Mourning’s End – Understanding Sefira and Lag B’Omer

The Torah’s Honor

The untimely demise of a Torah giant impacts every Jew, leaving a deep feeling of loss. If two Torah leaders died on one day (G-d forbid), the tragedy would be immense. We cannot even fathom how we would feel if the number was ten, fifty, or a hundred. In this light, we can begin to grasp the devastation of 24,000 Torah scholars dying between Pesach and Shavous, all students of Rabbi Akiva.

Our Sages reveal that they all died for the same reason: they did not honor each other properly ( Yevamos 62b). Their failure to honor their colleagues prevented them from appreciating words of Torah said by others. As a result their understanding of Torah was confined to their own insight, an extremely limited perception. Lacking total comprehension, they were not worthy to pass the Torah on to the next generation.

This flaw was rooted so deep in their conduct that they were not aware of it. Even Rabbi Akiva did not perceive it and never reproached them for it. If so, why were they punished so severely? The period between Pesach and Shavous is a time when a Jew is meant to prepare himself to receive the Torah. They should have used this opportunity to look within themselves and recognize their shortcomings. Instead, their souls were returned to their Creator.

Because of this tragedy, the Jewish people observe a period of national mourning between Pesach and Shavous. During this time we refrain from getting married, taking haircuts and shaving ( Shulchan Aruch 493:1-2). In addition, the accepted custom is not to listen to music ( Igros Moshe 1,166 and other poskim ) or to dance, even at a seudas mitzva ( Mishna Berura 493,3).

Days of Mourning
Although the students of Rabbi Akiva died between Pesach and Shavous, all agree that there were not deaths on every single day of this period. Some Rishonim cite a Midrash which says that the students died continuously from Pesach until “ Prus, ” half a month before Shavous (Abudraham , Razah and others.) According to this calculation, mourning should be observed as long as the deaths continued, i.e. until the 19th of Iyar, the 34th day of the Omer . This is the conclusion of the Shulchan Aruch (493,2) and the accepted practice among Sephardim.
Other poskim cite a comment by Tosfos saying that they continued to die until right before Shavous (Maharil). However they did not die on the sixteen days that Tachanun is not said (i.e. seven days of Pesach, six days of Shabbos, and three days of Rosh Chodesh ) leaving a total of thirty-three days. Those who accept this version do not mourn on the exact days that the students died, but rather during a corresponding thirty-three day period established by our Sages.

The Rema follows this view and it is the accepted practice among Ashkenazim (Rema 493:2-3 citing Maharil see Bach ). Some have the custom to observe this period from the second day of Pesach to Lag B’Omer, and others from the day after Rosh Chodesh of Iyar until Shavous.

Dancing at Two Weddings

What are the practical implications of these two different understandings? According to the Sephardi custom , one may not celebrate a wedding until the thirty-fourth day of the Omer . According to the Ashkenazi custom, a wedding may be held until the second of Iyar, or from Lag B’Omer onwards (depending on the custom of the parties involved).

However in certain areas there is a halachic concept of miktzas hayom c’kulo (part of a day is like a full day). For this reason, although seven days of shiva are required, a mourner “gets up” from shiva on the morning of the last day. Therefore Ashkenazim may take a haircut after sunrise of the thirty-third day of mourning, and Sephardim after sunrise of the thirty-fourth day.

May one officiate or participate at a wedding which falls during the period of mourning one observes? An Ashkenazi who knows he will attend a wedding during the Omer ahead of time should follow the custom which places the date of the wedding outside of his mourning period if possible. However at times this is not possible, e.g. he has two weddings, each in a different period.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that since attending a wedding is a fulfillment of the mitzva of rejoicing with a bride and groom, and the couple are allowed to get married at times permitted according to their custom, it is permissible to attend a simcha during one’s Sefira mourning period (Responsa Igros Moshe, 1,159; 2,95).

The Rema rules that since a bris mila is considered to be a personal Yom Tov for the father of the child, he may have a haircut the day before. The haircut should take place close to nightfall unless the bris is on Shabbos, in which case he may do it at any time on Friday. The same halacha applies to the Sandek and the Mohel , for the bris is also considered to be a Yom Tov for them ( Mishna Berura 493,12).

If one needs to take a haircut for health reasons one may be lenient and do so during Sefira ( Aruch HaShulchan 493,2). If one will sustain a financial loss (e.g., you may lose your job) it is permitted to shave or get a haircut (Responsa Igros Moshe , Orach Chaim 4,102). Similarly if one is learning to play a musical instrument for financial reasons, he may practice during Sefira ( ibid . 3,87).

