December 9, 2021 |

Lag Ba-Omer and Upsheren

As many of my dear readers already know, our youngest son Uriel's upsheren, or first haircut, will take place on Sunday May 16. He was born right before Shavuot and so this is also his third birthday party on the Jewish calendar. He's excited about having a party and getting his hair cut. (His hair is magnicificent and bountiful, but it is also always in the way.) He is also excited because he knows that an upsheren is not just a haircut or a birthday party, but also the beginning of his formal Jewish learning. Of course, he already goes to a lovely Jewish day care and imbibes the Jewishness of our home, so he has learned about some of the holidays, many blessings and songs and can say a beautiful Sh'ma in his sweet and high little-boy voice. But this is a formal step, a special celebration, as I will explain

The Jewish community has always been sustained by its powerful commitment to Jewish education. The Mishna in Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, chap 5) says: "a five year old to reading Torah, a ten year old to Mishna, a thirteen year old to mitzvot..." laying out a graduated curriculum for Jewish education. One begins by learning the written Torah (at 5 years), graduates to the Oral Torah (at 10 years) and then learns to combine responsibility for doing mitzvot with a life-long commitment to learning, i.e. bar-mitzva. (There are further steps, but we will discuss them at another time.) It is almost impossible to imagine a profound and meaningful Judaism without a continuous commitment to education and educational experiences.

The custom of upsheren is a later custom modeled after this educational concept. At around the age of three, a young child perfects their ability to speak and begins learning to read. They become ready to be introduced to the alef-bet, not just to sing it, but to recognize the letters that make up our holy Torah. Though we will probably use M and M's (less mess!), the custom was to put some honey on a wooden board with Hebrew letters carved into it. As the child identified each letter correctly, he got to lick the honey off, teaching from an early stage the sweetness of learning. Even communities that do not practice the haircut will often gather together the young children as they prepare to enter cheder, or pre-school, to celebrate and show the importance of the beginning of their Torah study.

In addition, a number of mitzvot are introduced to them for the first time. Usually, the custom was to give them their first pair of tzitzit (which symbolize the 613 commandments in the Torah), to put on a kippa and, to cut their hair, making "payis", i.e. leaving behind only their sideburns. The cutting of the hair may be connected to this or a formal 'cutting off' of early childhood and entering into the next educational phase of their lives.

Combining this with the child's new ability to speak is based on an extended agricultural metaphor. In the Torah, when a fruit tree is planted, its fruit is not eaten for the first three years. In the fourth year, its fruit is taken up to Jerusalem and eaten there in a religious celebration (kodesh hillulim) and , finally, in the fifth year, it is planted and harvested in regular fashion[1]. The growth of young children is compared to the growing of fruit trees in a number of Jewish sources and the fruits of their first three years are their imperfect words and sentences as they learn to speak. At the beginning of the fourth year (which is the third birthday), the new words that they begin to form should be dedicated as holy and enjoyed in a special context[2]. Thus, we celebrate by having them read and recite the alef-bet, to dedicate and enjoy their first 'official' words of Torah[3].

In recent times, an additional custom developed of going to Har Meron in Israel on Lag Ba-omer. This year, thousands of young boys who are around 3 years old will have their hair cut at or near the burial site of one of the greatest Torah teachers in history, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Rabbi Shimon, known as Rashbi, was one of the great intellects of the Talmud and a charismatic personality who, according to tradition, authored the Zohar (the primary text of Jewish mysticism) and spent 12 years in a cave with his son, delving into the secrets of the Torah while in hiding from the Roman authorities.

What is the connection between the upsheren, Lag Ba-omer and Rashbi?

Let's start with Lag Ba-omer. The omer period, which goes from Pesach to Shavuot, is a period of quasi-mourning. It was during this time, says the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) that the students of Rabbi Akiva - 24,000 of them - died. Thus, it became customary (in the time of the Geonim) not to get married or take a haircut during these days. But, according to some sources, the students stopped dying on Lag (which is 33 in hebrew letters) Ba-omer, the 33rd day. Thus, we stop our mourning on that day.[4] However, this does not explain why we celebrate.

Perhaps we celebrate because of the connection to Rashbi. Rashbi was a student of Rabbi Akiva, too, but he did not die during this period[5]. The reason seems to be a poignant reminder of pathos and courage in the life of Rabbi Akiva. In the same section of Talmud that deals with the death of Rabbi Akiva's students, a statement is recorded in his name: "Rabbi Akiva said: If one learned Torah in his youth, let him learn Torah in his old age. If one had students when he was young, let him have students in his old age, as it says (Kohelet 12): "in the morning, sow your seed, but in the evening, do not rest your hand."

What makes this so sad is that we know that Rabbi Akiva is not speaking from within the confines ofan ivory tower, but from the actual knowledge that his entire life-work, all his numerous students, were wiped out in one fell blow. What was Rabbi Akiva's response to this tragedy? The Talmud continues: "the world was desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our masters in the south and taught Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yosi, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamu'a. They were the ones that sustained the Torah in that time." After the death of his 24,000 students, Rabbi Akiva went back and raised up five new students who kept the Torah from dying out in that generation. One of these students - Rabbi Shimon - was none other than Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the Rashbi.

According to some sources (Tov Ayin 18:87), Rabbi Akiva actually chose the day of Lag Ba-omer as the day when he began to teach Rashbi the Torah, when he began to bring new Torah into the world to replace the old that had faded away.

Now, we can understand the whole picture. Rashbi represents the new student, the new generation. He represents the future of the Torah. Lag Baomer represents not only the end of mourning for the death of Torah students, but also the celebration of the renewal of the Torah in a time when it was threatened. What could be more appropriate than to bring the students of the future -- the fresh and innocent 3-year olds -- to the grave of Rashbi on Lag Ba-omer, to teach them and celebrate their first words of Torah!

Because Uriel was born right before Shavuot - and Shavuot is also the holiday of the giving of the Torah -- we chose to wait just a few more weeks to celebrate Uriel's upsheren. As we celebrate this Lag Ba-omer, though,we have already begun to practice the alef-bet with little Uri and to look forward to his own satisfaction in his first public role as a student of Torah. He's excited about it - as are Nadav, Rinat, Shira and I - and we hope that that excitement will carry forward through all his future Torah study. One day, we will take our children to the grave of the Rashbi and teach them about how he and Rabbi Akiva saved the Torah. We hope it will mean as much to them - and their children - as it does to us.

Shabbat shalom and happy Lag Baomer!

[1] The original custom of starting a child on Torah at 5 years old, as mentioned in Avot, may come from the fifth year of this cycle. The Biblical source for this is Leviticus 19:23-25.
[2] If we had a beit hamikdash Temple), perhaps we would bring the three year olds there for this ceremony.
[3] See Shu't Rav Ovadia Yosef, Yechaveh Da'at 5:35
[4] There are varying customs. Sephardim generally wait until the 34th day and some Chassidim consider the 'mourning' to also be a way of spiritually preparing for the giving of the Torah on Shavuot and do not stop their preparations even on the 33rd day.
[5] There is an alternative tradition that says that, at the end of his life, he DID die on Lag Ba-omer, which became his yahrtzeit. Many people call Lag Baomer the "hillula" (celebration) of Rashbi, based on this. Rav Ovadia Yosef connects this yahrtzeit celebration to the "hillulim" of eating the new tree's fruit in the fourth year. Perhaps the explanation of this is similar to what I outline at the end of this dose.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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