The custom of ritualizing a son's first haircut at age three.
Reprinted with permission of the author from the Jewish Free Press (May 3, 2001).
The classical Jewish sources offer some definite guidelines about how to cut a child's hair, but say virtually nothing about when this procedure should be carried out. For example, the Torah prohibited the shaving of the sideburns, and the Talmudic discussion concerned itself with the precise definition of what counts as a sideburn for purposes of this law. However, nowhere in the Bible or Talmud do we find any indication of a special ritual for the first cutting of the hair.
A Virtual Festival
In the abundant body of medieval literature that was devoted to the meticulous description of personal and local customs, whether in Germany, France, Spain or other centers of Jewish habitation, we hear not a single mention of any obligatory time or method for a child's first haircut.
As was true with respect to many areas in Jewish religious customs, a fundamental turning point occurred in the sixteenth century among the residents of the mystic town of Safed. The disciples of the renowned Kabbalistic teacher Rabbi Isaac Luria (the "Ari") reported that their revered teacher used to go to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai in Meron to cut the hair of his young son "in accordance with the well-known custom." The day was celebrated as a virtual festival.
Evidently, Rabbi Luria's custom was not associated with a particular date on the calendar. A later tradition cited in his name associated the first haircut with the child's third birthday. Among the Safed mystics, the custom arose of cutting the haircut on Lag Ba'omer, which was celebrated as the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai who was venerated as alleged author of the Zohar, the central document of Kabbalistic teaching. Lag Ba'omer became the occasion of a festive pilgrimage to Rabbi Shimon's tomb in Meron. It is impossible to trace the origins of this "well-known custom," inasmuch as Safed itself had virtually no Jewish history prior to its rise to eminence in the days of Rabbi Luria and his school following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal.
An important clue to the practice's source is suggested by the fact that it was usually referred to as halaqah, from an Arabic word designating the cutting of hair. Indeed, examination of Middle Eastern folk practices reveals that offerings of hair were used for diverse religious purposes, including vicarious sacrifice, fulfillment of vows (in a manner reminiscent of the biblical nazir), or as a rite of passage. A ceremony called 'Aqiqah is performed by many Muslims on the third, seventh or eighth day after a birth, and it is often associated with the baby naming. The ceremony normally included a ritual cutting of the infant's first hair, alongside the offering of an animal sacrifice. Of especial relevance to our topic is the custom among Arab mothers of consecrating their children to God or to a saint in return for a safe childbirth. At some subsequent point in the lad's life, his hair is ritually cut at a religious sanctuary or shrine as payment of the vow. Until the completion of the vow, it was forbidden to cut the child's hair. This practice is attested among the Muslims of Safed.