Tag Archives: Tzfat

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.

Shalom Aleichem: To Sing or Not to Sing?

This week’s parasha, Vayak’hel, begins with God’s command for Israel to observe the Sabbath. One of the most famous symbols and songs of Shabbat is undoubtedly Shalom Aleichem, traditionally sung before the evening Kiddush. The lyrics of Shalom Aleichem welcome the Sabbath angels into our homes, and for many, serve to set the atmosphere of Shabbat itself. Yet, some of our wise rabbis in the past have cautioned against singing this song!  Where did Shalom Aleichem come from, and who composed it? When did Jews start singing this song, and why?

A Mystery Song

Much of the beloved Kabbalat Shabbat service is of very recent origin. For example, Lecha Dodi, through which we welcome in the Sabbath, was composed by Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz (c. 1500-1576). In fact, the eight verses of Lecha Dodi form an acrostic, the initials spelling his name. Born in Greece, Rabbi Alkabetz later moved to Tzfat, the capital of Jewish mysticism. He studied with Rabbi Yosef Karo (c. 1488-1575), famed composer of the Shulchan Arukh, and was the brother-in-law of the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570), who led the Tzfat Kabbalists before the arrival of the Arizal (Rabbi Itzchak Luria, 1534-1572). Many practices and customs of Judaism as we know them today originated in this incredible circle of Jewish mystics in Tzfat. One of these is the Kabbalat Shabbat prayer service.

Although Rabbi Alkabetz certainly wrote Lecha Dodi, there is little evidence that the wider Kabbalistic circle of Tzfat recited it in his own day. Contrary to popular belief, the Arizal did not sing this song. We know the Arizal’s teachings and practices from the writings of his students, namely his primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1542-1620). In Pri Etz Chaim, Rabbi Vital makes it abundantly clear, and repeats multiple times, exactly how the Arizal would perform Kabbalat Shabbat (see, for example, Sha’ar Shabbat, ch. 6):

The Arizal would go out into the fields, and recite Psalm 20 (with the most important verse there being the tenth, which starts Hashem l’mabul yashav, the initials spelling a Name of God, יל״י). He would then say Bo’i Kalah, “come my Bride” three times (based on a teaching in the Talmud, Shabbat 119a). Following this, he would recite Psalm 92 (Mizmor shir l’yom haShabbat), which also contains hidden Names of God. That would be it for Kabbalat Shabbat. Rabbi Vital explains what happens next:

And when you come home from the synagogue after praying Arvit, stand at your place at the meal table, and say “This is the meal of the Holy Apple Orchard”… and after this, encircle the table around the right, silently. Then, take in your hands two bundles of hadas [myrtle branches], and join them together, and say the blessing [besamim] on them, and smell them. And afterwards, encircle the table a second time with the branches in hand, silently. Then say “Zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad ne’emru”. Then say Kiddush.

After eating the meal, recite some passages from the tractate Shabbat, then birkat hamazon, then say again “Zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad ne’emru”. Then say the blessing on the hadas a second time. In the morning, for the second Shabbat meal, do the same as you did the previous night [during the first meal], and do the same for the third meal [seudah shlishit].

‘Sabbath Queen’ by Abigail Sarah Bagraim

Thus, while we find some words that remind us of Lecha Dodi, such as “bo’i kalah” and “zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad” (rearranged by Alkabetz in Lecha Dodi so that “shamor” comes first, to spell his name “Shlomo”), there is no mention of an entire Lecha Dodi. Nor is there any mention of singing Shalom Aleichem (or Eshet Chayil for that matter).

The Arizal did teach that one should say the words “shalom aleichem” three times at the end of Birkat Levanah, the blessing on a new moon recited once a month (Sha’ar Rosh Chodesh Chanukah v’Purim, ch. 3). This is still done today. The Arizal explained that saying shalom aleichem three times serves to remove any kitrug, spiritual “prosecution”. Based on this, some believe that whoever composed the song Shalom Aleichem incorporated this teaching of the Arizal. This is probably why some (especially Sephardis) have the custom to sing only the first three stanzas of Shalom Aleichem, thus saying the words “shalom aleichem” three times. Alternatively, this may be why many others (especially Ashkenazis) have the custom to recite each stanza of Shalom Aleichem three times.

