Tag Archives: Tabernacle

Secrets of the Mishkan

A Modern Replica of the Mishkan in Timna, Israel

This week’s parasha, Terumah, begins with God’s command for the Israelites to build a Mishkan, an Earthly “dwelling place” for the Divine. God tells Moses (Exodus 25:2-8):

Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My offering. And this is the offering that you shall take from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson wool; linen and goat hair; ram skins dyed red, tachash skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the incense; shoham stones and filling stones for the ephod and for the choshen. And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst…

God requests that each person donate as much as they wish to construct a Holy Tabernacle. He concludes by stating that when the sanctuary is built, He shall dwell among them. The Sages famously point out that the Torah does not say that God will dwell in it, but in them. The sanctuary was not a literal abode for the Infinite God—that’s impossible. Rather, it is a conduit between the physical and spiritual worlds, and a channel through which holiness and spirituality can imbue our planet.

In mystical texts, we learn that the Mishkan was far more than just a temple. Every piece of the Mishkan—every pillar and curtain, altar and basin, even the littlest vessel used inside of it—held tremendous significance and represented something greater in the cosmos. In fact, the whole Mishkan was a microcosm of Creation. This is the deeper reason for why the prohibitions of Shabbat are derived from the construction of the Mishkan. The passage we cited above appears one more time in the Torah, in almost the exact same wording, ten chapters later. In that passage, we read the same command for each Israelite to donate the above ingredients to build a sanctuary. The only difference is that in the second passage, the construction of the Mishkan is juxtaposed with (Exodus 35:1-2):

Moses called the whole community of the children of Israel to assemble, and he said to them: “These are the things that God commanded to make. Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have sanctity, a day of complete rest to God; whoever performs work on this day shall be put to death…”

From this clear connection, the Sages learn that the actions required to construct and maintain the Mishkan are the same ones we must abstain from on the Sabbath. There are 39 such melakhot in all. On a more mystical level, these 39 works are said to be those same actions performed by God in creating the universe! For example, the first prohibited work (see Shabbat 7:2) is zorea, “sowing”, or seeding the earth, just as we read in the account of Creation that God said (Genesis 1:11) “Let the earth bring forth grass, herb-yielding seed, and fruit-tree bearing fruit after its kind, in which its seed is found on the earth.” Perhaps the most famous prohibition, mav’ir, “lighting” a flame, parallels God’s most famous Utterance, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). Such is the case with all 39 prohibited works. In this way, when a Jew rests on the seventh day from such actions, he is mirroring the Divine Who rested from these works on the original Seventh Day.

A Periodic Table of the 39 Melachos, by Anshie Kagan

The Mishkan and the Holidays

The Zohar (II, 135a) comments on this week’s parasha that the ingredients of the Mishkan symbolize the Jewish holidays. The first ingredient is gold, and this corresponds to the first holiday of the year, Rosh Hashanah. The second ingredient, silver, corresponds to Yom Kippur. This is because silver and gold represent the two sefirot of Chessed, “kindness”, and Gevurah, “restraint”. The latter is more commonly known as Din, “judgement”. In mystical texts, silver and gold (both the metals and the colours) always represents Chessed and Gevurah. Rosh Hashanah is judgement day, which is gold, and Yom Kippur is the day of forgiveness, silver.

The third ingredient, copper, corresponds to the next holiday, Sukkot. The Zohar reminds us that on Sukkot, the Torah commands the Israelites to sacrifice a total of seventy bulls, corresponding to the seventy root nations of the world. This is why the prophet Zechariah (14:16) states that in the End of Days, representatives from all nations of the world will come to Jerusalem specifically during Sukkot to worship God together with the Jews.

‘Vision of the Four Chariots’ by Gustave Doré

The Zohar explains that copper is Sukkot because copper (at least in those days) was the main implement of war, which the gentiles use to build their chariots and fight their battles. This, the Zohar explains, is the meaning of another verse in Zechariah (6:1), which states that “…there came four chariots out from between the two mountains; and the mountains were mountains of copper.” The Zohar concludes that the Torah prescribes the sacrifices to be brought in decreasing order (thirteen on the first day, twelve on the second, eleven on the third, etc.) to weaken the drive for war among the gentile nations.

The next ingredient is the special blue dye called techelet, which corresponds to Pesach. As the Talmud (Sotah 17a) states, techelet symbolizes the sea, and the climax of the Exodus was, of course, the Splitting of the Sea. Only at this point, the Torah states, did the Israelites believe wholeheartedly in God, and his servant Moses (Exodus 14:31). The Zohar therefore states that techelet holds the very essence of faith.

