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Tradition & Innovation

Pre-chemo Upsherin Ceremony

photo of Prof. Sarah Bunin Benor and Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer at Sarah's pre-chemo upsherin ritual

Background

This ceremony surrounds the haircut of a cancer patient. Rather than wait for their hair to fall out, some opt to cut or shave it themselves before starting chemotherapy. If their hair is long enough, they can donate it to an organization that makes wigs, such as Locks of Love or Children With Hair Loss. Many choose to do this haircut surrounded by loved ones, and this ritual provides a sacred, Jewish framing for this milestone. Like the hasidic tradition of giving a three-year-old boy his first haircut, referred to by the Yiddish word upsherin (haircut), this ceremony includes not only a haircut but also several elements from the Jewish tradition: blessings, songs, and text study.

The script below is from the ritual created by Sarah and Shawn for Sarah’s upsherin. The whole event took about 90 minutes, including informal conversation. We hope you will adapt it for your needs, selecting the parts you find most meaningful.

Materials needed

Chairs, table, refreshments, Havdalah set, mirror, brush, haircut scissors or shaver, haircut cape, several hair ties / rubber bands, gallon-sized ziploc bag to store and ship the ponytails, device and speakers for playing music, and handouts with text study and songs for all attendees.

Setup

Attendees sit in chairs in a circle. Refreshment table on the side.

Start with upbeat music and refreshments.

קַבָּלַת פָּנִים   Welcome and Introduction (2 min)

Sarah explains why she wanted to do this and what will happen here.

כַּוָנָה  Setting an intention (8–10 min)    

Sarah reads the Asher Yatzar blessing (traditionally recited after going to the bathroom):

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר יָצַר אֶת־הָאָדָם בְּחָכְמָה וּבָֽרָא בוֹ נְקָבִים נְקָבִים חֲלוּלִים חֲלוּלִים

Blessed are You, Eternal, our God, sovereign of the universe, who formed humans with wisdom and created within many openings and many cavities.

גָּלוּי וְיָדֽוּעַ לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבוֹדֶֽךָ שֶׁאִם יִפָּתֵֽחַ אֶחָד מֵהֶם אוֹ יִסָּתֵם אֶחָד מֵהֶם אִי אֶפְשַׁר לְהִתְקַיֵּם וְלַעֲמֹד לְפָנֶֽיךָ אֲפִילוּ שָׁעָה אֶחָת

It is obvious in the presence of your glorious throne that if one of them were ruptured, or if one of them were blocked, it would be impossible to exist and stand in your presence even one hour.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה רוֹפֵא כָל־בָּשָׂר וּמַפְלִיא לַעֲשׂוֹת

Blessed are You, God, who heals all flesh and performs wonders

Shawn says a brief kavanah connecting the blessing to this moment:

Our bodies are incredibly familiar to us, but they can also confound us:
they are powerful — and vulnerable.
Predictable but always changing.
Each part of the body is astonishing and miraculous.
Sarah, you just recited this brakhah, Asher Yatzar.
It’s a brakhah of gratitude.
Expressing todah — gratitude — for the many parts of our bodies that open and that close.
Expressing yirah — awe…amazement — for the fact that things function, and flow, and work as they should.
And, it’s also a bakashah
a request, asking for support, for strength —
for the ability to function even when things are vulnerable.
Asking for the gift of healing when the body needs it.
For the love and support of the divine.
The human body is a place of miracles. And so is the human soul. The neshamah.
Just like our physical parts, our spirits have parts that are wide open — and parts that are narrow or sometimes hold back.
Please, God, please, protect us and give us boundaries when our souls need them.
And please, open all of us — all of our souls:
open us to wisdom,
open us to others.
Open us to the help and support that is wonderously, miraculously here for us.
Open us to love.
Barukh atah Adonai, rofeh hol basar u’mafliah la’asot.
Blessed are You, God, the divine Healer, who has created us with wisdom.
Thank you for the possibility of healing, and for the miracles of each moment.

לִמּוּד  Learning: Text study on hair and haircutting in the Jewish tradition (20 min)

Link to source sheet

In hevruta, select a few of these sources, read them in any order, and think about what hair and haircutting represent in the Jewish tradition and how that can be useful to Sarah today (5–7 minutes). Then we will come together for a broader discussion about all of them (13–15 minutes).

Conclusion: Beauty, sex appeal, excessive focus on appearance, strength, power, mourning/sadness, transition to celebration.

Conversation about how Sarah is feeling about having short/no hair.

הֲכָנָה  Preparation (6–8 min)

Sarah brings her chair into the middle of the circle and sits there, donning a haircut cape. The stylist puts Sarah’s hair in small ponytails to enable the cut pieces to be at least 8 inches long, to be donated to Children With Hair Loss. As this is happening, guests listen to and sing songs, such as Min Hametzar (three great versions at https://youtu.be/vEKOyGFRdac?t=343).

