Question: It is customary not to get married and not to shave or cut one’s hair between Pesah and Lag Ba’omer or Pesah and Shavuot. Why is mourning during Sefirah during the period of Sefirat Ha’omer (the counting of the omer ) is customary? Is there any point in maintaining these mourning customs today? (This responsum is an expanded version of Golinkin, 1984 and Golinkin 1991 (see the Bibliography below). In this teshuvah, we have quoted the major primary sources and added recent scholarship on the subject).
I) The Rabbi Akiva Theory
This question was first asked of Rav Natronai Gaon (ca. 719 c.e. or 859 c.e.) or of Rav Hai Gaon (cl. 1038): (Halakhot Pesukot Min Hageonim, ed. J. Muller, Cracow, 1893, p. 54 attributed this teshuvah to Rav Natronai Gaon, but there were two Geonim by that name. Yerahmiel Brody, Teshuvot Rav Natronai Bar Hilai Gaon, Jerusalem, 1994, p. 48, note 90 ascribes this responsum with caution to Rav Hai Gaon).
And regarding your question, why don’t we betroth or marry between Pesah and Atzeret (Shavuot) – is it because of an actual prohibition or not?
You should know that this does not stem from a prohibition but from a mourning custom, for so said our Sages: “Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples and they all died between Pesah and Atzeret because they didn’t treat each other with respect” and they further taught “and they all died a cruel death from diphtheria” (Yevamot 62b). And from that time forward the Rishonim (early sages) had the custom not to marry on these days, but he who jumps and marries, we do not punish him by punishment or lashes, but if he comes to ask before the fact, we do not instruct him to marry. And as for betrothal, he who wants to betroth between Pesah and Atzeret betroths, because the main joy is the [marriage] huppah (canopy). (Otzar Hageonim to Yevamot p. 141, parag. 327).
As Rabbi David Feldman has pointed out (Feldman, 1962, note 3) the Gaon’s opinion was quoted and/or accepted by many medieval codifiers including R. Yitzhak ibn Ghayat (Spain, 11th Century), R. Avraham Hayarhi (Toledo, 13 th Century), R. Zidkiyahu ben Avraham Harofe (Italy, 13 th Century), and R. Joshua Ibn Shuib, R. Shimon ben Zemah Duran and Rabbeinu Yeruham (14 th Century)
The Gaon in his Responsum was referring to a famous passage found in Yevamot 62b:
It was said that R. Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, from Gabbat to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until R. Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were R. Meir, R. Judah, R. Yossi, R. Shimon and R. Elazar b. Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: All of them died between Pesah and Shavuot. R. Hamma ben Abba or, it might be said, R. Hiyya b. Abin said: All of them died a cruel death. What was it? R. Nahman replied: Diphtheria.
Quite a few modern scholars took this passage as a veiled reference to the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 c.e.) since Rabbi Akiva was an avid supporter of Bar Kokhba, who considered him the Messiah ( Yerushalmi Ta’anit 4:8, fol. 68d). They maintained that 24,000 Jewish soldiers were killed by the Romans between Pesah and Shavuot, except on Lag Ba’omer which was a military victory. This was the opinion of R. Nahaman Krochmal, Joseph Derenbourg, R. Yitzhak Nissenbaum, and Professors Shmuel Safrai, Aaron Oppenheimer and Haim Licht (R. Nahman Krochmal is quoted by Feldman, EJ , col. 1388. The other scholars are listed in the Bibliography below).
Nonetheless, the Rabbi Akiva theory is extremely problematic for a number of reasons:
Indeed, Dr. Aaron Amit of Bar Ilan University and the Schechter Institute has recently shown that this story has no historical basis at all. It was woven together from various legendary motifs in order to illustrate Rabbi Akiva’s opinion in Avot D’rabbi Nattan (ed. Schechter, pp. 15-16) that just as a person should teach disciples in his youth, he should continue to do so in his old age. It was the Babylonian Amoraim who added the motifs of “from Pesah to Atzeret” and diphtheria.
II) The Lemuralia Theory
In 1869, Dr. Julius Landsberger explained that the Jewish period of mourning during Sefirah, from Pesah until Lag Ba’omer, was borrowed from the Romans. According to Ovid (43 b.c.e.-18 c.e.), the Romans did not marry during the 31 days of May which is called Lemuralia. These are funeral rites honoring the souls of the departed which return to wander over the earth, disturbing the peace of the living. Lemuralia rites were held during this season and no Roman maiden would risk her happiness by marrying in May. This superstition later migrated from Rome to France, Scotland and Germany and gave birth to the popular couplets: “If you marry in Lent, you will live to repent” and “Marry in May, rue the day”. Indeed, this is why so many people get married in June! Theodore Gaster later concurred with this theory (pp. 52-53).
III) The Gehinom Theory
Rabbi David Abudraham (Spain, 14 th Century), says that we count the Omer from Pesah to Shavuot because the world is in pain ( tsa’ar ) from Pesah to Shavuot regarding the grains and the trees ( Abudraham Hashalem , Jerusalem, 1959, p. 241). This explanation was repeated by Rabbi Ya’akov Reischer (Germany, 1670-1733) in his Hok Ya’akov to Orah Hayyim 493: “because these are the days of Judgment regarding the grain”.
These Rabbis were influenced by many rabbinic sources, which say that the crops are judged between Pesah and Shavuot:
Theodore Gaster (p. 52) summarized this explanation as follows: “The days or weeks preceding the harvest and opening of the agricultural year, [are] a time when the corporate life of the community is, so to speak, in eclipse”.