Following this is the purple dye called argaman, which is Shavuot. It isn’t quite clear why the Zohar relates these two. It speaks of purple being a fusion of right and left, perhaps referring to the fact that purple (or more accurately, magenta) is a result of a mixing of red and blue. This relates to the dual nature of Shavuot, having received on that day the two parts of the Torah (Written and Oral), and later the Two Tablets, in the month whose astrological sign is the dual Gemini. There is a theme of twos, of rights and lefts coming together. We might add that Shavuot is traditionally seen as a sort of “wedding” between God and the Jewish people, with the Torah being the ketubah, and Mt. Sinai serving as the chuppah.

The sixth ingredient, tola’at shani, red or “crimson” wool, corresponds to the little-known holiday of Tu b’Av, of which we wrote recently. Although the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:8) states that on Tu b’Av the young single ladies of Israel would go out in white dresses to meet their soulmates, the Zohar suggests that they also wore crimson wool, based on another Scriptural verse (Lamentations 4:5).

Tu b’Av is actually the last holiday that the Zohar mentions. The remaining nine ingredients correspond to the nine days after Rosh Hashanah, through Yom Kippur, ie. the “Days of Repentance”. This brings up a big question: The Zohar relates the ingredients of the Mishkan to the major Torah holidays: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the three Pilgrimage festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot). Naturally, it omits Chanukah, Purim, the fasts and minor holidays, which are not explicitly spoken of in the Torah. So, why does it mention Tu b’Av? Before we even begin to answer this question, we should already recognize the huge significance of Tu b’Av, strangely one of the most oft-forgotten holidays on the Jewish calendar.

Tu b’Av: a Torah Holiday

The holidays that are not explicitly commanded by God in the Torah were all instituted by future Sages. Purim was instituted by Esther and Mordechai, and first celebrated in Persia. Yet, the Talmud tells us that the majority of the Sages in the times of Esther and Mordechai initially rejected their call to establish Purim as a holiday! (See Yerushalmi, Megillah 6b-7a.) Interestingly, historians and archaeologists have not found a single Megillat Esther among the thousands of Dead Sea Scrolls and fragments, suggesting that the Jews who lived in Qumran did not commemorate Purim. Clearly, it was still a point of contention as late as two thousand years ago.

Chanukah, meanwhile, is not found in the Tanakh at all. Although two Books of Maccabees exist, the Sages did not include them in the final compilation of the Tanakh. Similarly, the later Sages of the Mishnaic and Talmudic era did not find it fit to have a separate tractate for Chanukah, even though there is a separate tractate for every other big holiday.

The fast days are not festivals, but sad memorial days instituted by the Sages to commemorate tragic events. Tu b’Shevat appears to have no Scriptural origins. Yet, Tu b’Av does. The Talmud (Ta’anit 30b) tells us that one of the historical events that we commemorate on Tu b’Av is the fact that the tribe of Benjamin was permitted to “rejoin the congregation of Israel”. In the final chapters of the Book of Judges, we read how a civil war emerged in Israel, pitting all the tribes against Benjamin because of the horrible incident where a woman was brutally raped in Gibeah. The tribe of Benjamin was subsequently cut off from Israel, with their men forbidden from marrying women of other tribes. The ban was eventually lifted on Tu b’Av. The men of Benjamin were told:

“Behold, there is a festival of God from year to year in Shiloh, which is on the north of Bethel, on the east side of the highway that goes up from Bethel to Shechem, and on the south of Lebonah.” And they commanded the children of Benjamin, saying: “Go and lie in wait in the vineyards; and see, and, behold, if the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in the dances, then come out of the vineyards, and take every man his wife of the daughters of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin…” (Judges 21:19-21)

The Tanakh is clearly describing what the Talmud says would happen on Tu b’Av, when the young ladies would go out to dance in the vineyards to find their soulmates. The exact Scriptural wording is that this day is a chag Adonai, “festival of God”. This is precisely the term used by Moses during the Exodus (Exodus 10:9), possibly referring to Pesach, or more likely to Shavuot (as Rabbeinu Bechaye comments). It is also the term used later in the Torah to describe Sukkot (Leviticus 23:39). Thus, Tu b’Av is evidently a Torah festival, too! And this is why the Zohar singles it out from all the other, “minor” holidays. It seems Tu b’Av is not so minor after all.