The Origin of Shalom Aleichem

So where and when did Shalom Aleichem first appear? It seems the earliest source is Seder Tikkunei Shabbat, a work first published in Prague in 1641. I found a 1650 Krakow edition, and its Kabbalat Shabbat service and meal table ritual is nearly identical to what is generally practiced today. There are the six Psalms before Lecha Dodi, then Lecha Dodi itself, followed by two more Psalms. Then there is Shalom Aleichem, with all four stanzas—each to be read three times—followed by a prayer called Ribbon Kol HaOlamim, and then Eshet Chayil.

Cover of Tikkunei Shabbat

The cover page of the text says it is based on the teachings of the Arizal. It isn’t clear who exactly put the book together, though it appears to mention a “Rabbi Isaiah Nasi”. That may be Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (Shelah HaKadosh, 1555-1630), a renowned Kabbalist who was born in Prague and lived for a time in Krakow. He got hold of the teachings of the Arizal, and towards the end of his life travelled to Tzfat in hopes of learning directly from the Arizal’s disciples. Considering that Seder Tikkunei Shabbat was first published twenty years after the Shelah left Europe, and eleven years after he died, it may have been put together by someone else, based on his teachings, which were in turn based on the Arizal.

Still, we do not know who it was that composed Shalom Aleichem. Whatever the case, within a century it had become popular enough that there were those who opposed singing it. One of these opponents was Rabbi Yakov Emden (1697-1776). He published his own siddur, where Shalom Aleichem is missing. He pointed out several issues with the song, including the absurd request for angels (and not God Himself) to bless us (although earlier Jewish works don’t necessarily have a problem with this), and the strange wording of the song, especially the word “mimelekh”. Amazingly, modern versions of Rabbi Emden’s Beit Yakov siddur do include Shalom Aleichem! The earliest Beit Yakov siddur I could find was from 1881, which has Shalom Aleichem in full, though without that problematic word mimelekh.

Shalom Aleichem, with commentary, in an 1881 Beit Yakov siddur

The commentary in this version of Beit Yakov explains that the custom of singing Shalom Aleichem is based on the Talmudic statement (Shabbat 119b) that when one comes home from the synagogue on Friday evening he is followed by two angels:

Rav Chisda said in the name of Mar Ukva: “One who prays on Shabbat evening and recites Vaykhulu, the two ministering angels who accompany the person at all times place their hands on his head and say to him: ‘And your iniquity has passed, and your sin has been atoned.’” [Isaiah 6:7] It was taught [in a Baraita]: Rabbi Yose bar Yehuda says: “Two ministering angels accompany a person on Shabbat evening from the synagogue to his home, one good angel and one bad angel. And when he reaches his home and finds a candle burning and a table set and his bed made, the good angel says: ‘May it be Your will that it shall be like this for another Shabbat.’ And the bad angel answers against his will: ‘Amen.’ And if the person’s home is not prepared for Shabbat in that manner, the bad angel says: ‘May it be Your will that it shall be so for another Shabbat,’ and the good angel answers against his will: ‘Amen.’”

It is these angels that Shalom Aleichem is apparently referring to. The angels are welcomed into the home, asked to give us their blessing, and to head back out. We see above that one of the angels is a kategor, a “prosecutor”. As we learned from the Arizal, saying shalom aleichem three times eliminates kitrug, “prosecution”, thus neutralizing that “bad” angel.

