For the first three years of life, a child absorbs the surrounding sights and sounds and the parents’ loving care. The child is a receiver, not yet ready to give. At the age of three, children’s education really begins properly: they are now ready share their unique gifts. For a Jewish boy, this transition is marked with a hair cutting ceremony. It is an age-old custom to allow a boy’s hair to grow untouched until he’s three years old. On his third Jewish birthday friends are invited to a haircutting ceremony—called an upsherinin Yiddish, and a chalakah by Sephardic Jews. The child’s peyot (biblically mandated side-locks) are left intact—the initiation into his first mitzvah. From this point on, a child is taught to wear a kipahand tzitzit, and is slowly trained to recite blessings and the Shema. The world now begins to benefit from the Torah study and mitzvot of this young child.
One reason for the custom of waiting until the child is three years old is because of the comparison of a person to a tree of the field. We are not allowed to cut the fruits of a tree for the first three years of its growth (those fruits are called orlah). Similarly we are not allowed to cut the hair of a boy for the first three years. There is a connection to the child not being affected by the forces of impurity which are represented by the idea of orlah, the first fruits. There are many customs that protect a child from being affected by the impurity of the world.
The Zohar, one of the ancient Kabbalistic texts, sees every strand of hair as “harboring entire universes”. One of the most profound sections in the Zohar, known as the Idra Rabba, a commentary on this week’s Torah portion (Naso), is dedicated almost exclusively to discuss hair and its source in the divine reality. According to the Zohar, “…from the hair of a person you can know who he is.” (Zohar, Naso, Idra Rabba 129a. Hairs act as “straws” transmitting profound and inaccessible energy. Each strand of hair, shaped like a straw (the form of the Hebrew letter vav), communicates a level of soul-energy that due to its intensity cannot be communicated directly, only through the “straw” of hair, through the contracted, and curtailed medium of hair, which dilutes the intense energy. Now, the Kabbala distinguishes between “fine hair” and “coarse hair” – the fine hair decorating the cranium, present immediately during birth, and the coarse hair of the beard, appearing only at a male’s entry into adulthood. The hair that links the “fine” and the “coarse” are the peyot, the hair extending from the skull, down the jawbone, after which it merges with the beard. The hair growing on top of the cranium, the “fine hair”, represents the deeply concealed energy stemming from the interior of the skull, identified by Kabbala as the location for the super-conscious formations of the human psyche. The deepest and most primal forces of our psyche, the supra-rational desires of the soul formulated even prior to the birth of cognition, are associated in Jewish mysticism with the skull, defined as “the crown over the brain”, or simply as “keter“, which means the crown. Keter is seen as the most lofty and elevated part of the soul, its link to G-d, Who also transcends reason and logic.

The hair of the male beard, on the other hand, the “coarse hair”, represents the energy stemming from the sub conscious cognitive impressions of the human psyche, located within the higher and lower brain. This dimension of the human soul is known in Kabbala as “Mocha Stima’a” (or “the hidden cognition”), and stands one rung below the level of keter. (This is the mystical reason for the feminine body not developing a beard. As mentioned above, the mystical function of hair is to access, in a contracted and curtailed fashion, energy that is inaccessible due to its profundity. Women, however, are naturally more in tuned with their sub conscious cognition, and therefore do not require the “straws” of hair to access that level of self.)

Now the question is if there is any way to link the super-conscious forces of the soul, the keterdimension, with the cognitive structure of the psyche? Can we ever mentally experience who we really are in our deepest space? Even after the keter energy was filtered into hair strands, is there hope for us to internalize this infinite light within the finite vessels of cognition?

Judaism’s answer to this question is – the peyot, the two rows of hair lingering down the jaw bone, that link the hair of the cranium to the hair of the beard. In Kabbala, these two rows of hair symbolize the contracted transmission of the super-conscious keter energy, to the sub conscious mental (Mocha Stima’a) energy, so that the infinite and unconstrained atomic power of the soul’s crown can ultimately be contained and internalized within the mental framework of the human condition.

Without the two side locks curtailing, contracting and metamorphosing the new-clear energy of keter, none of it would be expressed or experienced within the person’s conscious life. Only by having theketer energy filtered through the hair on the skull, and then re-filtered a second time via the peyot, can the deepest energy of the soul become articulated in the lower chambers of consciousness.

[This may also be the reason why the great kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria (d. in 1572), did not allow hispeyot to grow very much below his ears and have them hang over the sides of his beard, as is the custom of Yemenite, Moroccan and most Chassidic Jews. Rather he would trim his peyot with scissors to ensure that they just reached his beard. This “style” was embraced by the Chabad school and many other Ashkenazic and Sefardic communities. In the former style, the emphasis is on overwhelming the beard (representing the deep cognitive impressions) with the “peyot“, representing the flow of the soul’s pristine desire and emotion. This indeed is the spiritual path of Yemenite and many Chassidic Jews. In Chabad, however, the goal has always been to link between the atomic energy of the soul and the mental framework of the mind, represented by the connection of the peyot with the beard.]3

During the first years of a child’s life, what is most exposed in his life is his keter dimension – his primal, basic formations. During the first years, a child has not yet matured enough to allow his or her mind to filter through every experience and stimuli. At that time, a child is like a dry sponge, absorbing everything in a very deep place.

