celebrating a haircut

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a little cake made of letters

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.

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the birthday boy

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.

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the children about to eat

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.

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two cousins

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.

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the birthday cake

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.

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75 responses to “celebrating a haircut

  1. An interesting post as every Shimon. I wasn’t aware of this tradition of not cutting the hair until the age of three. I had heard of the four cornered shirt though.

    Due to budgetary constraints when I was growing up, my Dad did all the haircutting in our household. My Mum told me recently that for the first few months of this, we had to be taken out in balaclavas. I don’t remember the first haricut but I do remember the balaclava, a hideously itchy garment knitted my my Grandmother.

    Thankfully my Dad’s skill level increased over time and I didn’t visit a barber shop until I was 14, a coming of age moment in itself for me.

    It must have been very pleasureable playing your first chess game with Hillel, a wonderful moment I am sure.

    Thank you for your post Shimon, I learnt new things and was reminded of an episiode from my own childhood that brought a smile to my face. What more could one ask.

    • Thank you very much, Chillbrook. Your experiences as a young boy are similar to a few stories I’ve heard of a certain discomfort in that area. I think even going to a legitimate barber could often be uncomfortable. And yes, it was fascinating to meet, mind to mind with Hillel over a chess game. One is very aware of the other’s abstract thought. He’s a bit young to be a real challenge, but even so, I enjoyed it very much. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  2. all new to me Shimon – very interesting, thanks for sharing that

    • Glad you found it interesting, bodhisattva. Especially, these days, with constant change around us, and western culture constantly taking on new forms… I think it’s interesting to look at old cultures.

  3. Beautiful children! I love the way you blend the personal, cultural and spiritual together.

  4. The photographs are delightful, Shimon, and the beauty of this ritual, with all the integration of meanings regarding transformation and the marriage of one’s spirituality/metaphysical “truths” with the physical is so powerful and rich. Thank you. Joy to your grandson, his parents, and to you.

    • Thank you very much Catherine. Sometimes, I see an urgency in the west, to exchange everything ‘old’ with an ipad and the internet… and it seems to me we’re throwing a lot of precious traditions out. One can learn at a very early age to be comfortable with spiritual awareness too, and the act of learning… that is what is most precious to me.

  5. I like the idea of celebrating the first haircut and all the tradition that goes along with it. You have very interesting culture and I like that you’re willing to share it with us.

    • In a way, I was lucky, in that I found my way to western culture without really giving up my own ancient culture, and enjoy them both. So here, I’m trying to share an awareness of both; searching out what seems important in both.

  6. Thanks for sharing the joys of a cultural celebration!

    • As you know, Frank, I’m thinking a lot these days, about the problems of western education, and this was something of an aside, about how we integrate education into the most banal every day experiences.

  7. I loved reading this and learning a little bit about your culture. I love how those close to the child will cut locks. Such meaning in every little detail. Glad there is a party to help turn the mood around! Although, my daughter begged me to get a haircut (she’s almost three) and I cried when they cut off her curls 🙂 Thank you so much for sharing 🙂

    • Glad you found the post interesting and enjoyable. I’ve been writing about education, recently, and I thought that this would contribute something to thoughts on early education. There seems to be a lot of resistance to schools and study in the west, and I think another path is possible, not that I’m recommending our ancient traditions to others… !

  8. Since I know about the custom, I’m going to be the first who’s not necessarily thrilled. Why do we do that only to the boys? We’re perpetuating a culture, rich in symbolism indeed, and sometimes exquisitely beautiful, where men still get preferential treatment, where they can study and their wives work day and night taking care of five, eight children? I remember friends who were always dead tired, who never had a break, and it broke my heart.

    • I’m sure there are women who are always tired and never get a break, but as there are coal miners in some places, and factory workers in others, who never get a break, and die young from overwork. But your description of those friends is not at all like the society I grew up in, or the lives of my children and grandchildren. I can understand why some people might be offended by the ‘preferential’ treatment of men. I, myself, have certain criticisms of my society. But I would ask you, why are almost all the serial killers in your society men? I think there’s good reason for treating men differently from women, without depriving women of what they need.