As for the argument that the song is requesting blessings from angels, I believe the second argument regarding the strange wording of mimelekh actually serves to neutralize the first argument. This line is meant to remind the singer and the audience that, of course, we are really just request a blessing from God Himself—through His messenger angels (something that happens many times in the Torah)—hence the words “From the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He” (מִמֶּלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא). We are welcoming the angels that are coming our way mimelekh, “from the King”, and who are blessing us mimelekh, “from the King”.

To summarize, Shalom Aleichem probably did not emerge among the early Tzfat Kabbalists, nor was it recited by the Arizal as some believe. It had only become widely popular by the middle of the 18th century. The identity of the author remains unknown.

So, should we recite Shalom Aleichem, or not? For those who have reservations (like Rabbi Emden, and apparently also the Vilna Gaon) and feel strongly that it should be skipped (or wish to mirror the early Tzfat Kabbalists as closely as possible), they have on whom to rely. However, it is difficult to avoid such a deeply-rooted and widely-accepted custom. Ultimately, the song is based on a Talmudic passage, speaks only of positive things, and affirms God is the “King of Kings”. It is a mystical, albeit mysterious song, and a beautiful, peaceful way to start the Sabbath festivities.

Is Kabbalah Kosher?

In this week’s parasha, Nitzavim, we read that “The hidden things are for Hashem, our God, and the revealed things are for us and our children forever, to fulfil the words of this Law.” (Deuteronomy 29:28) The verse is a significant one for a number of reasons, one of which is that it is used as Scriptural proof for the Jewish mystical tradition, commonly referred to as “Kabbalah”, those esoteric secrets—“hidden things”—of the Torah. The Torah cautions that these secrets are best to be kept for God, while the revealed parts of the Law are for us and our children.

And yet, Jewish mysticism has been a very popular area of study for millennia. We know of the existence of multiple “mystery schools” in the Second Temple era. Some of the earliest mystical texts were composed in this time period, and have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple, a number of new mystical texts appeared, known as the Heikhalot, Heavenly “Palaces”.

The main protagonists of the Heikhalot are Rabbi Akiva and his contemporary, Rabbi Ishmael. We know from the Talmud that these two were great mystics. The Talmud (Chagigah 14b) famously records how Rabbi Akiva led three other rabbis to the Heavenly realms of Pardes. This is traditionally taken to mean that they plunged into the depths of Jewish esotericism, where “Pardes” is an acronym for pshat, remez, drash, sod, the four main levels of Torah study: the simple, surface meaning; the sub-textual allusions; the allegorical, metaphorical, and extra-Scriptural narratives; and the mystical secrets of Kabbalah.

‘Elijah Taken Up to Heaven’

The three rabbis that went along with Rabbi Akiva didn’t fare so well: Ben Azzai died, Ben Zoma apparently lost his mind, and Elisha ben Avuya became a heretic. Only Rabbi Akiva “exited in peace”. There were many other mystics in their day. The Talmud (Sukkah 28a) states that although Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (whose students were the teachers of Rabbi Akiva) was the least knowledgeable of Hillel’s eighty disciples, even he was an expert in Ma’aseh Merkavah, “the Work of the Chariot”. Ma’aseh Merkavah refers to the opening account of the Book of Ezekiel, where the prophet describes God’s “Divine Chariot”. Similar holy visions were beheld by the other prophets, including Isaiah and Daniel, while Elijah was taken up to Heaven in such a fiery chariot (II Kings 2:11). Thus, Ma’aseh Merkavah is believed to be concerned with attaining prophecy, or with spiritual ascent to the Heavens. This is precisely how one might elevate to Pardes.

