When our son Yadid approached the age of three, I began to think about the Jewish tradition of upshurin, when a boy’s hair is cut for the first time on his third birthday. I grew up in a family where this was not practiced. But in my own home, where an Orthodox rabbi (me) and a Reform cantor (my wife, Adina H. Frydman) are raising children in a loving Jewish mélange, it started to look like a potentially amazing and meaningful ritual.
Research into the halakhic roots of the tradition got me even more interested. I discovered the links between upshurin and the agricultural laws of orla, which forbids harvesting from a fruit tree within its first three years, and pe’a, which requires a farmer to leave a corner of his field aside for the poor. Parallel to this, a boy’s hair is left uncut for the same period of time (three years), and when it is cut we are required to leave pe’ot, corners (side locks). At three years of age, like a fruit tree, a Jewish boy is considered to have reached a landmark. With diapers out of the way, and with his consciousness developing, he is considered ready for learning, wearing tzitzit, and his first haircut.
But I felt that interest alone in the custom was not a good enough reason for us to perform it. Would we even consider this if we had a daughter? But then we began to think about how we could make the upshurin into a full-blown mitzvah that we would want to perform for our children regardless of gender. For us, mitzvot are not just doing what is right or not doing what is wrong according to some other worldly law. Our ideal is to model commitments that are personally meaningful, universally relevant, and distinctively Jewish.
That is how we got the idea to have Yadid wait past his third birthday to get his hair cut. Yadid was going to wait until his hair was long enough to donate. Instead of a strange tradition performed by rote, it would become a religious experience of giving.
I am not sure if he understood at first. But at that time he was undergoing a shift from mere repeater to becoming an understanding being and Yadid began to develop a language of altruism. At the party we finally had for him when he was three and a half, his grandmother gave him a tzedaka box, which he began to fill. I asked him why, and he said that when he had hair he gave it to someone who needed it, likewise when he had money he would give it someone in need.
If I have to put my finger on what raising children as Jews means for us, it is this. The community, its history and laws are not just a backdrop to the bedlam of parenting. In this case, they provided a way of getting Yadid to think, before he was even aware he was doing so, about what it means to live a halakhic moral existence. We look forward to repeating this ritual with his brother Yishama and his sister Emunah. Our upshurin has provided us with a platform for a discussion with a three-year-old about what it means to be a mentsh.