When a child is born, every parent is overcome with amazement. The conception and birth of new life is an outright miracle. Since this miracle recurs day after day, sometimes we may fail to appreciate how awesome it is. But the wonder of holding one’s own newborn overwhelms every mother or father, making them appreciate that something that can only be described as G‑dly has taken place.1

Together with these feelings of amazement comes a sense of responsibility. Every parent realizes that he or she holds the future of this budding life in their hands. The quality of the child’s life depends on his father and mother.

A parent understands that, and wants the best for his or her child. He or she will make sacrifices often even painful ones to provide their children, not only with their basic needs, but with whatever comforts and amenities that are within their reach.

Parents appreciate, moreover, that the most important gifts they can give their children are internal ones. The material benefits with which they provide them are subject to the vicissitudes of time and the shifting winds of fortunes. The values and principles with which they endow them, by contrast, are timeless, serving as a resource and support for the child throughout his life.

A Lifeline to the Spiritual Source

Judaism refers to the inculcation of these values and principles with the term Chinuch (חינוך). We find that term also used in other contexts. For example, the dedication of the sacrificial altar of the Sanctuary was referred to as Chanukas (חנוכת) Hamizbeach. And when a person builds a home, he inaugurates its use with a celebration referred to as Chanukas Habayis.

In those contexts, the term Chinuch refers to connecting an entity to its spiritual source. For example, the Shechinah, G‑d’s presence, manifested itself within the Sanctuary. The physical structure became subsumed to its spiritual purpose. The special sacrifices offered at Chanukas Hamizbeach, made this possible, drawing G‑d’s presence into this physical world and making the Sanctuary the place for His indwelling.2

Similarly, every Jewish home is more than bricks and stones; it is “a sanctuary in microcosm,”3 a place where each one of us brings out the depth, meaning, and purpose within his or her existence. In no small part, it is the celebration of Chanukas Habayis which empowers this to take place.4

Teaching a Child to Be Whom He Really Is

Similarly, in a personal sense, Chinuch, the education a child receives, connects him to his spiritual core. Every one of us possesses a soul which is “an actual part of G‑d,”5 a spark of His infinity. Chinuch is the process that enables us to realize and identity with this potential, making it the driving force in our lives.

To cite a parallel: Emunah (אמונה), the Hebrew term for “faith,” relates to the Hebrew word Imun (אימון), meaning “practice” or “training.”6 The implication is that it is not our understanding and knowledge that spawns our faith. Instead, since the core of our own being is a G‑dly spark, we all know G‑d inherently and therefore we have faith. Emunah involves practice and training, laboring to develop sensitivity to this inner potential and working to create a setting within our conscious minds that will allow this inner knowledge to be easily expressed.

Similarly, in a more general sense, Chinuch is the process in which a child is trained to manifest the spiritual potentials with which he has been endowed. Just as Chanukas Hamizbeach made the Sanctuary something far greater than its physical structure; so, too, Chinuch enables a person to reach beyond his individual self and manifest the principles and values which Judaism has treasured throughout the ages.

Starting on Time

A father and mother once asked the Rebbe: “What should we do for our son’s education?”

“How old is your son?” the Rebbe responded.

“Six.”

“Why are you coming to me so late?” replied the Rebbe.

A child’s education begins from the moment he or she enters the world.7 For at every moment, the child is learning. His future is being shaped by his past and present. The way he reacts to situations is a product of the way he or she has been trained.

The Rebbe Rashab would say: “Just as we are commanded to put on tefillin every day, we are commanded to spend at least a half an hour each day thinking about our children’s education.”

Whether or not we are conscious of it, this training process is taking place. It is inescapable. Whatever a child sees or hears affects him. Thinking about a child’s chinuch means taking responsibility for this process of development instead of letting it happen randomly, without control.

The earlier we begin asserting direction over this process, the more effective and comprehensive influence we can exert. To cite a parallel, any slight blemish in a seed creates a major imperfection in the tree which grows from it. And conversely, the care and attention lavished over a sapling bears fruit as it develops into a flourishing plant.

For this reason, from the earliest ages, efforts must be devoted to a child’s education. Even when he or she does not understand, his character is being shaped. That’s why the music played for a child, the pictures hung on his walls,8 and the way he is spoken to, is so important. Although the child does not understand at the time, these and other influences have a great effect later in life. This rock bed of positive Jewish impressions serves as the foundation for the growth and development of his or her conscious awareness.

The First Buddings of Understanding

Although a child’s character is being molded from his earliest age, an entirely new phase begins when the child’s intellect begins to blossom. The effects of the influences to which the parents have exposed the child over the years without his conscious input are then given a chance to flourish. He begins tapping and channeling the reservoir of positive energy that has been building up over the course of time.

In this process, the age of three reflects a significant plateau.9 At this age, by and large, a child can think in sentences. He or she can comprehend a story. He is aware of his own identity and that of the people around him. As he or she reaches this stage of conceptual development, his or her Chinuch is lifted to a higher rung. From this time onward, not only is the child being educated, he or she takes a participatory role in his or her process of education.

For a boy, two events are celebrated to mark the initiation of this new phase: upsherinish and areinfirinish. The upsherinish marks the child’s first haircut. Until this age, his hair is allowed to grow untouched. At this time, his hair is cut, but his peyos, the hair growing at the corners of his head, are left. Similarly, from this time onward, the child is trained to wear a yarmulka10 and tzitzis11 in a consistent manner.12

What is the point of these practices? It’s like putting on a uniform, using an external code of dress to proclaim your identity. In this way, a child appreciates and makes a statement that he is part of something that is larger than himself. In a very tangible and obvious way, he expresses his commitment to his Jewish heritage.

