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.
Getty Images
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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.