Lag B’Omer
A number of poskim maintain that according to the Rema, a wedding may be celebrated on the night of Lag B’Omer ( Chok Yaakov , Elya Rabba , Graz , Mor Ukatzia Igros Moshe ibid . and others). Since Lag B’Omer is a Yom Tov in its own right, one should not mourn on that day. A proof for this is that Tachanun is not said during Mincha on Lag B’Omer or the day before ( Mishna Berura 493,9). If one has a good reason to hold a wedding on the night of Lag B’Omer, one should consult with a rabbi.

The commentators are unclear on the exact nature of Lag B’Omer ( Pri Megadim ). There are a number of reasons offered for the festival, all of which share a common theme – the strengthening and beautification of Torah for the Jewish nation. In this light, Lag B’Omer fits well into the period between Pesach and Shavous, which is a time of preparation to receive the Torah. At the same time, this period serves as a rectification for the transgressions that brought about the original decree against Rabbi Akiva’s students.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai
It is commonly believed that Lag B’Omer has significance because it is the anniversary of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s death, as well as the day that he and his son left the cave after years of hiding from the Romans ( Kaf HaChaim 493,27; Aruch HaShulchan 493,7; Chaye Adam 131,11 and others). On the day of his death Rabbi Shimon revealed the mystical insights of the Zohar and he did not die until he had completed this revelation ( Bnei Yissaschar, Iyar 3,3). To commemorate this momentous transmission, Rabbi Shimon stipulated that Lag B’Omer should be a day of simcha and promised tremendous reward to those who would rejoice on this day at his graveside . As a result many have the custom to ascend to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Eliezer in Meron to celebrate Lag B’Omer.

The Ari relates an incredible story which sheds light on the magnitude of this day. A great tzadik named Rabbi Avraham HaLevi had the custom to add the prayer of nachem (consolation for mourning) to Shemonah Esreh during the Omer . One year he went to Meron for Lag B’Omer and said nachem usual. The image of Rabbi Shimon appeared to him and told him that he had desecrated this holy day with his prayer, and as a result he would need consolation in the near future. Within a month one of Rabbi Avraham’s children died ( Magen Avraham 493,3 ; Kaf HaChaim 493,26.)

Lag B’Omer is an auspicious time to pray to be blessed with children and it is a well-known segula to pray for this purpose at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon on the day. Some people also distribute eighteen rotel (a fluid measure) of wine or grape juice, another act considered auspicious.

The sanctity of the day has the power to restore life as well. More than a hundred years ago a woman ascended to Meron on Lag B’Omer to give her son his first haircut on his third birthday. In the midst of the celebration the boy suddenly fell deathly ill and shortly afterwards everyone thought that he had passed away. His mother cried to Hashem that she had brought her son to rejoice on Lag B’Omer and instead tragedy had befallen her. Shortly afterwards, she heard the boy crying and he soon recovered ( Ta’amei HaMinhagim p. 263).

Other poskim also associate Lag B’Omer with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in a different way. After the death of his 24,000 students, Rabbi Akiva acquired five new disciples, one of them was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. On Lag B’Omer he gave them semicha , declaring them to be rabbis, thereby assuring that the transmission of the Torah would not be halted by the death of his previous students but would continue with his five new disciples ( Chida, Tov Ayin 18.)

The Miracle of Manna
The Chasam Sofer has a different approach to the nature of Lag B’Omer ( Responsa, Yoreh Deah 233). He proves that when the Jewish people left Egypt they first received the Divine sustenance of the manna on Lag B’Omer. Just as the miracles of Chanukah and Purim are commemorated with national festivals, so too we remember the manna on Lag B’Omer.

One should keep in mind that the manna was not just a source of food for the Jews in the desert. It provided spiritual sustenance that elevated the Jewish people, enabling them to later learn Torah ( Meam Loez, Shemos 16,12). In this respect it has a direct connection to the receiving of Torah and it is appropriate to commemorate this event before Shavous.

The Talmud ( Yavamos 62b) tells us that the students of Rabbi Akiva were punished because they did not show honor for one another. This statement implies that they felt respect for each other but they did not outwardly show it.

In these troubled times it is incumbent upon the Jewish people to look for ways to find favor in Hashem’s Eyes, especially in this matter where we have transgressed in the past.

