Mourning During the Omer
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493:1 These days which are between Pesach and Shavuos are held by all of Israel now for many hundreds of years to be days of judgement and mourning. Because in these short days, 12,000 pairs of sages, students of Rabbi Aqiva, died (c.f. Yevavmos 62b). And they all died of askara.
And more, we see that the majority of the days of the decrees in the early hundreds [of the 6th Jewish millennium, ie the Crusades] that were passed in France and Germany were in these days. As is explained in the liturgical poems that our predecessors composed for these Shabbasos between Pesach and Shavuos, which are full of lamentations, contemplations and outcry. And there are other reasons why these are considered days of justice.
493:2 Therefore all of Israel since the days of the geonim adopted the custom of not marrying a woman in the time between Pesach and Shavuos. And they didn’t distinguish between someone who is getting married for a particular mitzvah (such as if he didn’t yet have children) or not. Even though in full mourning there are such distinctions, in this case they were stringent on themselves. In any case, someone who violates this custom and weds is not punished, becuse he did a mitzvah. All the more so if he saw that the engagement could fall apart.
However, to get engaged — this is very good. And so matching couples and writing tana’im [engagement agreement terms; i.e. formally getting engaged] is considered permissible by us “lest someone else will arrive first” [as the Talmud puts it]. And one may make a party, but not with dancing. All the more so it is prohibited to make music with instruments. Any non-mitzvah party is also permissible, such as a meal just for friendship, as long as there isn’t dancing.
– Arukh haShulchan, Orakh Chaim 493:1-2
(Sidenote on askara. Most translate the word to mean diptheria, that Rabbi Aqiva’s students died in an epidemic. According to Rav Hai Gaon, “askara” is a transliteration of the Greek word “sicari”, a dagger, or the class of soldier who were armed with daggers. He understands them to have been killed during the Roman persecutions.)
Notice that the custom of not making weddings dates back to the ge’onim, before the Crusades. The implication here is that not making weddings is a practice that commemorates the loss of Rabbi Akiva’s students in particular.
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493:3 And similarly they enacted a custom in these countries not to get a haircut during these days, for it too is a concept of mourning. And whomever gets a haircut — we fine him for breaking a custom, not a halachic obligation. It is simple that if he needs to get a haircut for his health, it is permitted. Similarly if there is a beris during these days, the people involved in the beris — the mohel, the sandeq, and the baby’s father — are permitted to get a haircut right before the evening of the day before the beris, because it is a holiday for them.
– Ibid, no. 3
Notice that the custom of not cutting one’s hair is described as later, and particular to the lands R’ Yechiel Michl Epstein (the author) lived in, the lands the Ashkenazim moved to when fleeing the Crusaders.
It would seem to be implied that omer mourning customs grew in two stages:
During the ge’onic period, the custom arose not to make weddings which grew into a ban on all parties that include dancing or musical instruments.
After the Crusades, the communities consequently founded in Eastern Europe intensified the mourning of the omer period by also including a ban on haircuts.
The two events being commemorated, though, apparently happened during different parts of the omer. There is a tradition, recorded in the Qitzur Shulchan Arukh, that part of the celebration of Lag baOmer is that it marks the end of the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students. In other words, Rabbi Akiva’s students died in the first 32 days of the omer. However, the Crusaders arrived at the Rhineland at the beginning of the First Crusade (1096) in the second part of the omer. The Jews of Speyer were attacked on the 23rd day of the omer, the ghetto in Worms (Vermaiza, as Jews called it) was attacked for a period starting on day 38, Mainz on day 45, and Cologne on Shavu’os.
And yet, each became associated with the concept of sefiras haOmer as a whole not with their specific dates. How did that arise?
Rabbi Aqiva was a survivor. He was killed in the Hadrianic persecutions sometime around 135 CE, which means he was alive during the fall of Yerushalayim, the destruction of the second Beis haMiqdash and the Roman conquest of Judea.
An entire world destroyed because of sin’as chinam — hatred that had no basis, or perhaps that had no productive purpose. The Judaism they knew, centered on the Beis haMiqdash, was gone. Rabbi Aqiva heard of some people who refused to ever sing again, to ever eat meat again. “How can we have meat on our tables, when His is bare? How can we sing for ourselves, when the levi’im have stopped singing His praises?” And Rabbi Akiva had to teach them that life goes on. As Bereishis Rabba puts it — before He created this world, “hayah borei olamos umacharivam — He was creating worlds and destroying them.” Rabbi Aqiva imitated this quality, out to rebuild the destroyed world.
Of all the special times at the Beis haMiqdash, most of the special worship was on holidays. That’s when we had the qorban mussaf, when people were obligated to travel to Yerushalayim with their shelamim and todos, with their bikurim. All of these days carry a biblical obligation to be happy. All but one period — the omer. The omer is a time when that lost world was felt, and there is no countermanding obligation to celebrate the day.
But Rabbi Akiva was determined to go on. To build a new world. And so he built an education system, 24,000 students strong. But they too hadn’t fully purged themselves of the problem. While they didn’t outright hate each other, they failed to accord their peers the proper respect. And Hashem then destroyed that world he was building.
When did He do so? During the omer, the time when everyone was already feeling particularly homesick for Hashem’s presence among us.
But Rabbi Aqiva started again, building a third world. This time he only had five students to work with. And this time his world flourished, and still survives. He handed the mishnah compilation project to Rav Meir, who in turn passed it to Rav Yehudah haNasi, and from it all of our halakhah flows. Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai similarly became the founTainhead for Qabbalah. It is no coincidence that Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai’s day of celebration is also during the omer.
Similarly, the Crusaders destroyed a world. Ashkenazic Torah centers move from Ashkenaz to Easter Europe, with a relatively small number of “Yekkes” remaining. We held onto that old world nostalgically; even as we rebuilt new communities in Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Rumania, Galicia, etc… we held onto Yiddish, a Germanic language, as part of our tie to that past. Destroying worlds and rebuilding them.
The omer, it would seem, became a time for mourning those lost worlds. That’s the unifying theme of these tragedies. The custom of mourning on omer began with a halt on weddings. Who can think of building a bayis ne’eman beYisrael, an everlasting home in Israel, in this period?
Even today, as we rebuild after the greatest tragedy to befall the Jewish nation since the destruction of the Temple and the consequent loss of life — a tragedy that underlies and enabled every calamity of this exile.
The famous seder in Benei Beraq mentioned in the seider happened during Rabbi Aqiva’s “third world”. Rabbi JB Soloveitchikzt”l asked about it: Why would the students interrupt the teachers’ seider to tell them it was time for Shema? Here were 5 of the greatest rabbis in Torah history, and they had the chutzpah to think they needed help on a basic point like when to say Shema? Did they think that they weren’t sufficiently cautious in this mitzvah?
Rabbi Soloveitchik explained that that was the point of the story. Not that the teachers needed teaching, but they needed to be reminded that there was a new generation. As long as there are people carrying on, saying Shema each morning and evening, the world will be rebuilt.
Rabbi Soloveitchik too saw the old world before it was destroyed, and strived to build a new one in America. He once caught himself overjoyed listening to some children in Maimonides learning a mishnah: For this, I get excited? Children in Chaslovitch would have known such things far younger. Would have known more. Would have lived in a world where they don’t need school to be taught basics like tzitzis and yarmulka.
But R’ Soloveitchik tied it to this idea. You take what you have, and you build anew.
We must build again. Step by step, day by day. And that too is a message of this period; in fact, it’s part of the original biblical message. “With 48 qualities the Torah is acquired…” and one day of review.
Today is the 38th day of the omer.