Though we often perceive children as lacking in the ability to internalize as much as we can, in truth, their level of internalization is far deeper – straight to the primal part of the soul, without traveling through the multi layers of mental cognitive structure. If you wish to know your pristine experiences, spend some real time with your child. There you will encounter your own keter, your own inner self, expressed in the long strands of hair decorating the crown of his soul, the skull.

After three years of age, the process of mental frame working and processing begins to increase significantly. This is the time when a child learns more and more to process the world around him via his conscious mind and heart, not via his super conscious core. It is at this point that we must begin to help the child build a bridge between his innate yearnings and his outer persona, between his soul and his mind.

That is why we give him a haircut, and we create a bridge – the peyot that carry down the keter soul energy into his lower brain, which as he grows older will develop a beard. This is the moment we generate the link between the majesty of his soul and the depth of his brain.

The upsherenish, or hair cutting for a Jewish boy, is a custom that is connected more to kabbalah than simple halacha.

A child is also compared to a tree. With a tree, for the first three years we do not use the fruits. For a child we do not cut his hair for the first three years. After that we cut the hair and we fulfill the mitzvah of leaving peyot. The mitzvah of peyot is the sign that you are Jew: it shows you are a Jewish child and you should be proud of it. Yemach shemom the Nazis would cut the peyot of the Jews, trying to remove their symbol of Jewishness, their Jewish appearance.

Boys who get their hair cuts on Lag Bomer are connected to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Peyot and upsherenish has a special connection to Rabbi Shimon. Every year on Lag B’omer many children receive their first hair cuts at the kever (gravesite) of Rabbi shimon Bar Yochai and it is a great cause for celebration.

Kabbalah says cutting hair of the child is connected to another mitzvah, that of the first cutting of wool on the sheep (the mitzvah of first shearing of the wool which is then given to the Cohen). Kabbalah explains that the word gez (wool) is made up of the letters gimmel and zayin. The ten sefirot of atzilut are divided into two parts: three parts of intellect and seven parts of emotions. When we cut the wool, kabbalah says we have the hamshocha (drawing down) from above Atzilut into ATzilut itself. Atzilut has the light of Hashem, the Ohr Eyn Sof, in it.

Every mitzvah has spiritual revelations and ramifications in the higher worlds. When you do the mitzvah of reishit hagez, you bring more light into the ten sefirot. What is the source of olam ha atzilut? That is keter made up of Atik and arich. That is the link between Hashem and atzilut. We know that the level of atik which is the higher level, is referred to as yud gimmel middot harachamim. They are connected to yud gimmel tikunei tiknei: 13 middot of rachamim in the beard. That is why it is not proper to cut a man’s beard.

Hair is part of the body and it draws life from the body. But it has such a minimal amount of life. When you cut it there is no pain. Hamshacha from atik ,being that atik is so high, is removed even from atzilut so all you get from there is life that comes in form of hair, in a form that has such concealment of life in it. Snow is connected to wool and to atik. Hamshacha from atik is very small and that little bit that comes out turns into atzilut. Cutting the first wool represents taking from the wool, which is the level of atik, and bringing down more light than the natural hamshocha that normally comes from atik into atzilut. The mitzvah of cutting the wool of the sheep and giving it to Cohen causes light of atik to come down more into atzilut.

Peyot is a mitzvah connected to hair. It also is the hamshocha from level of Atik. Elokim is 86 by gematria. Two peyot is Havayah hu ha Elokim.

So when you do the mitzvah of leaving peyot it is like cutting the wool. It reaches a high madrega (level). The mitzvah of peyot reaches the same madrega. When can a yid have that hamshocha? When he reaches three years old. Like Avraham avinu who recognized Hashem at three. A child can have the ability to recognize Hashem when he is three. Number three has a special significance in Torah. Torah, nevvim and ketuvim. Given to a nation of three; Cohen, levi and YIsroel. Given in third month of Sivan, through Moshe, the third child in his family. Three is a very high madrega. It is the inyan of unity, unifying one and two. Three years old is thus a high level.

Peyot is the level of Hashem Hashem, higher even than the beard and yud Gimmel midddot harachamim. This is even higher than Atik.
Peyot also represents creating borders and boundaries in life, so at the age of three, the age of education of a child, this is the appropriate time to have the child enter into a life of tikun, of orderliness and of boundaries.

So now we can appreciate somewhat the importance and significance spiritually of the mitzvah of Peyot and the custom of cutting a boy’s hair at three years old.

After cutting the hair, the next ceremony involves taking the child to cheder to begin learning aleph beit: he is wrapped in his father’s talit and he is carried to cheder where the teacher will learn aleph beit with him (from a chart or siddur, and customarily honey is put on the letters to make the learning experience sweet). Candies are thrown at the child (from behind him) and he is told the malach michoel , the angel Michoel, is throwing him the candies; in reality this is true. The source of candies is from malach michoel who is chesed. This ingrains in the child the understanding that everything has a spiritual source.