describe the “wedding”, where God is the “groom” and the Jewish people are the “bride”. The Zohar alludes to an ancient teaching that a bride should be adorned with 24 ornaments on her wedding day. This actually goes back to the Garden of Eden, where God made Eve and adorned her with 24 ornaments before her marriage to Adam. The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 18:1) brings Scriptural proof for this, citing Ezekiel 28:13, which says:

You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering: the ruby [odem], the topaz [pitdah], and the diamond [yahalom], the beryl [tarshish], the onyx [shoham], and the jasper [yashfe], the sapphire [sapir], the carbuncle [nofech], and the emerald [varkat or bareket], and gold [zahav]; the workmanship of your settings and of your sockets was in you, in the day that you were created they were prepared.

If we count the precious stones and metals in the verse, we find only ten, not 24. However, one of the minor principles of Torah interpretation is when a general statement is introduced followed by a specific list, the general statement both includes the specific list, and adds to it (כְּלַל וּפְרַט, עָשָׂה אֶת הַכְּלַל מוֹסֶפֶת לַפְּרַט). So, since the verse begins with a general statement (“every precious stone”) and then goes on to list ten precious materials, we actually learn from this that there was a total of twenty precious materials. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish held that one should also add “every precious stone” as a special stone of its own, meaning there were eleven stones, and since we double that, we have a total of 22. Plus, the verse goes on to speak of “your settings and your sockets”, bringing us to a total of 24 ornaments!

Alternatively, there is another Scriptural verse which brings us the 24 ornaments more simply and directly (though without mentioning Eden), listing explicitly what each specific piece of jewellery was. This is Isaiah 3:17-23, which says how the daughters of Zion were adorned with

…the anklets [‘achasim], and the ribbons [shvisim], and the crescents [saharonim]; the pendants [netifot], and the bracelets [sheyrot], and the veils [ra’alot]; the headdresses [pe’erim], and the armlets [tza’adot], and the sashes [kishurim], and the corselettes [batei hanefesh], and the amulets [lehashim]; the rings [taba’ot], and the nose-rings [nizmei ha’af]; the aprons [mahalatzot], and the shawls [ma’atafot], and the hair-coverings [mitpachot], and the girdles [charitim]; and the robes [gilyonim], and the fine linen [sadinim], and the headscarves [tzenifot], and the mantles [redimim]…

A count of these brings us 21. In addition, the verse that follows speaks of perfume [bosem], a belt [chagorah], and hair curls [petigil], giving us a total of 24 ornaments.

Elijah confronts the priests on Mount Carmel

Kabbalistically, these 24 ornaments have tremendous meaning. The sefirah of Chessed, which represents love and kindness, has three inner states, each of which is made up of 24 parts. (The gematria of Chessed [חסד] is 72, and dividing that number by three gives us 24.) This is why Eliyahu poured an extra three measures of water (water being Chessed) on his altar when he went head-to-head with the idolatrous priests (see I Kings 18). The altar which he built was actually made up of precious stones, too (I Kings 18:31-32), and then he had water poured from a jug called a kad (18:34). The gematria of kad (כד) is, as we might expect, 24.

That word is the exact same used when the Torah introduces Rebecca: “And it came to pass, before [Eliezer] had done speaking, that, behold, Rebecca came out… with her jug [kadah] upon her shoulder.” (Genesis 24:15). Kabbalistically, Rebecca is the embodiment of Chessed (see Zohar I, 137a) and she graciously provides water for Eliezer and all of his camels. Eliezer realizes that she is the perfect one for Isaac, and immediately proceeds to adorn her with all kinds of jewellery: “And it came to pass, as the camels had done drinking, that the man took a golden nose-ring of half a shekel weight, and two bracelets for her hands, of ten shekels weight of gold…” (Genesis 24:22) After the marriage was arranged, Eliezer gave the soon-to-be bride even more jewellery: “And the servant brought forth jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment, and gave them to Rebecca…”

If one looks carefully at these verses in Genesis 24 (not a coincidental number), and applies the classic rules of interpretation, they will find that Eliezer also brought for Rebecca 24 ornaments in preparation for her wedding! Rebecca went on to marry Isaac, and they had the purest love of all the forefathers and figures in the Torah. In fact, the first time that the Torah describes a husband loving his wife is with Isaac and Rebecca (Genesis 24:67). This is one reason why there was an old custom to adorn a Jewish bride with 24 ornaments. Alternatively, a husband may fulfil this special segulah by purchasing 24 adornments or pieces of jewellery for his wife—not necessarily all at once! (It is especially good to get white gold, since it is symbolic of Chessed, while yellow gold is the opposite, Gevurah.)