      • I couldn’t agree more, and the issue of gender and serial killers is one that I’ve been thinking about a lot. However, in Orthodox Judaism, as well as in other religions men do get preferential treatment and not only a “different” treatment. I’m not opposed to treating men differently than women, as we are inherently different. I’m opposed to having so many life rituals that focus on boys and men, which ultimately create not only a difference but a preference.
        I see so many women who are insecure in ways that are so different than men, that I cannot believe that that it is all gender and genetics and not societal.
        I know that in Judaism there is a lot of respect for the wife (Eshet Chail Mi Im’tza) but for a girl growing up in a religious community, there are no rituals which are as significant as her brother’s.
        I’m sure that in your family the men help the women etc. However, the fact that there are coal miners who die young does not necessarily mean that we shouldn’t change that as well.

        • Preferential treatment is a question of values. You might say that a man getting up in a bus for a pregnant woman is also preferential treatment. Your argument seems influenced by the mind set and propaganda of people who do not really know our society, are distant from our values, and employ stereotypes to slander us.. the subject is certainly worth an in depth discussion, but not necessarily about your personal friends who were worn out from having too many children.

          • A correction: When I studied at the Hebrew U. many many years ago, I studied Rabbinic literature (Sifrut Halacha vemusar, actually I wrote a paper on Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Pol’nea), and I used to go to Meah Shearim quite a lot, to get books, and to visit some of my friends. I befirended some book sellers, who were only males at that time, and I actually had a lot of exposure to the religious community. I do not parrot what the critics are saying, although I agree with some of what they’re saying (definitely about military service). BTW I used to get up and give my seat in the bus to pregnant women, old women AND men, disabled women AND men. I still do, even though nowadays I am the old woman.

            • Thank you for your comment.

              • I hope my comments are not upsetting to you. My hope is that within the plethora of loving comments, there’s also room for dissent, without damage.

            • You can be sure that your comments are not upsetting me. I have no problem with dissent, criticism, or listening to different views. In the case of our disagreement here, I realized that the discussion could go on for a very long time, and I didn’t think that this post was the right place. I have studied and taught in the academic world, and lived in the orthodox community, and studied in Seminaries (Yeshivas), and I know the vast difference between the world of art and artists, and what gets taught in art courses in the University. It’s a different world. Perhaps someday we’ll talk about it. Perhaps we’ll trade ideas on social awareness, as seen from the two sides of the barricade, the religious Jewish world, and the secular ‘enlightened’ world. Feel free to make any comment.

  9. Another culture-rich encounter, beautiful sharing of a life so different than mine. Thank you, Shimon.

  10. This format is different than previous episodes Shimon. I wonder of the change. Like some few others up there, Most of this is new to me. I didn’t know about the haircutting at 3. I do remember my first haircut and don’t remember my age at the time. They had a board placed across the arms of the usual barbers chair and that lead me to remember the occurrence. I do think that this might hold some children back if they don’t know the alphabet till after age 3. I love the idea of the flowered crown. I don’t know what a cornered shirt is and would ask what are the 4 subjects they learn. Here, it is becoming more common for the mother to listen to Mozart during her pregnancy in the hopes that it will advance the newborns learning skills. I think it might actually have some positive effect. I have always been attracted to and love playing with children. The horror of pedophiles is so sad that I have to be very careful and definitely open to parents and others views. I play Santa every year with wonderful experiences on both sides. I once had the experience of being with about 15 or so kids around 10 yrs old. We used our hands and a very little bit of English to communicate. I did not speak their language and one child spoke very little English. We “communicated” for over an hour with lots of laughs and giggles. In almost every instance of such nature, I show them how to make faces and make unusual hand manipulations to encourage their own creativity. I know it helps.

    • Hi Bob. Without even noticing it, you were directed this time, to a different blog platform, where my blog continues as it has in the past. I am presently supported by wordpress, after encountering some problems in my previous place. I think I’ve seen pictures of a child sitting on a board the way you describe. I love the idea of mothers listening to Mozart. I’m sure it’s very pleasant for the mother too. I can understand the horror of pedophiles. But it seems to me that the Americans, and most of the west often exaggerate their reactions to unpleasant problems. I’ve seen pictures of you as Santa Claus with children on your lap, and just loved them. I admire your capacity and talent to relate to little children. Perhaps because of my own unhappy childhood, I lost that talent… if I ever had it.

