Redemption of the First Shorn

The Cutting Story Of The Opsherenish Ceremony

First Cut Is The Deepest: Among some Jews, it is traditional for a boy to have his first haircut on his third birthday.
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First Cut Is The Deepest: Among some Jews, it is traditional for a boy to have his first haircut on his third birthday.

By Philologos

Published February 03, 2013, issue of February 08, 2013.
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Forward reader Susan Rogol writes: “I receive many invitations to the ceremony of cutting the hair of a boy who has reached the age of 3, and I do not understand why it is referred to as an ‘upsherenish’ rather than an ‘upsheren.’ I always associate the Yiddish suffix “-nish” with something negative, as in umkumenish, a word often used by my mother. I’d love to know your opinion.”

This grammatical question leads in the end to more interesting territory. First, though, let’s deal with the technicalities, which are:

1) The Yiddish noun upsherenish or (in its standard form, with the stress on the first syllable) opsherenish denotes the custom, practiced among Ashkenazi Jews mainly by Hasidim, of giving a little boy his first haircut on his third birthday. It comes from the verb opshern, to cut off or give a haircut. The op- of opshern is a Germanic cognate of English “off,” the sheren of English “to shear.”

2) Opshern can function grammatically as a noun, too, in the form of an opshern, “a haircut.” When the haircut in question is a 3-year-old’s first, the nominal suffix –nish, a cognate of English “-ness,” is added. Despite Susan Rogol’s associations, however, “-nish” is not a suffix with inherently negative implications. It may sound that way in her mother’s favorite word, umkumenish, “disaster,” but this is only because the verb umkumen means to die by violent means. Normally, “-nish” is emotionally neutral, as in such words as finsternish, “darkness” (from finster, “dark”), baderfenish, “a need” (from badarfn, “to need”), etc.

Now let’s get back to Ms. Rogol’s question. Saying an opsherenish instead of an opsheren is a little like saying “a haircutting” instead of “a haircut.” Why the suffix?

Let’s think in English for a moment. We don’t say “a haircutting” instead of “a haircut,” but we do say “a sheep shearing” “a housewarming,” “a homecoming” and so on. What the “-ing” does is imply that a given event has a ceremonial aspect. The “-nish” in opsherenish performs a similar function: It distinguishes a religiously significant haircut from an ordinary one.


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