Multifaith Mashup: Haircutting Rituals in Various Traditions

by Vicki Garlock on August 27, 2014


from Wikimedia Commons

My son got his back-to-school haircut over the weekend. A couple of haircuts ago, his barber gave him a pocket knife, of all things, as a rite of passage gift. He said he gives one to all the boys when they turn 8. I have no idea why. Of course, the more familiar rite of passage is saving a lock of hair from the first haircut. I’m pretty sure we participated in that great American tradition, but honestly, it would probably take at least a couple of days for me to find it. What is one supposed to do with that sort of thing anyway? All of this reminded me that several faith traditions have official haircutting rituals.

From the Muslim tradition, we have the aqiqah, a ritual endorsed by the prophet Muhammad (pbuh). According to the Hadith, “For the child there should be aqiqah, on behalf of the child make sacrifice and remove the hair.” There are three traditions associated with an aqiqah. First, one (for girls) or two (for boys) sheep/goats are sacrificed. A portion of the meat is given to those in need; the rest is shared with family and friends participating in the celebration. Second, the infant’s head is shaved. Third, the infant’s hair is weighed, and that amount, in silver or gold, is donated to the poor. Ideally, the aqiqah occurs on the infant’s 7th day of life.

As you might imagine, modern life offers numerous variations on the theme, especially since most Muslims are not sacrificing animals in their own backyards. Given the long-distance nature of families these days, it can also be difficult to gather everyone together exactly 7 days after the birth. And who has a scale on hand to weigh infant hair? The point of the aqiqah, of course, is to celebrate the birth of the baby! The haircut symbolizes a fresh start in a world outside the womb, a feast is offered to all those in attendance, and community members in need are remembered with donations of money and/or food. Some traditions recommend sticking with the number 7 somehow, as in the 7th day after birth or the 14th day after birth or the 21st day after birth. Other traditions suggest that the aqiqah be held during the first week of life, with the 7th day being optimal. Guests often bring gifts, and sometimes, the infant’s name is officially announced. Some have even compared the aqiqah to a postnatal baby shower.

From Hinduism, we have the Chudakarana, but in this tradition the new parents have a bit more time to plan for it. The Sanskrit word is literally translated as “arrangement of the hair tuft,” but effectively, it is a child’s first haircut. Traditionally, the ceremony was performed sometime between the first and fourth birthdays, but over time, the acceptable time frame has been extended. Also, some traditions consider the odd-numbered years to be more auspicious than the evenly-numbered ones. The Chudakarana can be performed by the family, or a Hindu priest can preside. The ceremony can include the blowing of conch shells and the chanting of mantras or prayers. And, like the aqiqah, the Chudakarana is performed for both boys and girls.

So what’s with the “hair tuft” part? In northern India, the entire head is usually shaved with only a single strand remaining at the crown (top, back part) of the head. In southern India, the number of tufts remaining is determined by the ancestral tradition of the father’s family. For people living near the Ganges, there is the added custom of throwing the hair into the sacred river. According to traditional Hindu belief, the hair contains bad traits associated with past lives. With the Chudakarana, the child is freed from those undesirable traits, enabling the child to move, unencumbered, into the current life. A more secular explanation is that it’s a way of blessing the child and expressing hope that the child will live a happy, healthy life.

Interestingly, some sources suggest that the Chudakarana also symbolizes less dependence on the mother and the transition from toddlerhood to childhood – which is exactly what the Jewish tradition of Upsherin (or Upsherinish) symbolizes. This ceremony, unanimously translated as “shear off” in Yiddish, is performed on the Jewish birthday of three-year-old boys whose hair has remained uncut since birth. The rabbi begins the cutting ritual. Then others – parents, extended family members, and friends – take a turn. In many Orthodox and Hasidic communities, the payot (spelled in various ways) remain. These are the long sidelocks that hang down in front of the ears and can be curled or twisted.

Traditionally, the upsherin marks the beginning of the young boy’s Torah education and the wearing of a yarmulke and tzitzis (the long fringes worn on the four corners of prayer shawls or undergarments). In less orthodox families, the upsherin marks the transition into childhood and reaffirms a family’s commitment to providing a solid Jewish education. The actual ceremony varies widely. It can be held at home, at the local synagogue, or at the grave of a holy person. Some celebrations are modest and prayerful; others are essentially big parties with scissor-shaped invitations, specially-painted haircutting stools, kosher candy, cakes graced with cake-topper-Torahs, and gift bags adorned with tzitzis.

So who started this whole haircutting thing? The Chudakarana is a very ancient tradition, stemming from Vedic times (1500-500BCE). In contrast, the upsherin is relatively recent (even though many sources refer to it as an “ancient” or “age-old” ritual). Torah law seems to forbid the cutting of sidelocks with a razor, “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.” (Leviticus 19:27). And there is plenty of rabbinic commentary on what constitutes a sidelock. But the origins of the upsherin ceremony itself are much less clear. Scholars think the ritual began in 16th century Safed, a city in northern Israel known as the center of Jewish mysticism (Kabbalism), but that doesn’t tell us much. At that time, the haircuts may have taken place at the tomb of the revered rabbi credited with writing the Zohar, but there is no written record of how the whole thing started. It’s also possible that the Kabbalists “borrowed” the practice from Arabs who were also living in Safed at the time.

The three-year-old aspect of the upsherin is a bit enigmatic as well. Some say it stems from another law found in Leviticus 19:23, “When you come into the land and plant all kinds of trees for food, then you shall regard their fruit as forbidden; three years it shall be forbidden to you, it must not be eaten.” The child, therefore, remains uncut for the first three years, just as the fruit remains uneaten. Yet another explanation is that the age for the upsherin comes from the Kabbalistic practice of gematria or numerology. The number associated with the Hebrew word for “shave” is 3.

What does seem clear is that people from a variety of cultures and traditions saw the first haircut as a milestone of sorts. I have yet to find anything about a pocket knife, but I must admit that the gift made my son feel rather proud of himself, which is not a bad thing when you’re getting ready to enter 3rd grade. I am reminded of a funny remark made by Fran Lebowitz, a well-known social commentator from New York City. Supposedly, she once said, “You’re only as good as your last haircut.” But, based on all these traditions, it might be more accurate to say that you’re only as good as your first one!

[In our Multifaith Mashup columns, we explore a topic from a variety of faith traditions and sacred texts. To see other columns, search our blog using the Multifaith Mashup tag. These columns are representative of the middle school Sunday School curriculum, and to a certain extent, the upper elementary Sunday School curriculum we developed at Jubilee! Community Church in Asheville, NC.]

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