“Upshern”: Shmulik’s First Haircut

We often fail to see anything remarkable in the commonplace.

But wait (I hear you thinking),  isn’t that all but obvious? How could it possibly be otherwise? “Commonplace”, by definition, means unremarkable!

Well, not so fast. Yes, one can define the word that way. But by another, equally valid definition, to say that something is commonplace simply means that it occurs fairly frequently and with some regularity.

When we take the commonplace for granted, we are confusing those two definitions. Just because something occurs frequently and regularly doesn’t mean that it is unremarkable.

Take the rising and the setting of the sun, for example. It’s hard to find anything as regular as those; so much so, in fact, that many if not most of us have come to take them quite for granted. But our rabbis of antiquity — say what you will about them, but it was not their way to take anything for granted — established the mentioning of the daily movements and phases of the sun (and other astronomical phenomena) as cornerstones of our daily prayers, integral adjuncts to the twice-daily recitation of the Shema, the most fundamental expression of faith in Judaism.

(That all life — including and especially our very own — depends directly and unconditionally on the sun is something most of us don’t think about from day to day. But if the sun were to stop shining for any significant length of time, all plant photosynthesis on our planet would cease, and there would be nothing to eat, and you can imagine what the result would be.)

OK, then, but how about a haircut? How remarkable is a haircut, really?

Or, for that matter, the fact that we have hair at all? From a purely biological standpoint, one would be hard pressed to show that hair is a contributing factor to human survival in any sense. In the animal world, hair — a.k.a. fur — protects from heat and cold, and is in fact a critical factor for survival. But for humans this is hardly the case.

In our western culture, generally speaking, hair appears to serve a mostly cosmetic function. Cosmetic, but hardly unimportant, that is. For even if beauty is only skin-deep, let’s not forget that skin is the largest organ in the human body. And physical beauty, like skin, plays a pivotal role in human existence, including, not least, in the very perpetuation of our species.

In particular, hair-care products and services are a multi-billion dollar industry in the modern, western world.

But notice that it is the result and not the process of hair care that receives the focus in our culture. When a woman shows off her latest haircut or hairdo, for example, she presents the result as a fait accompli for all to see and marvel at. But she does not post on YouTube a video of her latest visit to the hairdresser. For as we just wrote, it is the result, not the process, that is offered, with much pride, for consideration.

Now, as we all know, the situation is rather different when our very youngest children are involved. Baby’s first steps, baby’s first words, baby’s first day at nursery school — all these are events that captivate our attention and earn those events nothing less than considerable fanfare. Because to baby everything is so new and novel that there is hardly any reason to distinguish between process and result. For baby, everything is so new — and ipso facto special — that the event will be captured forever in our memories, and very frequently on camera as well.

And so it is for baby’s first haircut. It is an opportunity to celebrate yet another fresh milestone in the development of another spanking new (not literally, of course) human being.

That is, until the child grows and matures a bit more, and the monthly or bi-monthly haircuts eventually advance from novelty to ritual to commonplace and, eventually, to being entirely routine and unremarkable.

All this brings us back to Shmulik’s big day, the day of his upshern, a Yiddish word meaning, roughly, “cutting off,” but of hair, specifically. Like so many Yiddish words, “upshern” appears to have its roots in German (a language with which this writer has only a passing familiarity). But what seems noteworthy is the “up” aspect of the shearing. There is some implication that the cutting is not merely (as we would say in English) a cutting off, but, rather that the cutting serves some higher, “up”ward purpose.

And so, it’s time to ask, what does the Torah have to say about hair and haircuts. Well, a number of things in a number of places in the Torah, although these are not altogether numerous. But being a good Torah detective means looking for clues in whatever places we can find them, however few those places may be.

Maybe you know what a nazir is. The Torah in chapter six of the book of Bemidbar (also known as Numbers) describes the vow of a “nazir,” a Hebrew word that has no real English equivalent, and is therefore usually translated (or, shall we say, simply left untranslated) as “nazirite”.

