“For three years he shall be closed (oreilim) to you, for he cannot converse and cannot talk. But in the fourth year all his fruit shall be holy, for [then] his father dedicates him to the Torah… And in the fifth year you shall eat his fruit, from the time that he is obligated to read the Torah… From this the our sages taught, ‘A five years old for Mikra, a ten years old for Mishnah‘ (Avos 5:21).”
Just as the medrash links the mitzvah of learning with the age of three, so various seforim use the medrash’s rationaleas a basis for waiting until three until cutting a boy’s hair for the first time. This is so that the youngster can have a share in fulfilling the mitzvah of leaving his peyos untouched.
Now, this explanation is well and good for those who cut boys’ hair at three. But this is by no means the only custom. Pe’ulot Tzaddik writes that some people cut their sons’ hair at the age of two, Shulchan Gavoha (531:42) mentions that in Yerushalayim the minhag was to wait until five, and Keser Shem Tov (vol. 1 page 591) writes that this was minhag of Eretz Yisroel in general. Some parents cut their boy’s hair at nine months, while others waited as long as seven years. Obviously, the medrash is not the basis of these various minhogim.
Furthermore, you can argue that a young child is not considered as performing a mitzvah when he has his chalakah. For does he understand the significance of what is happening? Is he involved in stopping anyone from cutting off his peyos? Is there perhaps another basis for the minhag of chalakah?
The minhag of chalakah seems relatively new. It is not mentioned by the Rishonim or by the earliest Acharonim. The earliest source mentioning it is a teshuvah (vol. 1 608) of the Radbaz, Rav David ben Zimra (1462-1572), who served as Chief Rabbi of Egypt and was a teacher of the Arizal. The Radbaz discusses someone who had vowed to give his son a haircut at the kever of Shmuel Hanavi next to Yerushalayim.
“Question: You asked me for my opinion regarding someone who vowed to give his son a haircut at the place of Shmuel Hanavi. When he came there, he found it was already seized by non-Jews, because of our sins, and that no Jew may enter there. What can he do about this? In addition, the community and the rabbonim are strict that no Jew should go up there.
Finding oneself barred from Shmuel Hanovi’s kever was not an uncommon occurrence. After the Crusaders arrived there on June 7, 1099, they kept Jews and Moslems from the place until they were driven out. Then the Moslems began to oppress the Jews. Since the 15th century, various documents indicate that there were frequent quarrels between Jews and Muslims regarding who had the right of worship at Nabi Samuel, which paradoxically consists of a shul built beneath a mosque.
The question sent to the Radbaz may be related to a 1554 incident where Jews sent a petition to Istanbul complaining that Jews who customarily visited Nabi Samuel were barred from the place after it was converted to a mosque. In reaction, the Sultan ordered local rulers to investigate the complaint and if found valid, to stop harassing the Jews about the matter.
Regarding the question he was asked, the Radbaz wrote as follows:
“Answer: There already exists a widespread minhag to consider this an absolute vow. For people generally brought tzeddokoh money with them and gave the weight of the hair for the needs of the place to burn wax and oil there and provide its other needs. In addition, the tzeddokoh money includes a portion for the poor and for public needs. From all this, people concluded that this was an absolute vow and one should not be lenient concerning it.”
The Radbaz makes no attempt to explain that the haircut is a mitzvah. The only reason he gives for the person’s promise to cut hair having the status of a vow is that people generally promised to give charity afterwards. Possibly, the Radbaz considers the significance of the chalakah not so much the haircut as the subsequent donation of the hair’s weight to tzeddokoh.
The earliest source for weighing hair and giving its weight in gold or silver may be the verses of sefer Shmuel (II 14:26) that describe Avsholom cutting off the hair of his nezirus once a year and weighing it. The Ralbag writes that Avsholom may have donated its weight in gold or silver to the Beis Hamikdosh or to tzeddokoh. Another hint for giving the weight of the chalakah hair to tzeddokoh is derived from the verse, The first of the shearing of your flock you shall give to Me, for Klal Yisroel are called Hashem’s flock.
The best-known source for the minhag of chalakah is Rav Chayim Vital’s description of how the Arizal observed this minhag.
“Jews have a minhag to travel on Lag Ba’omer to the kevorim of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Rabbi Elozor who are buried in Miron, and they eat, drink, and rejoice there,” Rav Chaim wrote in Shaar Hakavonos (87a). ‘I once saw my teacher z”l go with his whole family on Lag Ba’omer. They stayed there the first three days of that week… Rav Yonoson Sagish told me that before I went to learn with my teacher the Arizal, he took his small son there together with all his household and cut his hair in accordance with the known minhag, and he made a day of feasting and rejoicing there. I write this to show that there is a source for this minhag.”
Over the years, the minhag became popular throughout Eretz Yisroel but was less known in the Diaspora. In 1836 we find Yosef ben Shabtai who had moved to Eretz Yisroel from Kalish described the chalakah as something unfamiliar to him.
“Their custom is to give their children their first haircut on their birthdays exclusively in this holy courtyard [of Miron]. This is how it is done: The father brings his son magnificently dressed with ornaments and accompanied by family and friend. They dance with dances and music played with all kinds of instruments, drumming and dancing. When I asked, ‘What is the reason for the joy?’ they told me it was because the father cuts his son’s hair and leaves his two peyos. In the eyes of the Sefardim, this mitzvah is considered as important as bringing him into the bris of Avrohom Ovinu.”
Rav Yosef Kapach (1907-2000) writes in Halichos Teiman (page 133) that Yemenite Jews gave their children chalakos at weddings in order to add more simchoh to festive occasions.
“In Yemen, people did chalaka during a simchoh shel mitzvah such as at a relative’s wedding. Any relative or neighbor of the chosson with a son of about three would bring him to the hall,” he wrote. “They seated him there upon two or three cushions to raise him up. All the boys present would gather round and the barber cut his hair for the first time in his life, leaving his peyos and curling them in fulfillment of the mitzvah, Do not round the peyos of your heads. From now on, the boy went around with curled simonim like every other Jew.”
The famous traveler Yaakov Sapir (1822—1886) writes that he found the minhag in far away India.
“They have an old minhag not to shave the hairs of their sons’ heads until they are four or five years old, and [until then] they grow their hair long,” he wrote. “The day of the first haircut is a day of feasting and rejoicing as the day of a bris milah. They dress the boy in glorious clothes and ornaments, and accompanied by a group of musicians playing the drum, violin, and flute, they ride him on a decorated horse. Behind him are other boys on horses and wagons. They take him through the streets of the town until the shul where they cut all his hair with scissors. Each friend gets the mitzvah of cutting a bit of the hair. Then they weigh all his hair corresponding to silver or gold, each person according to his wealth, and give its value to the hekdesh of the shul or distribute it to the poor.” (Even Sapir 1866 vol. 2 page 47)
The Baal Shem Tov is recorded as making a chalaka and the minhag became widespread among European chassidim.
Wherever it was practiced and for whatever reason, chalakah served an important purpose as a rite of passage. As the barmitzvah sends the boy into manhood and as the chupah begins a couple’s married life, so chalaka marks the delineation from passive babyhood to the begin of active growth and development.