  11. Hello Shimon,

    I have linked up to you via my blogspot blog site…easy and swift. 🙂

    In the secular world as I have experienced it, (it may be, and have been different for others) the first haircut is sometimes celebrated by the hairdresser giving a special A4 certificate of the first haircut for boys and girls, age is not specific. Attached to the certificate is a little clear plastic bag with a curl or two in it. The accompanying parent, usually mum, may keep a lot more curls in a separate envelope. This would be a very individual thing. What does this tell us? It indicates much the same emotions you describe in your interesting post.

    To avoid major upset on the part of the child – not always possible at the beginning of the snipping of the scissors – there is the certificate of ‘achievement’ to look forward to. Adults may see it as a rite of passage for the child, however, I do not think it is a foremost thought. It is more likely to be an emotional rite of passage for the parent/s.

    Unfortunately, from what I have noted, the celebration of the first hair cut in the manner I describe, is not a general event. I have often heard a ‘bribe’ being offered in the form of a sweet bar if John or Jane are really good (and brave). Sometimes the children might be offered an outing. It makes the whole process less of an uncomfortable event for the adult.

    Learning about the whys and wherefores of your grandchild’s hair cutting ceremony is a real insight into another perspective on life.

    As always, instructive photos.

    Menhir

    http://www.myword1.blogspot.co.uk

    • Thank you Menhir, for finding me here. I have finally managed to subscribe to your blog too, so we’ll be able to keep in touch. That is very interesting about getting a certificate of haircut. I really laughed when my old mother got a certificate from the state, commending her on reaching 100 years of age. I suppose such forms of recognition are quite common now. For me, and this is the reason I did this post, what is important here, is that we introduce the child to education as part of dealing with the banalities of life. But aside from that, it is certainly good that the child enjoy the occasion, and doesn’t have to suffer. Thanks for your comment.

  12. The link to your new site worked fine. Sorry the old one was so troublesome, and hope this one works well for you.
    Thank you for an interesting post. I always enjoy the photos.

    • Very glad that you were able to make the move to the new blog site easily, Anne. I value your company. Glad you enjoyed the photos. And thank you very much for your good wishes.

  13. what a delightful photo of your grandson, and thank you for sharing this glimpse into the cermonial significance of the first haircut, and the four cornered shirt … always a pleasure to see your insights into some of the cultural events from your corner of the world, and your lovely photos

    • Thank you, N. I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about the modern education system, and I thought it might interest some, to take a look at older customs. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  14. I remembered my son’s first haircut, actually we don’t have any tradition al way for this… Seems that there was a great fun with the children… How lovely they are all… I wished to be a child again 🙂 Crazy me!

    Thank you dear Shimon, congratulations Birthday Boy and Good Luck for his life… Have a nice weekend, Blessing and Happines, love, nia

    • I can assure you, my dear Nia, that I have no nostalgia for childhood. But I do enjoy seeing the young, when they are positive and happy, learning, and enjoying their lives. Thank you very much for your blessings.

  15. What a beautiful little boy celebrating this very special day! I love learning about other faiths, cultures, and traditions and your pictures make it so fun! I wish that more celebrations in the West had meaning behind them. So much of the significance has been lost and has given way to celebration being the focus rather than the expression of the day. This is a wonderful way to recognize a young child has grown past his baby days and ways and is joining the ranks of older children. Everyone should have special events to remember, this is awesome. I look forward to learning more as I follow along on your blog!

    • I’ve heard the expression ‘empty ceremony’ used in the West. And I think that happens when the society undergoes meaningful changes, but the ceremony, and even the spiritual awareness doesn’t accommodate those changes. When people do things out of a sense of obligation, they don’t really feel connected. Sometimes, even common manners seem out of place. I think it’s time that we started reexamining the conventions in our lives. Thank you very much for your comment, Josie.