A nazir is an adult Jew who undertakes a vow of “separation” or “consecration” (which is what the Hebrew root N-Z-R literally means), that is, a –usually temporary– separation from the larger community (in a figurative, if not the literal sense).

The Torah very specifically prescribes that such a “consecration” is effected by abstinence from three particular things:

1. Consumption of wine (or any grape product that could be further processed into intoxicating beverage);

2. Cutting, managing, or caring for one’s hair; and

3. Defilement of the self through contact with the dead.

The general idea, clearly, is that a person undertaking such a vow (which most typically last for thirty days, although longer periods of any length are possible, if explicitly specified) is in some sense separating himself from communal life and earthly affairs in order to become closer to God. And his abstinence from the three things enumerated above facilitates that increased Godliness. This is an idea that for us takes some getting used to, although in the context of ancient Judaism those connections were probably more immediately apparent and “natural.” In fact, an entire tractate (book) of the Talmud, Nazir, is devoted to explicating the details and meaning of such a vow.

Thus, nezirut (nazirhood) is essentially a form of asceticism. Now, the Torah is not all that keen on asceticism to begin with. And in fact, in the very situation under discussion here, our tradition actually calls the nazir a sinner for having deprived himself of the pleasures of drinking wine.

Judaism is not a religion of separating oneself from society, but of acting honorably and constructively within it.

There is a good reason, after all, that there are no monasteries in Judaism.

But the Torah is willing, albeit not without reluctancy, to give the nazir his thirty days, or whatever period the nazir has chosen, if he feels that that is what he needs to promote his own Godliness.

All three abstentions enumerated earlier seem to contribute to one fundamental idea: The nazir wishes to distance himself from the general flow of human society. He eschews intoxicating beverages (which in ancient times were generally manufactured from grapes), thus removing himself from one of the very most common social activities that brings people together, or in which they engage once together. He refrains from coming in contact with a corpse, the end-product of human existence in its most earthy, extreme, and final form. And he refrains from cutting or even maintaining or caring for his hair in any way; this gives him a physical appearance that sets him apart from the crowd, and not unlikely makes them want to distance themselves from him — mentally, at least.

For the sake of comparison: A mourner in Judaism must likewise refrain from haircut and shaving. After the death of a parent, that period lasts “until his friends reprimand him.” That is, until they take him to task for attempting to move in otherwise polite society with such a thoroughly unkempt appearance.

And so the nazir, too, repudiates normal human contact for the sake of a self-imposed holiness. This is what his unshorn, unshaven state represents: withdrawal from normal society (for the sake of pursuing a higher reality… or so he hopes).

At the end of the period of his vow, the Torah prescribes that the nazir must bring a sacrifice in the Bet ha-Mikdash (the Temple in Jerusalem). We have not had such a Temple for close on two thousand years, but back in the day, the requirements of the Torah to bring sacrifices for various life events were routinely acknowledged and observed.

But here is where the nazir’s sacrificial offering gets interesting! Because the nazir is ordained, as a part of his end-of-nazirhood ritual, to do as follows. Let’s quote directly from the Torah (Numbers 6:18):

“And the Nazirite shall shave his consecrated head at the door of the Tent of the Meeting. And he shall take the hair of his consecrated head, and put it on the fire which is under the sacrifice of Peace Offerings.”

It would seem that here we have something that is truly unique in Jewish sacrificial procedure, to the elucidation of which no less than a full sixth of the Mishnah and Talmud are dedicated. Namely, that a person bringing a sacrifice must offer, in addition, some part of his body that has been removed, to be included with the sacrifice, and burnt by the very fire that consumes the flesh of the animal sacrifice.

Note, too, where the haircut takes place — at the door of the Tent of the Meeting. The nazir is shorn not at home, nor in Luigi’s Barber Shop, to bring his severed locks after the fact in a Ziplock bag to the Temple. Rather, his celebratory haircut takes place on the very premises of the Sanctuary.

All this would seem to impart an air of sanctity not only to the hair itself that is being cut, but to the very act of the haircutting.