The areinfirinish marks a boy’s entry into cheder.13 He begins study, learning the letters of the alef-beis.14 This is the first step of his formal intellectual training. He is taught to develop his mind in an environment of holiness on the foundations of faith.

Both of these events are carried out with a traditional ceremony. The departure from the norm enables the child to appreciate that he is entering a new phase of life. The unique practices make him realize that he is embarking on a new and different stage of development and help him take these changes seriously. To state it on the most practical level: After a child has experienced an upsherinish, nothing more than a gentle reminder of that celebration is necessary to coax him to wear his yarmulka and tzitzis. And the excitement of the areinfirenish carries over into a child’s initial days of study, allowing him to beginning his schooling experience with positive energy.

Similarly, both of these events are experienced amidst joyful celebration. For happiness opens gateways in the spiritual realms, arousing Divine influences that contribute to the success of the child’s education. This enables him to take his place in perpetuating our people’s glorious tradition, adding one more link in the golden chain of our Jewish heritage, and preparing him to proceed to our people’s ultimate celebration, the coming of Mashiach. May this take place in the immediate future.

What is an Upsherinish?

It is a long-standing custom for parents to let their sons’ hair grow and cut it for the first time at the age of three. Exactly when this custom started is unclear. The students of the Kabbalistic sage, the AriZal (Rabbi Isaac Luria) relate15 that he took his son to the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar, in Meron for this ceremony.16 They do not speak of the Ari’s act as an innovation he initiated, but rather as his adherence to an ancient and revered custom. Significantly, this practice is observed in both Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities.

The ceremony is intended to train a child to observe the mitzvah of peyos,17 but as mentioned above, it is considered as the initial phase of a child’s conscious Jewish education, carrying far greater significance than the observance of this particular prohibition.

Our Rabbis draw a connection between this custom and several other mitzvos. For example, a connection is drawn18 to the mitzvah of orlah, the prohibition against benefiting from the fruits that grow in the first three years of a tree’s life. In the fourth year, by contrast, the happy farmer takes his harvest to Jerusalem, to partake of it in an environment of holiness.

Similarly, the Torah compares man to a tree.19 In the first three years of a child’s life, there are no edible fruits no tangible returns for a parent’s endeavors.20 During the fourth year, there are harvests of holiness; the first fruits of the child’s education are seen. He begins learning verses from the Torah. This process is inaugurated by reaping by cutting off his locks of hair.

Others21 compare it to the mitzvah of reishis hagaz, the gifts of the first shearings of one’s herd of sheep to the priests.22 The sages of the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystic tradition, associate sheep with the arousal of Divine mercy and the outpouring of kindness that is untempered by judgment.

Others23 note that when the Torah24 mentions the term והתגלח (“And he shall remove his hair”), the letter gimmel is oversized. Now gimmel is numerically equivalent to three, alluding to the fact that there is a removal of hair which is a holy act performed when a child reaches three.

There are many different customs with regard to the date of the child’s first haircut.25 In Rabbinic literature, it is mentioned that some would permit having the child’s first hair cut at the age of thirteen weeks.26 And other sources, mention delaying the cutting of the hair until the age of five.27 In Eretz Yisrael, in most communities the custom is to give the child a haircut at three. If, however, the child’s birthday is in the summer, many follow the practice of holding the upsherinish on the holiday of Lag BaOmer at the grave site of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, even if the child’s third birthday is somewhat before or somewhat after that holiday.

In the Lubavitch community, the Rebbe instituted the custom of holding the upsherinish on the day of the child’s third birthday itself, not before28 or not afterwards.29 When asked if it was better to wait until an “auspicious day,” he commented30 that “Since it is Jewish custom to hold an upsherinish when the child reaches the age of three, this is ‘a good an auspicious hour.’ Who knows whether it will be possible to choose a time of equivalent Divine favor?”31 If for certain reasons, the celebration accompanying the upsherinish could not be held on the appropriate day, the upsherinish should be held on the child’s birthday and the celebration on a day when it is convenient.32

Generally, the custom is to hold the upsherinish during the day, after the morning prayers. There are, however, those who hold the celebration at night.33

Traditionally, it was customary for an upsherinish to be carried out in a holy place. As mentioned above, the AriZal carried out his son’s upsherinish in Meron, at the grave site of the holy Sage, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Year after year, particularly on the anniversary of that Sage’s passing on Lag BaOmer, but even throughout the year, thousands emulate that practice. Similarly, the Radbaz, a renown Rabbinic authority of the 16th century, speaks34 of carrying out an upsherinish at the grave of the prophet Samuel. And others would customarily carry out this custom at the grave of Shimon HaTzaddik in Jerusalem35

If a person does not live near such a holy place, there are many who hold or at least begin the upsherinish in a synagogue or house of study. There is no sense of the haircut being considered as inappropriate in such places, for the practice is considered as a celebration associated with a mitzvah.36

It is customary to have righteous men and sages participate in the upsherinish. Chassidim would frequently take their children to the Rebbe to have him initiate the haircutting. If that was not possible, they would write to the Rebbe who would respond with a letter of blessing.

It is appropriate to invite many guests for this celebration. Similarly, frequently, it is enhanced by songs and music.

Needless to say, since the upsherinish is a landmark in the child’s education, the child should be involved in the preparations for the ceremony. It is valuable to take him to see the upsherinish of several of his friends and relatives to familiarize him with the customs and arouse his eagerness for the time when all eyes will be focused on him, as he begins his active participation in his Jewish education.