The other major area of mysticism in Second Temple and early Talmudic times was known as Ma’aseh Beresheet, “the Work of Creation” (Chagigah 11b). This refers to the opening account of Genesis, and the secrets of God’s formation of this universe. The study of Ma’aseh Beresheet would presumably allow one to attain certain divine creative powers. This is what the sages Rav Chanina and Rav Oshaia delved into every Friday afternoon, and were able to produce a lamb out of thin air—then barbecue it for lunch! (Sanhedrin 65b)

Such great power exists within the study of Maaseh Merkavah and Maaseh Beresheet that the Sages caution these subjects must not be taught publicly, and not to all those who wish to learn them: “Maaseh Beresheet must not be expounded upon before two, and Maaseh Merkavah even before one, unless he is a sage and understands of his own knowledge.” (Chagigah 2:1) Even to the understanding scholar, the Sages permit only the “chapter headings” to be revealed. The master points the student in the right direction, and nothing more. In this way, only the truly deserving wise one will come to understand the mysteries. Perhaps this is why the study was eventually called Kabbalah, from the root meaning “to receive”, for one could only receive it through divine inspiration from Above, and after having received the chapter headings from a master.

Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, the Vilna Gaon

Interestingly, the term Kabbalah in the Talmud refers not to mysticism but to the Tanakh, specifically to the books of Nevi’im and Ketuvim which follow the Five Books of Moses. This actually makes a lot of sense, since most of Kabbalah is built upon verses and passages in the Prophets and Writings. One who studies Kabbalistic texts will quickly recognize how most of the passages open with Scriptural verses, with concepts supported by Scriptural verses, especially from the Books of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Shir haShirim, and of course, Ezekiel and Isaiah. Other texts of Tanakh are frequently cited, too. In fact, it is said that the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797), among the greatest of Kabbalists, studied nothing but Tanakh after a certain age, since he could derive everything directly from Scripture.

This may be one reason, among others, why study of Nevi’im and Ketuvim is so rare in the Orthodox yeshiva world today. Since Kabbalah is often seen as taboo, especially for young minds, it may be best to avoid study of Scriptural passages that may bring up uncomfortable or mystical questions. Indeed, it is the story of the Four Who Entered Pardes that is most commonly used as proof that the young, the uninitiated, or those that have not mastered every facet of Torah must not delve into Kabbalah. The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) codifies this as law.

The Sages of the early generations commanded that these matters should not be explained except to a single individual [at a time]. He should be a wise man, who can reach understanding with his own knowledge. In such an instance, he is given fundamental points, and an outline of the concepts is made known to him. He [is expected to continue to contemplate] until he reaches understanding with his powers of knowledge and knows the ultimate meaning and depth of the concept. (Yesodei HaTorah 2:12)

The Rambam is an interesting case, for he was no Kabbalist by any means. A strictly rationalist thinker, he rejected any notion of evil spirits and demons, thought superstitions to be silly at best, and made sure to expunge all sorts of mysticism-based rituals from his code of law. For the Rambam, Maaseh Merkavah simply refers to the various spiritual entities that God created, mainly the ten types of angels (Yesodei HaTorah, ch. 2). What the prophets saw were just “visions and parables”, not actual concrete things. Maaseh Beresheet, meanwhile, is essentially science and physics—the study of the elements and their properties, the various “spheres” of astronomy, the nature of the luminaries, stars and planets—these are the things he calls “Maaseh Beresheet” (Yesodei HaTorah, ch. 3-4). The Rambam believes this is what is meant by “Pardes” (4:3). For him, Kabbalah is not an exercise in amulets or magic, exorcism or demonology, astrology or fortune-telling—all of which he expressly rejects as irrational, unreal, and absurd.

Ironically, it was the Rambam’s own son, Rabbeinu Avraham (1186-1237), who became a great mystic and played a huge role in the development of modern Kabbalah.

The New Kabbalah

A 17th-century illustration of a Sufi meditating

Rabbeinu Avraham wrote a monumental 2500-page philosophical work called Kitab Kifayah al-Abidin (“A Guide for the Servants of God”). Scholars note how Rabbeinu Avraham integrated a great amount of material from Muslim Sufi mystics. Incredibly, Rabbeinu Avraham himself writes in his book that the ancient mystical tradition of the Hebrew Prophets was forgotten among Jews, “because of their iniquities”, and has been carried forward by the Sufis! He argues that the Sufis “imitate the Prophets [of Israel] and walk in their footsteps.”