V) Reinterpretation of the Custom
The result of this uncertainty regarding the reasons for mourning during the Sefirah season has been that many Jews no longer observe these customs. Indeed, it is very difficult for rabbis to justify such an observance to their congregants on the basis of the reasons cited above. As a result, the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has, over the years, relaxed many of the restrictions connected with the Sefirah season (See the summary in Rabbi Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, New York, 1979, pp. 143-144). However, if one examines medieval Jewish history, one concludes that the appropriate action is not to abolish the customs of mourning during the Sefirah season but rather to reinterpret them. This is what happened in 1096 after the First Crusade, as Salo Baron explained:
Since most of the massacres had taken place in the spring months of Iyyar and Sivan, a heavy pall fell on the traditional period of the Sefirat HaOmer. This entire seven week interval was now reemphasized as a protected period of national mourning (Salo Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, second edition, Vol. IV, Philadelphia, 1957, p. 145 and p. 310, note 67).
Indeed, this is the explanation given by Sefer Minhag Tov which was written in Italy in the 13 th century: the mourning is “in honor of the pious and upright who sacrificed themselves in order to sanctify God’s name” (ed. Weiss in Hazofeh 13 , p. 231, No. 61). A similar explanation was given by Sefer Assufot which was written in the thirteenth century by a disciple of Rabbi Elazar of Worms: “that people do not marry between Pesah and Atzeret, this is because of the pain of the decrees, that the communities were killed in this entire kingdom” (Feldman, 1962, note 46). This explanation was repeated by Rabbi David Halevi (Poland, 1586-1667) in the Taz to Orah Hayyim 493 (subpar. 2) and by Rabbi Yehiel Mikhal Epstein (Russia, 1829-1908) in his Arukh Hashulhan (Orah Hayyim 493).
Similarly, after the Chmielnicki massacres which took place in the spring of 1648, the Sefirah season was reemphasized as a period of mourning for the martyrs of that time. As Rabbi Yaakov Emden (Germany, d. 1776) wrote in his Siddur Bet Ya’akov (ed. Lemberg, 1904, p. 268): “Rabbi Akiva’s students died and, due to our many sins, a number of communities were destroyed at the same time of year during the Crusades in Ashkenaz and in 1648 in Poland”.
Thus we see that the restrictions of the Sefirah season were continuously reinterpreted. The Geonim took a group of already existing customs and explained them as signs of mourning for R. Akiva’s students. Medieval halakhic authorities took an already existing period of mourning and reinterpreted it to commemorate the massacres of the Crusades. Rabbi Ya’akov Emden did the same regarding the Chmielnicki massacres. We can and should continue this process. We should re-designate this traditional period of mourning – which also coincides with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of Nissan-Sivan 5703 – as a period of mourning for the Six Million. The halakhic restrictions have existed for over a thousand years; all we need do is reapply them and reinterpret them in light of the tragedy confronting us.
By declaring the Sefirah season a period of mourning for the martyrs of the Shoah, we will achieve two objectives:
1) We will be following in the footsteps of the Men of the Great Assembly shehehziru attarah leyoshnah (Yoma 69b). They revitalized ancient customs that had fallen into disuse.
2) We will be commemorating the Holocaust in a manner befitting the magnitude of the tragedy. Yom Hashoah will not be just a one-day event, but will become part of the Sefirah season dedicated to mourning for the Six Million (I have purposely omitted two important topics in this responsum. Regarding the different periods of mourning during Sefirah (from Pesah until Lag Baomer or from Rosh Hodesh Iyar until Shavuot etc. etc.) see Rabbi Adler and Rabbi Sperber. Regarding exactly why we rejoice on Lag Ba’omer, see Ben Ezra, Feldman, Gaster, Goren, Kafih, Lieberman and Morgen stern).
The 22 nd day of the Omer 5767
Aaron Amit, “The Death of Rabbi Akiva’s Disciples: A Literary History” Journal of Jewish Studies, 56/2 (Autumn 2005), pp. 265-284.
Akiva Ben Ezra, Minhagey Hagim, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 5723, pp. 254-257 (Hebrew)
Joseph Derenbourg, REJ 29 (1894), p. 149 (French)
Theodore Gaster, Festivals of the Jewish Year, New York, 1952, pp. 51-58
Zekhariah Goren, Mehkirey Hag 3 (1992), pp. 36-43 (Hebrew)
Julius Landsberger, Judische Zeitschrift fur Wissenschaft and Leben 7 (1869), pp. 81-96 (German; summarized by Rabbi Feldman, 1962, p. 202 and note 11)
Saul Lieberman “Mashehu al Mefarshim Kadmonim Layerushalmi”, Sefer Hayovel L’Alexander Marx, New York, 1950, pp. 298-299 = Mehkarim B’torat Eretz Yisrael, Jerusalem, 1991, pp. 307-308 (Hebrew)
Haim Licht, “On the Deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s Disciples”, Tura 1 (5749), pp. 119-134 (Hebrew)
Julian Morgen stern, HUCA 39 (1968), pp. 81-90
Aaron Oppenheimer, in idem, editor, Mered Bar Kokhba, Jerusalem, 1980, p. 15 (Hebrew)
Shmuel Safrai, Rabbi Akiva Ben Yosef, Jerusalem, 1970, pp. 27-28 (Hebrew)
Lou Silberman, “The Sefira Season: A Study in Folklore”, HUCA 22 (1949), pp. 221-237
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.