Demonstrating respect for all of our fellow Jews is no trivial matter. It is an essential prerequisite to receiving the Torah.

Rabbi Travis is the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Toras Chaim.

Originally published here on 5/4/2007

17 comments on “Mourning’s End – Understanding Sefira and Lag B’Omer

  1. Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 306:

    We were commanded to start counting the day after the Passover holiday until the day of the giving of the Torah, to implant in our souls a great desire for that honorable and desirable day, like a slave who strives for shade, and every day he counts how much longer he has until the desirable time when he goes to freedom…

    CHRONOLOGY: Sefer HaChinuch was published anonymously in Spain in the 1200s of the Common Era.
    To receive quick quotes from Jewish Torah books

  2. If the author would look more carefully at the words of the Aruch HaShuchan, I think he would realize that the AS does *not* concede that Lag b’Omer is Shimon bar Yochai’s yarhzeit — he just says people are accustomed to calling it that.

  3. There is a wonderful shiur by R D S Leiman at YU Torah as to the development of the Minhagei Aveilus during Sefiras HaOmer.

  4. You could say the same thing about the second added-on day of Yom Tov. Now that we have accurate astronomical calendars, and no longer mark the New Moon by the testimony of witnesses, being that all Roshei Chadashim were sanctified up until the year 6000, why should Yom Tov still need to be celebrated for two days? Why not celebrate just the biblical one day of Yom Tov? Our Gedolim have stated that this has been the halacha for centuries. Sorry I don’t have a source, but I’m sure other contributors do. It all goes down to listening and following our Gedolei HaTorah.

    As far as the mourning period of Sefirah goes, I have read that most of the massacres of the Crusades took place between Pesach and Shavuos, and that this time period was always marked by troubles for the Jewish people. Maybe we still don’t have enough time for fasting and mourning, given the 500,000 Jews slaughtered in the Gezeros Tach veTat and the six million murdered in the Holocaust.

    Someone once said that he found the festive day of Purim more difficult than the mourning day of Tisha B’Av, in that it was easier to find what to cry over than to celebrate. In fact, in Poland, there used to be another fast day held on the 20th of Sivan to commemorate the dead of the Chmielnicki massacres. In modern Israel, Yom HaShoah is observed on the 27 day of Nissan and Yom HaZikaron is observed on the 4th day of Iyar. If you look at the Timelines and Weekly Calendars featured in many Jewish newspapers, looking back on that date in Jewish history, there’s no day of the year that didn’t have some bad news for the Jews, whether it was Jews getting expelled from some town or Jews getting killed in another.

    As far as the mourning practices of Sefirah go, in actuality they are not very restrictive, not like the Nine Days. It doesn’t make our lives that much harder. If there’s a need to buy new clothing or build part of a house, speak to a Poseik. I believe that the halachos of Sefirah (compared to those of the Nine Days) are rather lenient.

    The commentators on Breishis have discussed that the 317 men who accompanied Avrohom Avinu were just Eliezer (from the gematria of Eliezer). Maybe the 24,000 students were 24 outstanding students who were the equal in learning and piety of 24,000 ordinary people. There is much in our Mesorah and in Torah Sheh Baal Peh that we do not understand properly, being out of that culture and that mindset. Think about the references that Rashi includes in his commentary in Old French. People of his time (the year 1070 or so) and his culture (Provence) knew what he was talking about, but we are unsure (in fact, scholars of Old French turn to Hebrew translations of Rashi to figure out what those words mean). If you studied Shakespeare or Jane Austen or even Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas with an annotated edition, you realize that there could be a lot of potential misunderstanding because we no longer “get” the “in-jokes.” Will people two hundred years from now comprehend the newspaper headline, “Blackhawks Downed”? (Referring to the hockey team losing and not to the fighter planes or the action novel or the birds).

    There is a lot of seemingly weird stuff in the Gemara that cannot be taken literally. Some have suggested that a code was needed in those days when informers and censors were only to happy to report troublesome passages to the anti-Semitic authorities. So the reference to the death of 24,000 students because they did not respect each other enough could be code for the death of participants in the armed uprising of Bar Kochba, as suggested by a poster above.

  5. Nathan, it’s been even longer since the destruction of our Second Temple, not to mention the first. Why don’t you find 9 Av to be passe?

  6. I regret the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students as much as anyone, but after 19 centuries of mourning their deaths [which has accomplished nothing], I believe it is really time to say enough already. I want to see the mourning period of the first 33 days of Sefirat HaOmer cancelled, along with the totally unnecessary extra day of Yom Tov we celebrate outside Eretz Yisrael.