But why? Isn’t it just a haircut, and just hair? How and why have the commonplace suddenly become remarkable? The Torah is quite restrictive as to who can gain access to the Temple grounds, and what foreign matter can be brought there. And yet, the Torah demands (let’s read it again, for precision):

“And the Nazirite shall shave his consecrated head at the door of the Tent of the Meeting. And he shall take the hair of his consecrated head, and put it on the fire which is under the sacrifice of Peace Offerings.”

Some fundamental ideas that seem to emerge from the Written Torah’s prescriptions for the nazir and his vow, and the Oral Torah’s completion of same, are as follows.

An individual is allowed, but not really encouraged, to undertake a vow of deprivation and separation from the community, if he does it in the name of increased holiness, and by following the rules laid out in the Torah for such a vow.

And as concerns the nazir’s abstention from haircutting and hair care, specifically, this is seen as ipso facto setting him apart from the larger society, inasmuch as it eventually gives the nazir a wild physical appearance that is in some sense counter-social, if not actually anti-social.

By emphasizing the conclusion of the nazir-vow period, and the sacrifices prescribed for that event, by requiring that the very act of the haircut that marks the end of the vow be performed on the Temple grounds, and that the nazir’s “hair of his consecrated head” be consumed in the fire togther with his temple offering, perhaps the Torah is saying:

“Indeed, nazir, we respect and value your vow, and the hardships you have endured during this period to raise your own spiritual consciousness. Your deprivations and efforts at self-improvement have not gone unnoticed, and they are nothing less than holy to God and to the Jewish people!

“And yet…!

“Ours is not a religion of separation from society, but of interaction with it. Your time has finally come to conclude your holy nazirhood, and to resume instead your interactions with your holy brethren, the Jewish people, and with the world at large. To do that you must, inter alia, restore your physical appearance to one that is conducive to such normal social interaction, which can only benefit the community as a whole, by virtue of the contributions that you, with your now increased sense of spirit and of self, can make to the Jewish people and to the world. Go to it, young (former) nazir!”

Well, Shmulik has not been quite following all of this, and he wants to know what it all has to do with him, anyway.

Thanks for hanging in there, Shmulik. Now about you.

For a newborn baby there is of course no presumption of interaction with the community. For the first years of his life, those interactions are almost exclusively with parents, immediate family members, and other caretakers.

Nor is anyone too concerned during that period about baby’s successes at achieving even a minimum standard of personal cleanliness. For they know and understand that that, too, is a work in progress. Nor is the community overly concerned how overgrown baby’s hair may have become, imparting to him an appearance that would otherwise — for adults, that is — be socially unacceptable, or, at best, socially awkward.

But now, baby is no longer a baby, having already attained the ripe old age of three! (The customary age of upshern.) Well, Bar mitzvah, the age of full adulthood according to the Torah, is of course still a full decade away. But even so, the child slowly begins to appear in society as an entity in his own right, expanding his social circles ever so gradually, even if that means, to start, mostly interacting with other children of the same or similar age, but embarking, with faltering first steps, on the path of acquiring those social skills that are an absolute necessity for the interactions that the Torah considers the normal and requisite mode (except for a nazir) of functioning as a Jewish adult.

And so the Torah addresses itself to our Shmulik, and to all our precious Jewish children who find themselves at this stage of life:

“By this haircut I hereby pronounce you no longer a baby whose immediate physical needs render irrelevant any considerations of fitness to appear in “polite” Jewish society. Not by your choice, but by that of your parents, and the Torah whose word they hold sacred, your initial period of “nazirhood” is hereby concluded. Shave your hair at the doorway of the Jewish temple! And this means: at the inception of the holy Jewish life that you are about to build. Put that period of “separation” from society behind you, because — as necessary as that special period of your life was for your initial development — you are now, ever so gradually, with quasi-adult steps, and no longer baby steps, embarking on your long journey of entering the Jewish community (and the world community) — for your ultimate benefit, and all of theirs as well.”

Mazal tov, Shmulik!


(Bloggers note:  Other interpretations of the “upshern” custom, including its well-known Kabbalistic and Hasidic associations, can be found in contemporary authentic Jewish sources and resources, to which the reader is assumed to have ready and easy access.)