The Zohar concludes its passage on Terumah by saying that although we do not have the ability to offer Terumah today, and there is no Mishkan for us to build, we nonetheless have an opportunity to spiritually offer up these ingredients when we celebrate the holidays associated with them. When one wholeheartedly observes Rosh Hashanah, it is as if they offered up gold in the Heavenly Temple, and during Yom Kippur one’s soul brings up silver. Over the days of Sukkot, there is an offering of copper up Above, and on Pesach it is techelet; on Shavuot, argaman, on Tu b’Av, tola’at shani, and on the Days of Repentance the remaining ingredients. On these special days, we help to construct the Heavenly Abode. And this is all the more amazing when we remember that Jewish tradition maintains the Third Temple will not need to physically be built as were the first two, but will descend entirely whole from Heaven.

Courtesy: Temple Institute

Things You Didn’t Know About Shabbat

Moses looks out to the Promised Land, by James Tissot. This week’s parasha begins the fifth and final book of the Torah. This book is Moses’ final speech to his people in the last 37 days of his life.

This week’s parasha begins with the words Eleh hadevarim, “These are the things” that Moses spoke to all of Israel. Our Sages taught that the term eleh hadevarim is particularly significant. The words appear just three times in the whole Torah. By stating that these, specifically, are the things that God commanded, we are being called to give extra attention to them. The first instance of this term is in Exodus 19:6, where God promises that “You shall be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation—these are the things that you should relate to the Children of Israel.” God underscored that Moses should make it clear to the people: they are absolutely unique in the world, and their task is to be entirely righteous and holy. This is probably the most essential thing that every Jew must remember.

The only other instance of the term (aside from the introduction to this week’s parasha) is in Exodus 35:1, where we read how

Moses assembled the entire congregation of the Children of Israel, and said to them: “These are the things which Hashem has commanded, that you should do them: Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be for you a holy day, a Sabbath of Sabbaths to Hashem…”

Here God is underscoring what may be the most important mitzvah: Shabbat. This mitzvah is among the very first mentioned in the Torah, and one of the most frequently mentioned. It is certainly among the severest, being one of 36 mitzvot whose transgression carries a death penalty. Unlike many other well-known mitzvot which are not explicitly mentioned outside of the Chumash (such as tzitzit or tefillin), Shabbat is clearly noted throughout the Tanakh. It is the reason that today the whole world follows a 7-day week. There are more halachot regarding Shabbat than perhaps any other topic. While the Talmudic tractate of Bava Batra may be the longest by number of pages, the tractate Shabbat is by far the longest by number of words. (The former has 89,044 words while the latter has a whopping 113,820!) And to determine if a person is Torah-observant or not, it typically suffices to ask if they are shomer Shabbos.

Ahad Ha’am

The power of Shabbat was best described by Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg (1856-1927, better known by his pen name, Ahad Ha’am). He famously said that “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” Ginsberg was born into a Hasidic family and raised very religiously. Though he later had many issues with ultra-Orthodoxy and became mostly irreligious, he nonetheless opposed political Zionism and argued for a spiritual Zionism based on traditional Jewish values. He accurately wrote that Israel must be “a Jewish state and not merely a state of Jews.” Among other things, it was Ginsberg who played a key role in convincing the Zionists that Hebrew must be the official language of Israel, and not German as pushed by Herzl. He also argued for state-wide Sabbath observance. In his 1898 essay Shabbat v’Tzionut, “Sabbath and Zionism” (where that famous quote above is from), he wrote:

Anyone who feels a true bond in his heart, with the life of the nation over many generations, simply will not be able—even if he believes neither in the World to Come nor the Jewish State—to imagine the Jewish people without Shabbat Malketa.

While his wife was strictly shomer Shabbos, Ginsberg himself wasn’t so careful with all the rules. It seems he disagreed with the Talmudic derivation of the 39 melachot, the categories of “work” prohibited on Shabbat. Ironically, the Talmud (Chagigah 10a) itself admits that “the laws of Shabbat… are like mountains hanging by a hair, for they have little scriptural basis but many laws.” Keeping Shabbat to rabbinic standards is hard and hefty like a mountain, yet the basis for doing so from a Torah perspective is minimal.

The Torah does not list the 39 prohibited works. Rather, the Talmud explains, they were derived from the 39 works done to build the Tabernacle, based on the juxtaposition of the command to keep the Sabbath and the command to construct the Tabernacle in Exodus 35. Elsewhere (Shabbat 70a), Rabbi Natan shows how the number 39 can be derived from the words eleh hadevarim in that Exodus passage. The plural word devarim implies a minimum of two, and the definite article “ha” adds another, making three. The gematria of the word eleh is 36. Altogether, we have 39!  