    I have been a Baal Teshuvah for decades, and it seems to me that the only thing accomplished by these questionable holidays is that it becomes more difficult to be a Jew.

    Think of it this way: Even without the mourning period of the first 33 days of Sefirat HaOmer, we still have five fast days every year and the mourning period of the Three Weeks from 17 Tammuz to 9 Av. Isn’t that enough fasting and mourning?

  7. “The Chasam Sofer has a different approach to the nature of Lag B’Omer ( Responsa, Yoreh Deah 233)…..”

    Since you are citing the Chasam Sofer, it’s only fair that it also be mentioned that the Chasam Sofer, in that very same responsum, as well as elsewhere, questioned the idea of making a new yomtov not mentioned in Chazal and making a holiday of the day of the death of a tzaddik, which traditionally is a time for fasting/mourning (e.g. day Moshe Rabbeinu was niftar, day Yehoshua bin Nun passed away). He went on to say that he would not take part in the pilgrimage to Meron and festivities there.

    The Ashkenazic position on lag baomer, as seen in the writings of the Chasam Sofer and elsewhere, is different than the Chassidic one. The Ashkenazic approach is to treat it as only a limited, semi-holiday, no bonfires, upsherens (the Ashkenazic minhag is not to do upsheren even during the rest of the year) or Meron pilgrimages.

  8. Is there any support in Chazal for the suggestions above about the meaning of “24,000 students”?

  9. R Gil posted a wonderful Dvar Torah from RHS on Lab BaOmer. We can ask-would the cessation of the deaths of R Akiva’s students be a sufficient basis for a celebration? NO-the key is that we are celebrating the continuation of the Mesorah by R Akiva’s five remaining Talmidim who are the anchors of TSBP.In this post Holocaust era, the opening of yeshivos, etc is especially a cause for celebration.

  10. Related question: If you add up all the people learning in yeshivos throughout EY today how many are there? Does anyone have an idea?

    When we say Rabbi Akiva had 24,000 talmidim it could include all the people learning at that time, and since he was the gadol hador it was as if they were all his (even though there were many roshei yeshiva and yeshivos).

  11. OK, fair enough, but can we contemplate a world in which there were 24,000 people of such stature?! I suppose we could say, “Yes, that’s the point,” but yes, I have this “problem.”

    Interestingly, head counts in the Torah are a “problem.” We are told by and large not to make them. When the Torah does they stream flat-footed credulity. The Torah plainly states there were 600,000 men of warrior age that left Egypt, requiring a total population figure of 2-3 million — a demographic feat from the 70 who arrived not so many generations earlier which requires a frank ascription by Chazal of extraordinary miracles, comparable to those surrounding Yetzias Mizrayim that nonetheless do not justify an explicit mention in the Torah.

    Some things “bother” us more than others. These have always gnawed at me. I don’t feel I need resolution to be a good Jew, but intellectually I must be honest — I don’t get it.

  12. Ron, I don’t propose a direct answer to your question; but I will point out a few things as possible.

    “Students” does not have to mean someone who only sits and learns full time. Nor does it only have to mean directly from his mouth.

    Rabbi Akiva was the spiritual giant of Bar Kochva’s revolt against the Romans. His influence extendeded in some way (possibly quite significant, since he held Bar Kochba to be the candidate for Mashiah) throughout Bar Kochba’s armies.

    When Rav Moshe Tzvi Neriah died some years ago, tens of thousands turned out for his funeral. More turned out for memorials for him. He founded Yeshivot Bnei Akiva with one beit midrash in Kfar Haroeh in the early forties (the idea came to him in ’39). Over a few short decades it turned into a network of yeshiva high schools, ulpanot (girl’s hs seminaries), post hs institutions and some of the yeshivot Hesder. Someone commented at the time that until Rav Neriah’s funeral, they never understood how Rabbi Akiva could have so many students. Seeing all the people who called themselves Rav Neriah’s students in some sense (as seen in public gatherings, articles and electronic forums over the next several weeks), he could now easily understand how a giant like Rabbi Akiva could have tens of thousands of students.

    Just food to feed the thoughts….

  13. I have always had trouble understanding this. How could Rabbi Akiva have tens of thousands of students, so many that 24,000 would be the elite? Is there anything else we have from that time that suggests the number of people learning was so massive?

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