When A Little Yingel Turns Three

Rabbi Wagensberg
Parshas Vayikrah
When A Little Yingel Turns Three


When the opening verse of this week's parsha says, "Vayikra El Moshe" (and He called to Moshe), there is a small letter Aleph at the end of the word "Vayikra."

The Kli Yakar (Lv. 1:1) explains the meaning behind the small "Aleph" based on the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba, 7:3, Rebbi Asi) which teaches us that, traditionally, when children begin to learn Torah, they study the topic of offerings first. Our parsha, and much of Sefer Vayikra, deals with the subject matter of offerings. Therefore, children typically begin their Torah learning with Sefer Vayikra.

There is a hint in a verse about offerings which points to this custom. It says to use, "Kevasim B'nei Shana" (lambs in their first year; Nu. 28:3) for the sacrifices. The word "Kevasim" (sheep) is phonetically related to the word "Mechabsim" (wash). This association implies that the "Kevasim" (sheep), "Mechabsim" (wash) a sinful person so much so that he becomes as innocent as a child who is "Ben Shana" (just a year old).

Therefore, we tell the "pure ones" (children) who have no sin, to study the subject of "purity" (Sefer Vayikra) whose offerings make one pure.

Now, the letter "Aleph" can be understood as a word which means "to learn" or "to teach", as it says, "V'aalephcha Chochmah" (And I will teach you wisdom; Job. 33:33).

So far, we can list three aspects about the letter "Aleph" which draws attention to itself in our verse:

1) The "Aleph" in our verse is a small one.

2) The letter "Aleph" is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

3) The letter "Aleph" can mean learn.

When putting it all together, these three components of an "Aleph" teach us the following custom. When children are still "small", they "first" begin "learning" the section about offerings.

Baruch Hashem, this week, my son, Aharon Chaim, began to officially learn the "Aleph Beis" because his third birthday is on the 2nd of Nissan, which was this past Wednesday. A third birthday for a little Jewish boy is a pretty big deal.

When turning three, a Jewish boy gets his first haircut, puts on a yarmalka, wears a pair of tzitzis, and begins to officially learn the Aleph Beis.

The boy is carried to this ceremony covered in a tallis so that he does not see anything that causes spiritual contamination.

This ceremony is called an "Upsherin" (cut off) or a "Chalakeh." The word "Chalakeh" is an Arabic word which comes from the Hebrew word "Chalak" (smooth). This is a reference to a verse that describes Ya'akov as an "Ish Chalak" (a smooth skinned man; Gn. 27:11).

Perhaps the name "Chalakeh" represents our fervent prayer that the young boy grows up to be like Ya'akov Avinu, the Ish Chalak, and not like Eisav, the "Ish Sair" (a hairy man; Gn. 27:11).

The reason why we wait until the child is three to cut his hair is because a person is compared to a tree (Dt. 20:19). Just as one may not cut the fruits of a tree for the first three years, similarly, one does not cut the hair off a boy for the first three years (Tanchuma, Lv. 19:23-25; Shu"t Arugas Habosem, chap. 210; Shu"t Maharam Brisk, chap. 98).

When cutting the hair, we are careful to leave the "peyos" (side locks; Lv. 19:27). This is one of the first mitzvos that we educate the young boy about. One reason for "Peyos" is as follows.

When it comes to serving God, we must direct both our minds and our hearts to His service. This means that when we learn something intellectually stimulating, it must make an impression on us emotionally. Similarly, when we have an uplifting emotional experience, it must move us to make the right intellectual decisions.

However, after the sin of the Golden Calf, God called the Jews a "Stiff necked people" (Ex. 32:9). The neck is the part of the which connects the mind to the heart. But, the consequence of having a "stiff neck" is that the connection has been stuffed up, resulting in the separation between the two. No longer does the mind motivate the heart. No longer does the heart inspire the mind.

Therefore, to reroute the connection between mind and heart, we grow Peyos which hang from our heads, pointing toward our chests, in which rests our hearts. These side locks which are usually longer than the rest of the hair, indicate that we want to reconnect our minds and hearts.

One of the most popular places to have the Upsherin is in Meron by the grave of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai (Arizal, Sha'ar Hakavanos, 7:1).

One reason for this is based on the Gemara (Shabbos, chap. 20, "Tolin", pg. 138b) which says that the Sages said that eventually the Torah will be forgotten from the Jewish people. This is based on a verse in Amos (8:11) which says that one day there will be a hunger in the land, not a hunger for bread nor a thirst for water, but to hear the words of God.