Today’s halachot of Shabbat have come a very long way since the 39 melachot of the Talmud. Each generation since has added more and more fences, and in recent centuries Shabbat observance has become ever more stringent. A story is told of the Baal Shem Tov that he saw a vision of two men, one going to Heaven and the other to Gehinnom. The first, while being entirely ignorant of the law, would enjoy himself mightily on the Sabbath and have a day of true rest, as the Torah commands. The second was so strict with every little halacha that his Shabbat was nothing but prohibitions, restrictions, and fears that he would inevitably transgress something. Above all else, Shabbat must be a day of rest and joy.

Shabbat in Jubilees

Interestingly, the ancient Book of Jubilees (written in the late Second Temple era, and before the Mishnah and Talmud) provides a different list of Shabbat restrictions. While Jubilees is considered an apocryphal text, and is generally not accepted in traditional Judaism (Ethiopian Jews are pretty much the only ones that consider Jubilees a canonical text), it did make an impact on other traditional Jewish texts, especially midrashic and mystical ones.

Jubilees lists fifteen prohibitions: doing one’s professional work, farming, traveling on a journey, and riding an animal, commerce, water-drawing, carrying burdens, and carrying things from one house to another, killing, trapping, fasting, making war, lighting a fire, cooking, and sexual intercourse. (See Jubilees 2:29-30 and 50:8-12.) Just about all of these—the major exception being sexual intercourse—is also forbidden in the Talmud. When we keep in mind that 11 of the 39 Talmudic prohibitions fall under the category of farming and baking, and many more under trapping, killing, and cooking, the two lists start to look very similar.

In some ways, the Jubilees list is even more stringent, which fits with the assertion of historians that Jubilees was probably composed by the Essene sect (or their forerunners). The Essenes were the religious “extremists” of their day, who fled the corruption of Jerusalem to live in isolation, piety, celibacy (for the most part), meditation, and study. Interestingly, the oldest known tefillin that archaeologists have uncovered are from Essene caves around the Dead Sea.

The Mishnah was first recorded about a century after the Essenes all but disappeared. There (Shabbat 7:2) we have the following list of melachot:

The principal melachot are forty minus one: Sowing, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, sorting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking; shearing wool, whitening it, combing it, dyeing it, spinning, weaving, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying [a knot], untying [a knot], sewing two stitches, tearing for the purpose of sewing two stitches; hunting a deer, slaughtering it, skinning it, salting it, curing its hide, scraping it, cutting it; writing two letters, erasing for the purpose of writing two letters, building, demolishing, extinguishing a flame, lighting a flame, striking with a hammer, carrying from one domain to another.

A Periodic Table of the 39 Melachot, by Anshie Kagan

A Taste of Eden

The Midrash relates the 39 melachot of Shabbat to the 39 curses decreed following the sin of the Forbidden Fruit in the Garden of Eden. God pronounced 9 curses and death upon the Serpent, 9 curses and death upon Adam (and all men), 9 curses and death upon Eve (and all women), as well as 9 curses upon the earth itself (with, obviously, no death). That makes a total of 39 curses (see, for example, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 14). Thus, keeping the Sabbath reverses the curses of Eden, and is simultaneously a taste of Eden before the fall of mankind.

The Zohar (III, 182b) explicitly compares Shabbat to a “lower” or “earthly” Garden of Eden. The Talmud (Berakhot 57b), meanwhile, states that the pleasure of Shabbat is one-sixtieth of the pleasure of Olam HaBa, the World to Come. On the same page, we are told that three things give one a sense of Olam HaBa. One is basking in sunshine. Another is “tashmish”—either sexual intercourse, or that feeling of satisfaction when relieving one’s self in the bathroom. The third is Shabbat.

The Arizal (in Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh) taught that Shabbat is the only day when the highest realm of Atzilut is revealed. The lowest of the olamot or “universes”, Asiyah, is revealed on Tuesday and Wednesday. In the account of Creation, it was on these days that Earth and the luminaries—ie. this lower, physical cosmos that we are familiar with—were made. The second, Yetzirah, is revealed on Monday and Thursday, days on which the Torah is publicly read. In Creation, on Monday the waters were split into upper and lower domains, while on Thursday the waters below and the “waters above” (the skies) were filled with life (fish and birds respectively). The higher universe of Beriah is revealed on Sunday and Friday, corresponding to the first day of Creation when God brought forth divine light, and the last day of Creation when God made man. Only on Shabbat is it possible to glimpse into the highest universe of pure divine emanation, Atzilut.