  16. A lovely post Shimon, filled with tradition and a loving sense of family. Thank you.

  17. What struck me most about each of these wonderful photos was the vibrant sense of community. I gazed at each photo, a glimpse into another world with great delight and interest noticing the antics of the children, the warm capable efficiency of the women. It is a most beautifully poignant cultural practice of a pregnant mother introducing the sounds of study to her yet unborn child. This significant custom reveals such a great care for the life one brings into the world and that education is the cornerstone to the very lifeblood of your culture Shimon. Thank you for sharing such gems of your rich and ancient heritage. Yuen

    • And thank you very much, Yuen. I’ve been thinking a lot about education lately, and it was in this context that I wrote about the ceremony. It’s true that our society is a bit more collective, and so it is easier to integrate education into the life of the young. But because learning is so important to us, I think there are some things about our culture (not the ceremonies, but the relationships) that might help to find answers in the West too. Thank you for your comment.

  18. Kathryn Braithwaite

    Beautiful

  19. This speaks to me of the value of ritual and tradition. Sometimes we need to throw one out or modify it, but then we should create new ones and maintain those that work. In a world that clamors for new, new, new; sometimes we need something old and true.

    • Yes, I agree yearstricken. I don’t really think that we need something old. But I do think it’s worth our while to study the functions of old traditions and ceremony, in order to learn how to adapt culturally to the fast moving changes in modern society. The old traditions may look ridiculous to a new generation, but such things as manners and respect could be delicately and subtly expressed in every time and place.

  20. Shimon, I’m so glad that you chose to write this pleasant and informative post! I really loved hearing about these traditions—which are all new to me.

    What a delightful photograph of Aminadav! All the kids appear to have had a great time at this event!

    I’m glad to hear that you had a chance to “match wits” with your grandson in a game of chess. I’m sure both of you enjoyed that experience! I wonder if he was able to challenge you?

    A very enjoyable post!

    • Hi there George. Glad you enjoyed this. The kids did have a great time. And what I’m after, in this post, is the integration between education and social custom in my society, looking for some answers to the break down in education in the West. It was a lot of fun, playing chess with my grandson, because in chess you get to see how someone’s mind works in the abstract. He’s still a bit young to really challenge me, but it was a bit like having a conversation of sorts… and quite a pleasure.

  21. Dear Shimon, I found this post very moving. I always enjoy it when you share parts of your life and your culture, but it was also very sweet to see loving parents and children celebrating life. Thank you for sharing.

  22. I am absolutely charmed and I have little lump in my throat. Because in India we celebrate exactly the same occasion. We call it “Mundan” and it is only for the boys. Little Hindu boys experience exactly the same emotional upheavals as the Jewish ones and have to be diverted with a lovely party and lots of sweets. But we don’t have the alphabet cakes, which would be wonderful. If i were still back in India, I would bake some for the next little one facing the shears.
    And the idea of the knotted blue thread being woven through the special garment to remind us of the fusion of spirituality with the material world is so beautiful and powerful. There is an ancient pagan prayer which touched my heart when i read it many years ago …. “let there be mirth and reverence within you”. I never forgot that one line. The idea of spirituality infusing everything is the secret to finding our places in the physical world.

    Beautiful.post, Shimon ….

    • Mirth and reverence within us sounds like a wonderful message. And thank you very much for informing me of Mundan, which is something I haven’t heard of till now. And it does make me smile to think of such common experiences, despite the distance and the different cultures. Thank you so much for your comment, nikkitytom.

  23. I love the pictures and your words – I always love hearing about your traditions and everything. Good luck here in your new blog home!

  24. Fascinating insight into tradition

  25. I found this really interesting and a great idea. I love how the first haircut is made into such a positive experience and the cakes sound great too. Lovely pictures. Thanks for sharing this. 🙂

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, livesinstone. What I was trying to show, in the context of my articles on education, is how values are imparted to the very young as part of the day to day life in the material world.