This implies that a day will come when people will not be able to hear the words of Torah which are the words of God, because no people knowledgeable in Torah, will remain. Torah will be forgotten.

When Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai heard about what the Sages said, he replied, "God forbid, the Torah will never be forgotten from the Jewish people." This is based on the verse which says, "Ki Lo Sishachach Mipi Zaro" (For it will not be forgotten from the mouth of your offspring; Dt. 31:21).

This Talmudic passage is difficult because we do not only have an argument between the Sages, but we also seem to have a contradiction in verses. How can this be?

The Shvilei Pinchas reconciles this by saying that the Sages were right. Had the Jewish people only had access to the type of Torah that existed in those days, we would have lost the masses, and Torah would have indeed been forgotten.

However, The Rashb"i (Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai) said that this would never happen because he was going to do something to prevent such a catastrophe. The Rashb"i revealed Toras Nistar (the hidden side of the Torah) in the Zohar. The mystical teachings of Kabbalah are so powerful that it has the strength to keep the Jewish people connected and knowledgeable until the end of time.

Therefore, we bring our children to Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai's grave for their Upsherin. When we begin to educate our children in Torah, we want the Rashbi's guarantee (that Torah never be forgotten) to take effect on our children (Reb Yekusiel Yehudah Halbershtam, the Kloizenberger Rebbe).

Parenthetically, there is a hint to the Rashb"i in the verse that he cited. If you take the last letter of the words, "Ki Lo Sishachach Mipi Zaro", it spells "Yochai" (Likkutei Moharan; Tiferes Shlomo).

Perhaps we could add that this whole Talmudic passage is found specifically on page 138 of Tractate Shabbos. The Hebrew letters which equal 138 are: kuf, lamed, ches. This is indeed the Hebrew page number of that section in the Talmud. When read backwards, the letters kuf, lamed, ches, spell "Chalakeh!" This serves as a hint supporting the notion that a "Chalakeh" should be performed at the grave of the Rashb"i because of what he says on that page of the Talmud, that Torah would never be forgotten from our children.

After the haircut, the boy begins to wear a yarmulke (Sefer Gan Hamelech cited in Baer Heitev, chap. 531). One reason behind this is to encourage him to cultivate a reverence of God as is hinted to in the word "yarmulke" which is really two words in one, "Yarei Malka" (reverence for the King). The yarmulke reminds us of the One Who is Above us (Avos, 2:1, "Rebbi Omer").

Then, he puts on his first pair of tzitzis which is supposed to remind him to keep the 613 commandments (Sha'arei Teshuva 17:2; Aruch Hashulchan 17:65).

Finally, we teach him the Aleph Beis by pouring honey over the letters. Every time he says a letter properly, he gets to taste of its honey, showing him that the Torah is as sweet as honey Sefer Yireyim; Meam Loez Parshas Eikev; Sefer Rokeach chap. 291).

There is a story told about the Vilna Gaon who said that the only Rebbi he ever stood up for was his Aleph Beis Rebbi. When asked why, he responded by saying that when he got older, he could refute all the teachings of his other Rebbeyim. However, his Aleph Beis Rebbi was the only one who taught him Toras Emes (true Torah).

Maybe, by teaching our children the Aleph Beis, we hope that all the Torah they will learn through the various combinations of those very letters, be Emes.

The Meam Loez (Parshas Eikev) says that the day of a boys "Chalakeh" is as precious to God as the day that the Jewish people stood at Mount Sinai. On that day, the boy becomes a "Chassan Torah."

We then teach the child to say, "Torah Tziva Lanu Moshe" (Moshe commanded us in Torah; Dt. 33:4). Perhaps this is meant to instill a connection within him, not just to the Written Law, but also to the Oral Tradition.

We then give the child money to give as tzedakah (charity) to impress upon him the importance of becoming a giver.

We celebrate an Upsherin by making a Seudas Mitzvah.

One practical application that can be extrapolated from all of this is to focus a little bit more on our children to ensure that they grow to be dedicated to God's service with a burning love for Hashem, the Torah, and the Jewish people. This should be something that we pray for constantly.

May all our children be blessed to hear their "Vayikra", calling in life, by connecting their minds and hearts in Torah study and mitzva performance. May they absorb holiness, and develop as sweet people dedicated to a life of giving. In other words, may they become menchin!