The fusion of Jewish and Sufi mysticism continued strongly in Egypt for several generations. Rabbi Gavin Michal beautifully traces how these traditions made their way to Tzfat: Rabbeinu Avraham’s great-great-grandson, Rabbeinu David, the last official nagid of the illustrious Jewish community in Egypt, packed his bags and resettled in Aleppo, Syria in the early 1400s. He brought with him his massive Sufi-inspired Jewish mystical library. This library was a key source of literature for the early Tzfat Kabbalists, who lived a short trip away from Aleppo. Amazingly, historical sources suggest that one of these early Kabbalists was a Sufi convert to Judaism.

Hamsas: not a Jewish thing

It therefore isn’t surprising that Arab and Muslim mystical beliefs strongly influenced Jewish mysticism. In his Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem points out numerous examples of this. While most of these concepts are valuable, some are most unfortunate: Arab demonology and superstition, too, neatly made its way into Kabbalistic literature. This is most evident in the plethora of Arabic hamsas and “evil eye” amulets that have sadly infiltrated so many Jewish homes. (We have also written in the past how Muslim ritual inspired the “mystical” custom of upsherin.)

At the same time that this was happening in the Middle East, a parallel Jewish mystical movement was rapidly developing on the other side of the Mediterranean, in Spain. Their Kabbalah, too, was not immune to the beliefs and practices of the neighbouring Christians.

Rise of the Zohar

In the 11th and 12th centuries, mysticism was slowly spreading in the Sephardic Jewish communities of Spain. It wasn’t until the late 13th century that Kabbalah received an immense boost with the publication of Sefer HaZohar, aka. “The Midrash of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai”. The publication was spearheaded by Rabbi Moshe ben Shem Tov de Leon (1240-1305), a great Kabbalist in his own right. He claimed that this book was the unadulterated teachings of the Talmudic sage Shimon bar Yochai, or Rashbi, a disciple of Rabbi Akiva.

While the Zohar was undoubtedly full of profound wisdom and authentic mysticism, it immediately aroused a great deal of suspicion. After all, no one had ever seen, or even heard of, such a text before. One scholar who took up the mission of discovering the Zohar’s real roots was Rabbi Itzchak d’min Acco (“Isaac of Acre”, c. 13th-14th century). Rabbi Itzchak was possibly a student of the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270), who had made aliyah after his famous Disputation and settled in Acre, where Rabbi Itzchak was apparently born. Rabbi Itzchak studied among those pre-Tzfat era Kabbalists in Israel. The Crusades made life difficult, and Rabbi Itzchak fled to Spain in 1305.

There, he met Rabbi Moshe de Leon, and questioned him about the Zohar, pointing out that the Kabbalists of the Holy Land knew nothing of such a work. Rabbi Moshe swore that he possessed an original manuscript from Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, back in his hometown of Avila. He promised to fetch the text and show it to Rabbi Itzchak, but suddenly died. Perhaps this untimely death is itself proof enough that Rabbi Moshe de Leon swore falsely!

For Rabbi Itzchak, it was not enough, and he decided to continue his search in Avila. There, he met a rabbi who knew Moshe de Leon’s family, and the rabbi told him that de Leon’s wife admitted he had composed the Zohar by himself, attributing it to Rashbi so that it would be accepted as authentic (and sell more copies). Many later Kabbalists reject this narrative, and believe it is a legend meant to discredit the Zohar. The story appeared in the first edition of Sefer Yuchasin (by Rabbi Avraham Zacuto, 1452-1515), and was censored out of all subsequent editions for over 300 years.

Over those centuries, the Zohar became the primary Kabbalistic text, so much so that it essentially became synonymous with Kabbalah. More ancient and once prominent texts like Sefer Yetzirah and Sefer HaBahir fell far behind. The Zohar inspired a massive new wave of mysticism that made a permanent impact on Judaism. It was the Tzfat Kabbalists of the 16th and 17th centuries in particular that neatly analyzed, categorized, and made sense of the Zohar, producing a whole new worldview and publishing a vast array of novel mystical literature that took the Jewish world by storm.