הִסְתַפְּרוּת וּבְרָכוֹת  Haircut and blessings (10–15 min)

One by one, each guest shares an impromptu thought or blessing if they’d like and then approaches Sarah from behind, places their hand on her shoulders or back, recites one of the verses below, in order, in Hebrew and English, and then cuts a ponytail:

Hazek v’ya'ametz libekh

Be strong and of good courage!

(adapted from Psalms 27:14)

עֹז־וְהָדָ֥ר לְבוּשָׁ֑הּ וַ֝תִּשְׂחַ֗ק לְי֣וֹם אַחֲרֽוֹן

Oz v’hadar l’vusha vatiskhak l’yom akharon

She is clothed with strength and beauty;

She looks to the future cheerfully.

(Proverbs 31:25)

אֵל נָא רְפָא נָא לָֽהּ

El na r’fa na la.

Please God, please heal her.

(Numbers 12:13)

עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם בִּמְרוֹמָיו, הוּא יַעֲשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם עָלֵיֽנוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאִמְרוּ: אָמֵן.

Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya'aseh shalom aleynu, v’al kol yisrael v’imru amen.

May he who makes peace in the heavens make peace among us and the entire Jewish people. (Siddur)

יַעֲל֥וּ אֵ֖בֶר כַּנְּשָׁרִ֑ים יָר֙וּצוּ֙ וְלֹ֣א יִיגָ֔עוּ יֵלְכ֖וּ וְלֹ֥א יִיעָֽפוּ׃

Ya’alu ever k’n’sharim; ya-rutzu v’lo yi-ga’u, yaylkhu v’lo yi-a’fu.

Soar on wings like eagles; run and do not grow weary, walk and do not become tired.

(Isaiah 40:30; adapted)

כִּֽי־עִ֭מְּךָ מְק֣וֹר חַיִּ֑ים בְּ֝אוֹרְךָ֗ נִרְאֶה־אֽוֹר׃

Ki imkha m’kor hayyim; b’orkha nireh or.

With You is the source of life; we see light by Your light.

(Psalms 36:12)

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אוֹזֵר יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּגְבוּרָה:

Barukh atah Adonai, Elohaynu melekh ha-Olam, ozer Yisrael bi’g’vurah.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, 

who equips Israel with strength.

(Siddur; based on Brachot 60b)

יְבָרֶכְךָ יהוה  וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ

Y’varekhekha adonai v’yishmerekha

May God bless you and protect you.

(Numbers 6:24) 

יָאֵר יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ‎

Ya'er adonai panav elekha vikhuneka

May God shine God’s face upon you and be gracious to you.

(Numbers 6:25)

יִשָּׂא יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם‎ 

Yisa adonai panav elekha veyasem lekha shalom

May God lift up God’s face to you

And bring you peace.

(Numbers 6:26)

While the stylist finishes the haircut, the group sings songs: 

:Sarah looks in the mirror and recites

מִן-הַמֵּצַר קָרָאתִי יָּהּ, עָנָנִי בַמֶּרְחָב יָהּ

יְהוָה לִי, לֹא אִירָא, מַה-יַּעֲשֶׂה לִי אָדָם

Min hameitzar karati ya, anani vamerkhav ya.

Adonai li, lo ira, mah ya'aseh li adam.

From my narrow place I called “God”;

He answered me with expansiveness.

God is with me; I will not be afraid;

What can humanity do for me?

(i.e., medical treatment, support)

(Psalms 118:5–6)

עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ וַיְהִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה

Ozi v’zimrat yah vayehi li lishua

My strength and the song of God will be my salvation

(Psalms 118:14, Exodus 15:2)

Sarah looks in the mirror and tries on some hats and scarves.

הַבְדָּלָה  Separation (3–5 min)

Sarah explains why Havdalah is relevant here:

  • Havdalah expresses wonder at various distinctions: kodesh from hol, light from dark, etc. Chemo separates the dangerous cancer cells from the otherwise healthy body.

  • Havdalah highlights multiple senses. Chemo might affect several of my senses: sight, taste, and touch. May this Havdalah ceremony bode well for my senses remaining intact. And may I remember that any effects on my body are likely only temporary.

Together we all recite Havdalah (but with no melody – to distinguish it from Saturday night):

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם בּוֹרֵא פְּרִי הַגָּפֶן

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, בּוֹרֵא מִינֵי בְשָׂמִים 

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, Creator of many kinds of spices.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, בּוֹרֵא מְאוֹרֵי הָאֵשׁ

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, Creator of the fire’s light.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, הַמַּבְדִיל בֵּין קֹֽדֶשׁ לְחוֹל, בֵּין אוֹר לְחֹֽשֶׁךְ, בֵּין יִשְׂרָאֵל לָעַמִּים, בֵּין יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי לְשֵֽׁשֶׁת יְמֵי הַמַּעֲשֶׂה

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, who distinguishes between the sacred and the mundane, between light and darkness, between Israel and other people of the world, between the seventh day and the six days of the week. 

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, הַמַּבְדִיל בֵּין קֹֽדֶשׁ לְחוֹל

Blessed are You, who distinguishes between the sacred and the mundane

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