It is good to get away from time to time, and I’ve been enjoying a bit of vacation. This week, I’ve spent some time with children and grandchildren, and had the opportunity of playing a first game of chess with one of my grandchildren, Hillel, which was a rare and special experience… and also taking part in the celebration of the first haircut of another grandchild, Aminadav.
According to our tradition, a boy has his first haircut at the age of three. And because of my personality, I don’t usually get to know my grandchildren very well at that age. I find it easier to relate to them when they’re a little more grown up, and we can share interests and have a good conversation; though there are always exceptions. In this case, I really didn’t know the lad at all, and I probably wouldn’t have written about the experience again, since I have already written about this type of occurrence in the past (though not on this blog). But because of the ongoing discussion on education, I thought it might be helpful to take a good look at the tradition, and what can be learned from it.
Our sages say, as a pregnant woman comes closer to the time of giving birth, it is good if she visits the study hall, so the sounds of study will be part of the earliest memories of the child. In the case of the haircut, often there are negative feelings associated with the experience. People have admired the child’s hair, and it has grown long in the first three years of the child’s life. In the case of Aminadav, he had some beautiful blond curls which were particularly attractive. And since it is our custom to cut the hair quite short, there is a sense of loss. I’ve seen children cry during the haircut. But fortunately, the party atmosphere, the getting of presents, and other pleasurable surprises, are usually able to turn the mood towards a positive experience.
In this case, a number of people very close to him, cut locks off his hair, and he was given a new skullcap, and a crown of leaves and flowers. And this is the time when we introduce him to the alphabet. His mother made a beautiful assortment of little cakes in the images of the letters of the alphabet, each one covered with honey, and he and his friends were each given an opportunity to eat one of these cakes. There was also a more conventional birthday cake, which itself was crowned with marshmallows. And he got his first four cornered shirt, the garment which has special knots ties to each of its four corners, and is usually worn only by older boys and adults.
This garment, mentioned in the old testament, is of particular interest, because it includes a blue thread which was traditionally tied together in a series of knots with the threads of the garment, symbolizing the intermingling of spirituality with the material needs of a person, and emphasizing that things spiritual need not be kept apart. All together, the experience is one of happiness, teaching the child that as he moves on from one chapter to the next, he takes leave of an earlier incarnation, but moves on to a still richer experience. In this case, there is the introduction to the written language, and to different signs and symbols which represent a more mature person.