Monday, June 04, 2007

Hair-cutting On Lag B'Omer

Out with her child, an Orthodox mother encounters a stranger, who points to the child and says, ‘what a cute kid: how old is she?’ The proud mother answers, ‘almost three, and she’s a he!’

It is common in religious circles to leave a boy’s hair unshorn until his third birthday and then cut it at a party called a chalukah (Hebrew) or opsher’n (Yiddish). This practice is not mentioned in the Talmud, Midrash or even the classic of mysticism, the Zohar. In fact, whether it has Jewish origins at all is hotly disputed: the practice is actually opposed by a number of Lithuanian rabbis for this reason.

Variants of this tradition exist. Some cut the hair on the boy’s third birthday, or on the next convenient day. Others take him to the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay (in mystical tradition, the second-century author of the Zohar) in the Galilean village of Meron to perform the hair-cutting. Many do this on Lag BaOmer (33rd day of the Omer-count and the anniversary of Rabbi Shimon’s death). Rabbi Shimon and Lag BaOmer are associated with the most profound secrets of Jewish esoteric thought. Among Skverer Chasidim, the opsher’n is performed on the child’s second birthday. The day often coincides with the start of the boy’s Jewish education, when he will start to wear a kippah and tzitzit. His peyot (side-locks) will be left following the ceremony. The hair is often weighed and its equivalent donated to charity.

The earliest mention of hair-cutting appears in the Sha’ar HaKavvanot (Pesach, exposition 12) of Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), who reports that his teacher, the Kabbalistic master Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (the Ari), ‘took his young son to Meron with his entire household and cut his hair there, according to the known practice’. Commentators assume that this event happened when the boy was three. Radbaz (David ben Zimri, 1479-1573) refers to the practice in Responsum II:608 (although he mentions performing it at the gravesite of the prophet Samuel), stating that ‘all around people consider it to be a real mandatory obligation’.

Later sources attempt to explain it by referring to Deuteronomy (20:19), which compares a man to a tree. Just as the fruit of the tree must be left for three years (Leviticus 19:23), so the hair of the child is left until the beginning of his fourth year.

A beautiful story is circulating about how the great German scholar Rabbi S.R. Hirsch (the practice was unheard of in Germany) attended the opsher’n of the son of a Hungarian Jew who had settled in Frankfurt. The story even includes the inspirational speech apparently delivered by Rabbi Hirsch. Unfortunately, it is a hoax!

It seems likely that the practice of opsher’n was initially confined to Kabbalistic circles in the Galilee, but was then adopted by many Sephardim and later, Chassidim. It was unknown in communities of Western European origins and among non-Chassidic Eastern-European Jewry; the growing influence of Chassidic practice means that it has recently appeared among them too.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

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