The custom of ritualizing a son's first haircut at age three.

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Among Greek Catholics in Northern Syria, a collective shearing of twelve-year-old boys was held on April 23, a date that is intriguingly close to that of Lag Ba'omer.

Early descriptions of the Jewish hair-cutting ritual also stipulate that the hair should be weighed, and its equivalent in silver or gold donated to religious or charitable purposes. This element is also common to most of the non-Jewish versions of the practice.

Although the ritual came to be identified with the Lag Ba'omer festivities at Meron, the timing was subject to several variations. Many Sephardic Jews preferred to hold it in the synagogue during the intermediate days of Passover. In Yemen, a festive cutting of the bridegroom's curls was incorporated into wedding ceremonies. On that occasion, the couple's three-year-old relatives were also given their first hair-cuts.

In reality, the practice of offering one's hair for a religious purpose is a very ancient one, and was very widespread among the ancient Greeks. It was customary for youths in those days to shave their heads, or a particular lock that was grown for that purpose, as part of a coming-of-age rite, offering it to Apollo, Heracles or a river god. These rituals were frequently associated with boisterous carousing, and were singled out by the rabbis of the Talmud as idolatrous acts that should not be emulated or assisted by self-respecting Jews (even if they happened to be barbers).

The Kabbalistic and Hasidic circles that rediscovered these dubious customs many centuries later possessed a marvelous flare for providing ingenious proof-texts to justify them. A favorite precedent was the biblical law of orlah that forbids the eating of fruit until after the tree has passed its third year. An old midrashic text had drawn a general symbolic comparison between the fruit and a human child, inspiring later rabbis to extend the analogy to the child's first haircut, which marks a significant milestone in the development process.

Even cleverer was a tradition ascribed to Rabbi Isaac Luria himself, based on the Torah's procedures for purifying one afflicted with a skin disease. At a certain stage in the process, the Torah (Leviticus 13:33) requires that the patient's hair be shaved. The Hebrew word for "shave," vehitgaleah, is standardly written with an oversized gimel, a letter that has the numerical value of three. This calligraphic peculiarity was seized upon as a biblical mandate for the practice of cutting the hair of three-year-old boys.

Whether under the Arabic name halaqah or its Yiddish equivalent upsheren, the religious ceremonies for the first haircut were generally confined to specific communities of Sephardic Kabbalists or East European Hasidim. In recent years they have enjoyed a more general popularity.

As with many folk customs, it is difficult to draw precise lines between the diverse elements of pagan superstition, inter-religious borrowing, mystical secrets, and normative Jewish observance. The distinctions between these realms can be as thin as a hair.

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Eliezer Segal

Dr. Eliezer Segal is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary. A native of Montreal, he holds a PhD in Talmud from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of Holidays, History, and Halakhah, and many of his writings can be found on his personal website.