Appearances can be deceiving. Take little children, for instance. “What a pretty little girl” might be a misplaced compliment in many traditional communities where it is customary to refrain from cutting a boy’s hair until his third birthday. Among Ashkenazim, this custom is commonly known as upsherin, which is Yiddish for “shearing-off.” However, the Sephardim (among whom the custom most probably originated) call it chalakah (Arabic for haircut).
The oldest record of this custom is in the writing of Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543 - 1620), who wrote that his teacher, Rabbi Isaac Luria (Ha'Ari) “Cut his son’s hair on Lag Ba'omer, according to the well-known custom.”
This custom is often related to orlah, the Biblical law that requires that a fruit tree remain unharvested for its first three years (Leviticus 19:23). Jewish tradition often compares people to trees in that they mature into adults and their good deeds are their fruit.
This custom is specific to boys because boys are obligated in the positive, time-bound commandment of learning Torah. (Women, however, are definitely commended and encouraged to learn as much as possible.)
While there is no defined ritual for upsherin/chalakah, the most common customs are:
(1) The first cut is where the tefillin usually rests (center forehead). Many times family and friends will then take turns with the remaining cuts.
(2) The child is given sweets in the shape of the aleph-bet (Hebrew alphabet) or licks honey off Hebrew letters so that he will associate Torah learning with sweetness.
(3) Many parents, especially those whose sons’ birthdays are during Sefirat Ha’Omer, will wait until Lag Ba’omer to cut the boys’ hair. In Israel, there is a popular custom to take the children to Mount Meron, where Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, author of the Zohar is buried, and perform the ceremony there with great fanfare.
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