  26. I hope the girls also get introduced to letters of the alphabet at 3…

    • Hi there, Lisaman. The simple answer to your question, is no. We treat boys and girls differently, hoping to satisfy the needs of both, but believing those needs are different too. But let me share my own experience with you. Two of my five children are women. One is a medical doctor. The other had two careers; first as a successful chef, and afterwards he established a Montessori kindergarten, and operates workshops in communication. Both of them have been married to their first husbands for over 20 years, and have children of their own. I believe my girls have benefited as much as my boys from the education they received.

  27. Shimon – thank you for sharing the traditions. Like many above, I was not aware of the nuances, which are intriguing.

    My parents do have pictures of my first haircut. No tradition, just a trip to the barber. From what I remember from the pictures, I was not pleased.

    • Well Bill, even though you weren’t pleased at the time. I have the feeling it wasn’t a major trauma… since I know you don’t have a pony tail down your back to your waist… I remember that I wasn’t really pleased myself. Always good to see you.

  28. Thank you for sharing these wonderful photos of your family, and sharing the tradition.

  29. Hi Shimon! I enjoyed this post. You’ve shown the beauty of tradition, and it’s something that a family takes pride in. I really must learn to cook so that I can carry on my mother’s recipes! Chess – I like that. I wish I learned how to play such an intelligent game at a young age! Thank you for sharing!

    • And thank you, Marina, for your kind words. It is a pleasure to share a bit of our world… though in this case my interest was in pointing out that education can be a part of the early attitudes to day to day life.

  30. Fascinating glimpses into life Shimon, thank you. And what a wonderful way to be introduced to reading, with alphabet cakes !

    • Thank you, Claire. Glad you liked the post. There are a number of ways the young child is introduced to the written language, and I believe that it associates learning with pleasure and happiness.

  31. I have resurrected my blog here just to keep in touch with yours..and some of the people who commented seem very interesting too..Kathryn

  32. My account must have an error in it as the link won’t work but I do have a WordPress blog with user name katzideas..I shall leave it like this as it’s time consuming

  33. I still don’t know how I feel about this beautiful little boy who lost his curls. 🙂 I hope he still gets hugs and kisses and lap time as he learns what is expected of him as a big boy. I told you that I read one Jewish mother’s story of the haircut in which she had mixed feelings about the expected transition from babyhood. I think it is a cultural thing, and I do think that children accept whatever we set as the norm for them.

    Boy’s first haircut was simply a matter of grooming. His hair grew over his eyes and he looked absolutely ragged. He sat on his mom’s lap, and I took photographs of every snip! He was about two years old. I lost all of the photos in the “crash” as you know.

    Both Kelli and Boy are only children. Perhaps that is the reason for the difference in our child rearing philosophies … which differs from most American philosophy too. With one child, parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts have the luxury to devote full attention. In large families, the children have to grow up much faster, I think. You can only hold so many babies on one lap! The same was true of my mother’s generation. Then, children had to grow up to make room for the next ones. My dad started to work building roads with his big brothers when he was nine years old.

    The haircut celebration is a fine tradition. I think that it is comparable to a kid’s first day at school in this country. He knows clearly what is expected of him. That cannot be a negative thing. I loved the photographs of the children. They are beautiful children having such fun. I think we have lost many of the old traditions, and that is a little sad.

    When you see Aminadav again, please give him a big hug for me and tell him that your friends from around the world celebrated his haircut too! 🙂

    • My opinion is that Aminadav has it pretty good. He certainly has loving parents, brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles. Most of the children that I know are anxious to explore new avenues, to learn new things. Each child is different in his own way. To me, it seems a great advantage having a peer group. And single children seem to need a lot more attention, and at the same time, they’re often at a disadvantage, because the personalities of the adults around them seem to tower over them. But I suppose we see things from a different perspective. Thank you very much for the hug, George. I’ll be sure to pass it on.

  34. Looks like you have quite a tribe! Nice! We live all in one household, so I don’t have a lot of grandchildren, but I know them both very well.

    • Numbers don’t matter much. Getting to know and appreciate another human being is always what’s most important. I have grandchildren who are still babies, and others who are already grown up, and each one is a separate individual and unique. May you have much joy from yours.

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