While halacha was once clearly separated from mysticism, the distinction started to get blurry. We sometimes forget that the Shulkhan Aruch, still the most famous of Jewish law codes, was composed by Rabbi Yosef Karo, a noted Tzfat Kabbalist. As such, he couldn’t possibly omit Kabbalah entirely from his laws, and mystical rituals and beliefs seep in on multiple occasions. The trend would continue, and reach even greater heights under the later Hasidim.

By this point, the authorship of the Zohar was seldom disputed. Still, the belief that it was written by Rashbi himself is false. After all, the Zohar clearly states that Rashbi charged his disciple Rabbi Abba with composing his teachings (see Zohar III, 287b). The Italian Kabbalist Rabbi Mordechai Galante (d. 1560) held that the Zohar was compiled sometime in the Geonic period (c. 589-1038 CE) from these ancient manuscripts of Rabbi Abba. The fore-mentioned Sefer Yuchasin holds that the Zohar may have originated with Rashbi, but was reworked and expanded by future generations of Kabbalists. No one knows exactly where it came from.

Some said it was the Ramban who discovered the Zohar when he arrived in Israel, then shipped it back to Spain (to save it from the Crusader wars or to reveal it to the Sephardi Kabbalists). The ship capsized or went off course, and the text ended up in the hands of Moshe de Leon! Others still believed that the Zohar was discovered by an Arab king, or by Spanish conquistadors, and sent over to the Sephardi Kabbalists for translation.

The Problem with Kabbalah

Gershom Scholem notes a number of issues within the Zohar that make it impossible to have been composed by Rashbi, Rabbi Abba, or anyone else from that time period. In fact, it appears that the person who put together the Zohar was not even a very good Talmudist. For example, the Talmud (Shabbat 33b) says that Pinchas ben Yair was Rashbi’s son-in-law, whereas the Zohar inaccurately says he was his father-in-law. Similarly, the Zohar is pretty confused about its Talmudic history, and in listing Rashbi’s ten main disciples, mixes together Amoraim and Tannaim from different centuries. Scholem also points out that the Zohar improperly uses the Aramaic language, while clearly incorporating many words with Spanish origin (such as esnoga, “synagogue” or gardin, “guardian”).

Rabbi Leon Yehudah Aryeh da Modena

These issues were already noted by earlier Jewish scholars. Rabbi Eliyahu del Medigo (c. 1458-1493), another great Italian sage, was part of a Kabbalistic circle before growing distant from the mystics. He noted how the Zohar has names of rabbis that lived long after Rashbi. A fellow Italian, Rabbi Leon da Modena (1571-1648) wrote an entire treatise, Ari Nohem, debunking the Zohar. He concludes that it must be only a few centuries old, and its Chokhmat haKabbalah is neither Chokhmah (wisdom) nor is it authentic Kabbalah! Rabbi Yakov Emden (1697-1776) was most vocal in his attack on the Zohar, and stated it was a complete forgery. The Yemenite sage Rabbi Yichya Kapach (1850-1931) believed the same thing.

Others have staunchly defended the Zohar, of course. Those Spanish-looking words may be there because they come from earlier Latin words, which would have been familiar to Rashbi. The names of sages from different time periods may be mixed together in one passage, but we often find the same thing in the Talmud. Truly, one who studies the Zohar will find it hard to believe that it could have all been composed by one Kabbalist, whether Moshe de Leon or someone else. In fact, the Zohar isn’t a monolithic text at all, and is composed of various distinct parts (Raya Mehemna, Midrash haNe’elam, etc.) It probably was pieced together from earlier genuine manuscripts, and was probably edited by a circle of Sephardi Kabbalists in the 13th century, who firmly believed the teachings dated back to Rashbi in some way.

