Some have a custom to refrain from cutting their son’s hair until the age of three. When the child reaches that age, they cut his hair and leave side-locks. This way they train him to keep the mitzvah of You shall not round the corners of your head (VaYikra 19:27), which means that one may not cut his hair in a rounded fashion, while removing the side-locks.
Those who follow this custom find an allusion to it in the mitzvah of Orlah. Chazal say that the three years of Orlah hint to the first three years of a child’s life, before he learns to speak, during which he does not fulfill any mitzvot. And in the fourth year, all of its fruit shall be sanctified for giving praise to the Lord (ibid. 19:24), meaning that his father consecrates him for Torah study (Tanchuma, Kedoshim 14). Those who follow this custom also explain that during a child’s first three years of life, he is like an Orlah tree, and one should therefore not cut his hair. When the fourth year arrives, however, and he is capable of sanctifying himself [to some degree], we cut his hair and leave him side-locks, which is the first mitzvah that we fulfill through him [that he can remember]. And this is a special mitzvah, because the child becomes recognizably Jewish through it.
Since this is the mitzvah through which we begin training the child to fulfill God’s commandments, the custom is to rejoice over it, in order to bring the child to love mitzvot. People, therefore, invite relatives and friends and honor them with food and drink.
Many Jews from the Galilee had a custom to cut their son’s hair at the burial site of R. Shimon bar Yochai in Meiron, so that the child’s inauguration into mitzvah observance can be accompanied by a connection to a tzaddik. Jews from Jerusalem, who lived far from Meiron, customarily went to the cave of Shimon HaTzaddik, north of the Old City. Other communities used to cut their child’s hair near the local synagogue, and still others ask a Torah scholar to cut the first lock of hair.
Some people have a custom to give haircuts on Lag B’Omer, in Meiron, to any boy whose third birthday fell or will fall within a few months of Lag B’Omer. Others are careful not to cut a child’s hair before his third birthday. Therefore, if his birthday falls out after Lag B’Omer, they wait until his birthday to cut his hair, and if he was born a few weeks before Lag B’Omer, they wait until Lag B’Omer to give him his haircut. But if he was born several months before Lag B’Omer, they cut his hair on his birthday. 1
However, it is important to emphasize that there is no obligation to follow these customs. Furthermore, the custom of giving haircuts to young children is not mentioned at all in the Rambam, Shulchan Aruch, or the works of the other renowned poskim. Therefore, anyone who wants to may cut his son’s hair even before his third birthday. This is the practice of many Torah scholars.
- The Ari z”l cut his son’s hair at the age of three, on Lag B’Omer, in Meiron. See Responsa Arugot HaBosem, O.C. 210; Tiglachat Mitzvah VeInyanei Lag B’Omer; Bein Pesach LeShavu’ot, chap. 19. ↩