24 Ornaments of the Jewish People

If a bride is adorned with 24 ornaments, and the Jewish people were God’s “bride” at Sinai on Shavuot, what were our 24 ornaments? The Kabbalists teach us that these are the 24 books of the Tanakh! The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343, on Exodus 31:18) comments that every Torah scholar is adorned with these 24 books just as a bride is adorned with 24 ornaments. And this is why, the Zohar states, one should stay up all night on Shavuot and study Torah, especially the 24 books of the Tanakh (Zohar I, 8a; though in Zohar III, 98a there is an alternate suggestion to study the Oral Torah at night and the Tanakh in the day). In so doing, one is spiritually adorning himself in preparation for the wedding (as well as adorning the Shekhinah herself).

Today, it has become the norm in all synagogues and yeshivas around the world for everyone to stay up all night and learn Torah, as the Zohar instructs. This practice was initially popularized by the kabbalists of Tzfat in the 16th century. The earliest reference to a tikkun leil Shavuot, a fixed text of study for the night of Shavuot, comes from a letter of Rabbi Shlomo HaLevy Alkabetz (c. 1500-1576), most famous for composing Lecha Dodi. He was born to a Sephardic family in Thessaloniki, or Salonica (then in the Ottoman Empire, now the second largest city in Greece).

In 1533, Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) settled in Salonica (he was born in Toledo, Spain before the Expulsion), and the two became close. One Shavuot night, they stayed up together studying Torah as the Zohar states. (In addition to Tanakh, they learned a little bit of Mishnah). Suddenly, the Shekhinah filled Rabbi Karo and spoke out of his mouth! Such revelations would continue for most of his life, and are recorded in his book, Maggid Mesharim. On that Shavuot night, the Shekhinah revealed many secrets and instructions. Among other things, She instructed the pair to move to Israel. In 1535, they did so and settled in Tzfat, the centre of Jewish mysticism.

In Tzfat, the pair would meet the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570), who later married the sister of Rabbi Alkabetz. When he was twenty years old, the Ramak heard a Heavenly Voice instructing him to seek out Rabbi Alkabetz and learn Kabbalah with him. He did so, and went on to become the preeminent Kabbalist of Tzfat. He was succeeded in the position by the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572).

Meanwhile, Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) went on to publish the Shulchan Arukh, still the central code of Jewish Law. Interestingly, he did not write anything about a tikkun leil Shavuot in the Code. He believed that it was a practice for Jewish mystics, not for the average Jew. Nonetheless, the custom spread very quickly, first in Tzfat, then across all of Israel. When the Shelah HaKadosh (Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, 1555-1630), who was born in Prague, moved to Israel in 1626 he wrote how all the Jews living in the Holy Land stay up all night on Shavuot. The Shelah put together a text of study of his own for the night of Shavuot. In addition to portions from the 24 books of the Tanakh, he added the first and last verse of every Mishnaic tractate, and the first and last verse of Sefer Yetzirah, along with the Zohar passage from this week’s parasha with which we began, and a recitation of the 613 mitzvot.

In the ensuing centuries, the custom spread further across the entire Jewish world. Various other tikkun texts have arisen over that time. Today, it is normal for many synagogues not to follow any tikkun at all, but simply to have lectures on different topics by multiple speakers, or to learn whatever Torah text people wish, and this is appropriate as well. Having said that, the original Kabbalistic way—as suggested in the Zohar, practiced by the early Tzfat mystics, and affixed by the Arizal—is to study specific portions from the 24 books of the Tanakh, together with mystical commentaries on them. (This is the version we used in our Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which has the proper text of study in both Hebrew and English, along with commentaries from the Zohar and Arizal.)

Rectifying Sinai and Purifying Our Souls

On a simple level, the word tikkun may refer to a “fixed” text of Torah, such as that which a ba’al kore uses to study the weekly parasha before reading it publicly in the synagogue. On a mystical level, “tikkun” refers to a spiritual rectification. When it comes to tikkun leil Shavuot, it is commonly taught that staying up all night in study is a spiritual rectification for what happened at Sinai over three millennia ago. At that time, the people had fallen asleep before God’s great revelation. Though some say they slept so that they would have energy to witness the tremendous event, others state that they were wrong to fall asleep so casually the night before the biggest day of their lives. Would a bride sleep so soundly the night before her wedding? Therefore, when we stay up all night on Shavuot, we are spiritually rectifying the mistake that the Jewish people made.

If we delve a little deeper, we might find an even greater tikkun on the night of Shavuot. The Talmud (Shabbat 146a) tells us: “When the Serpent came upon Eve, it infused in her a spiritual contamination [zuhama]. When Israel stood at Mount Sinai, the zuhama was removed.” Eve was the first to be decorated with 24 ornaments in the Garden of Eden, but then fell from grace and was spiritually contaminated. In a cosmic rectification, the Jewish people were “decorated” with 24 books of the Tanakh on Shavuot, and that impurity was removed. Each year since, we have a tremendous opportunity to cleanse ourselves of our own spiritual impurities on this special night, by immersing ourselves in the purifying words of our holy books.

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.