It should be mentioned that Rabbi Itzchak d’min Acco’s account does not end with Moshe de Leon’s family. He continued his search, and met at least two other rabbis that swore on the Zohar’s authenticity. Even Gershom Scholem held that Moshe de Leon was an honest scholar, and certainly no faker who was out to dupe others or make money. (Scholem nonetheless believed that de Leon and his circle were the Zohar’s originators.)

Rav Dessler

Today, the Zohar has seemingly become accepted by all Orthodox communities, and some claim that denying the authenticity of the Zohar is heresy. This is not true. Rav Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953) held that there is nothing wrong with believing the Zohar was composed by someone in the 13th century. Meanwhile, Rav Ovadia Yosef (1920-2013) said that the Yemenite communities that do not accept the Zohar should not be considered heretics. After all, these communities existed long before the Zohar’s publication, and were never exposed to it. He even conceded that some of their arguments may have substance. (See Ma’ayan Omer, Perek 7, Siman 93.)

Illustrations of Sefirot in von Rosenroth’s ‘Kabbala Denudata’

One of their arguments is that the Zohar was influenced by Christian belief. Gersom Scholem illustrates multiple instances of this in his Kabbalah, especially when it comes to Christian demonology. Aside from that, some of the Zohar’s teachings may be seen as inadvertently supporting Christian theology. In fact, Christian scholars (like Picco della Mirandola, Johann Reuchlin, Christian Knorr von Rosenroth, and even Newton and Leibnitz) actually took up the study of the Zohar themselves, and believed that this text would result in Jews finally converting to Christianity willingly. History shows that while some Jews may have done so, many more Jews instead started to believe in Christian ideas like man becoming god (or god becoming man), and that a messiah can die without completing his task, to return in a future “second coming”. This was a huge issue in the heresy of Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676), and continues to be a significant problem with certain Hasidim today.

One specific example of how Christianity may have influenced post-Zoharic Kabbalah is particularly relevant now, on the cusp of Rosh Hashanah. It is customary to recite Tefillat HaParnasah, a prayer for sustenance, at the end of each prayer service during the High Holidays. In many Sephardic machzorim, a supposed “name of God” is invoked—though not recited aloud—during this prayer (it is also found in the parnasah insert during the Amidah of many Sephardic weekday siddurim). That “name” is Dikarnosa (דיקרנוסא), which apparently comes from Malachi 3:10, though it is difficult to see how other than the appearance of the word די in the verse. Others link it to a fusion of Malachi 3:10 and the word nasah in Psalms 4:7, נסה עלינו אור פניך ה׳.

In reality, Dikarnosa means absolutely nothing in Hebrew or Aramaic. However, it has a clear Spanish (or Latin) root: dei (“god”) and karne (“meat” or “flesh”). Some believe karnosa is a combination of karne and sanguis, “blood”. Whatever the case, the meaning is pretty clear: either the name is invoking a “god of meat” or speaking of a “god of flesh and blood”. Dikarnosa may be the name of an old pagan Spanish deity of abundance (hence the association with parnasah) or, according to one Catholic priest, potentially rooted in an old appellation for Jesus who, according to Christianity, is God literally incarnated in “flesh and blood”.

While Dikarnosa is not explicitly mentioned in the Zohar, it emerged in post-Zoharic Kabbalah circles, and was already firmly accepted in the times of the Arizal. His primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), wrote about it in Pri Etz Chaim (Sha’ar HaAmidah, ch. 19). It isn’t surprising then that the Dor De’a of Yemen claimed that modern Kabbalah is contaminated with paganism.

Such are the possible dangers of studying the Zohar, and the Kabbalah that emerged from it. Some become imprisoned in demonic fears, others become extremists, or adopt all sorts of bizarre rituals, while others still are drawn to real heresy. This is one reason why the Noda b’Yehudah (Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, 1713-1793) went so far as to ban (unsuccessfully) the study of Zohar and Kabbalah. There are so many mystical texts out there that it isn’t clear which are genuine and which are not, which have been influenced by Christianity or Shabbateanism (or other heretical movements) and which have not. It is easy to be led astray.