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

The Arizal also taught that only on Shabbat are the highest states of consciousness completely open (Pri Etz Chaim, Sha’ar Hanagat Limmud, 1). He was referring to the inner states of the Mochin, the three highest, “intellectual”, sefirot. The first of these is the sefirah of Keter, willpower. The second is Chokhmah, typically translated as “wisdom”, but more accurately referring to knowledge. The third is Binah, “understanding”. The Sages say there are 620 pillars in Keter, 32 paths in Chokhmah, and 50 gates in Binah. The 620 pillars correspond to the 620 mitzvot in the Torah (613 for Israel, and 7 Noahide laws for the rest of the world, or sometimes the 7 additional rabbinic mitzvot). The 32 paths correspond to the 22 Hebrew letters and the 10 base numerical digits (as well as the Ten Sefirot) that form the fabric of Creation. The 50 gates correspond to, among other things, the 50 times the Exodus is mentioned in the Torah, the 50 days between Pesach and Shavuot, the 50 questions posed to Job, and the 50 levels of impurity and constriction. The mysteries of all these esoteric things is revealed on Shabbat. For this reason, the Arizal taught, the sum of 620 pillars, 32 paths, and 50 gates is 702, the gematria of “Shabbat” (שבת).

Shamor v’Zachor

So significant is Shabbat that it is one of the Ten Commandments. The Torah relates the Ten Commandments on two occasions.* In the first account of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), we read:

Remember [zachor] the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days shall you labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to Hashem, your God… for in six days Hashem made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day…

In the second account of the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5), we read:

Observe [shamor] the Sabbath day to keep it holy, as Hashem, your God, commanded you. Six days shall you labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to Hashem, your God… And you shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and Hashem, your God, brought you out from there…

The first case uses the verb zachor, to commemorate, while the second uses shamor, to safeguard. The first refers to the positive mitzvah of resting and delighting on the Sabbath, while the second refers to the negative mitzvah of not transgressing the Sabbath through work and other profane things.

We further see that the first instance ties Shabbat to Creation, while the second instance ties Shabbat to the Exodus. In the former case, since God created the universe in six days and “rested” on the seventh, we should emulate His ways and do the same. In the latter case, since we were once slaves—working round the clock, seven days a week—we must always take a full day off work so as to remember that we are no longer in servitude. Only slaves work seven days a week! Thus, the first instance uses the verb zachor, to remember Creation, and the second instance uses the verb shamor, to make sure we do not labour on this day.

In reality, the two are one: when we remember Creation we are reminded that we are here for a reason. We are not a product of random chance in a godless, purposeless universe—as some would have us believe. We were created with a divine mission, in God’s image. And thus, we must make sure that we never fall into servitude; that we do not live under someone else’s oppression or dominance (whether physical, emotional, or intellectual). We must be free people, in God’s image, with no one above us but God.

Sefer HaBahir (#182) adds another dimension to the two verbs: it states that zachor alludes to zachar, “male”, and shamor relates to the female. For men, it is more important to remember Creation when it comes to Shabbat, while for women it is more important to remember the Exodus. Perhaps what the Bahir means to say is that for men—who are prone to have big egos—it is vital to think of Creation and remember who the real Master of the Universe is. For women—who are generally the ones cooking and preparing for Shabbat, serving food, and taking care of the kids while the men are at the synagogue—it is vital to think of the Exodus and remember that they are not slaves! Take it easy and ensure that Shabbat is a complete day of rest for you, too.

To conclude, the Talmud (Shabbat 118b) famously states that if all the Jews of the world kept two consecutive Shabbats, the final redemption would immediately come. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai bases this teaching on Isaiah 56:4-7, where God declares that those who “keep My Sabbaths, and choose the things that please Me, and hold fast by My covenant… them will I bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer…” The verse says Sabbaths in plural, and as stated earlier, this implies a minimum of two. Perhaps we can say that Israel needs to observe one Shabbat in honour of zachor and one in honour of shamor. The upcoming Jewish New Year of 779 may be a particularly auspicious time to do so, for the gematria of shamor (שמור) and zachor (זכור) is 779. We should redouble our efforts to create a truly restful, spiritual Shabbat for ourselves, and strive to open the eyes of those who are not yet fortunate to do so.


*There is a hidden, third place where the Ten Commandments are discussed in the Torah. To learn about this see ‘The Real Ten Commandments You’ve Never Heard Of‘ in Garments of Light.

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.