That brings us back to the story of the Four Who Entered Pardes. We learn from that story that maybe one in four who delve into Kabbalah will emerge unscathed. The remaining three are in danger of being lead to heresy, mental issues or extreme asceticism, or worse, an untimely death.

In Search of Authentic Kabbalah

Having said all that, we mustn’t forget that there absolutely is an authentic Jewish mysticism out there. As already stated, the Tanakh itself is full of genuine mysticism, as is the Talmud. The schools of Ma’aseh Merkavah and Ma’aseh Beresheet are real, and existed. There were mystical texts that predated the Zohar, as did the central concept of Ten Sefirot. There is no doubt that much of this authentic mysticism made its way into the Zohar and subsequent works, which is why it became so popular, spread so quickly, and was accepted by so many.

Certainly, there are countless kernels of truth within the Zohar, which were further refined and polished by later Kabbalists like the Ramak and the Arizal. It is a repository of tremendous wisdom (and we have, of course, cited it frequently in this forum). It played a key role in preserving Judaism in the face of attractive Christian and Muslim mysticism in the first half of the last millennium, and in the face of enticing secular “Enlightenment” in the second half. (Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, 1728-1790, famously said that “the Zohar has kept me Jewish.”)

Today, Kabbalah has become inseparable from Judaism, and has engrained itself into every aspect of our faith—without most Jews even being aware of it. Simple things like doing netilat yadayim in the morning to rid of an impure spirit (something completely omitted in the law code of the rational Rambam), staying up all night on Shavuot, or just commemorating Hoshana Rabba are all based on mystical teachings. Any discussion of reincarnation, cosmogony, eschatology, or even a classic Torah-versus-science debate is impossible without Kabbalah. There is little doubt that the mystical tradition has immensely enriched Judaism.

But what do we make of those foreign influences? Some have argued that foreign influence is actually a good thing. After all, the Rambam himself had stated that we should “accept the truth from whomever speaks it”. There is an old mystical idea that the Torah, too, is in exile among the nations, and we must rediscover these true concepts from the nations, refine them, and restore them to their holy source. When looking from this perspective, we recognize that even the Talmud had adopted (or rediscovered) countless ideas from neighbouring Greeks, Romans, and Persians. And ancient Kabbalah, too, long before the Zohar, drew from other mystical traditions.

Like the critics of today, Rabbi Leon da Modena recognized way back in the 16th century that Kabbalah was essentially Greek Neoplatonism in Jewish clothing. Meanwhile, in his Jews, God, and History, historian Max I. Dimont argues that from the very beginning, Kabbalah “fed on noncanonized prophecy, Zoroastrian resurrection mythology, Greek science, numerology, gnostic heresies.” He concludes that “This was the material Jewish saints and scholars worked on for centuries, distilling it, shaping it, blowing life into it.” There is still much work left to be done in distilling, shaping, and refining Kabbalah. There are some ideas that are best to be buried and forgotten, and some truly profound ideas that should be disseminated further.

Dimont goes on to credit the Zohar and subsequent Kabbalistic texts with having “a large share in the sudden efflorescence of science…” and “laying the intellectual foundations for the seventeenth-century rebirth of philosophy and the establishment of scientific methodology…” A multitude of scholars share his conclusions. At the end of the day, Kabbalah has had a tremendous (mostly positive) impact not only on Judaism, but on the whole world.

What can we conclude from all of this? At the very least, that Kabbalah should be studied carefully, with a grain of salt and an open mind. It is very important to temper the study of Zohar and other Kabbalistic texts with more rationalist sources like the Rambam. We shouldn’t confuse Kabbalah with halacha. We should keep in mind the many authoritative voices in Jewish history that cautioned against, if not outright rejected, the Zohar, and we should never forget those Four Who Entered Pardes.

Those who choose to enter, beware.

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.