Sefirat HaOmer: Practices of Mourning During Sefira
Translated by David Silverberg
The Source of the Customs
The Gemara in Yevamot (62b) tells that Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students from Gevat to Antipras. (This yields a sum total of 24,000; in the version found in Midrash Rabba, Bereishit 61:50, the word "pairs" does not appear, suggesting that he had twelve thousand students total. On the other hand, the Gemara in Nedarim 50a records the number as 24,000 pairs.) All these students died within a short period of time on account of the disrespect they afforded one another. As a result, writes the Gemara, the world "was desolate" from Torah study, until Rabbi Akiva traveled south and taught five outstanding disciples. The Gemara then cites a source from the tanna'im that the students perished during the sefira period, in between Pesach and Shavuot. (Later the Gemara writes that they died from a type of illness, but from the Yerushalmi it appears that they fell in the Bar-Kokhba revolt. A complete discussion of this issue lies beyond the scope of our discussion.)
Significantly, however, the Gemara mentions nothing of Lag Ba-omer in this context, implying that the deaths occurred throughout the entirety of the sefira period. Secondly, this passage makes no indication of any practices of mourning to be observed to mark this tragedy.
The Shulchan Arukh (493) writes:
"The custom is not to marry a woman in between Pesach and Shavuot, until Lag Ba-omer, as during this period Rabbi Akiva's students died… The custom is not to cut one's hair until Lag Ba-omer."
The Rema adds: "Many places have the custom of allowing haircuts until Rosh Chodesh Iyar. These people should not have their hair cut from Lag Ba-omer on… " Meaning, those following this custom observe practices of mourning from Rosh Chodesh Iyar until Shavuot (for thirty-three days, starting from after Rosh Chodesh Iyar).
What source is there to limit the custom mentioned in the Shulchan Arukh to the first thirty-three days, from Pesach until Lag Ba-omer? Likewise, what is the source for the custom of the Rema, of observing these practices from Rosh Chodesh Iyar until Shavuot? Finally, from where do we derive these practices of mourning in the first place?
The earliest source for the custom to observe mourning practices during sefira appears in the literature of the Geonim. In "Halakhot Pesukot Min Ha-Geonim" (97) we find the following letter of Rav Natrunai Gaon:
"Regarding your question of why we do not betroth [referring to "kiddushin," which we perform today at the wedding ceremony itself] or marry in between Pesach and Shavuot: … You should know that this does not involve any actual prohibition, but rather a custom of mourning, for Chazal said that Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students and they all died in between Pesach and Shavuot… From that point on, the earlier generations were accustomed during these days not to marry."
(It appears from this passage that the custom emerged already during the mishnaic period- "from that point." However, we find no ancient source for these practices. See Arukh Ha-shulchan, who claims that the custom originated during the period of the Geonim.)
Other teshuvot (responsa) penned by the Geonim speak in a similar fashion. (Rav Hai Gaon, in a teshuva recorded in Otzar Ha-Geonim 328, adds the custom of refraining from work after sundown during sefira, as it was then that Rabbi Akiva's students were buried, prompting the masses to halt their normal activities. In another teshuva, cited in Teshuvot Ha-Geonim, Sha'arei Teshuva 278, Rav Hai Gaon permits betrothals during sefira, as "there is no joy except at the chupa.") From the Geonim it appears that the custom only prohibits marriage during these weeks; it does not entail any other mourning-related practices. (Today the custom of refraining from work after sundown is largely not practiced. One additional custom mentioned in the Geonim's writings, cited in the name of Rav Sherira Gaon in Teshuvot U-pesakim, Mekitzei Nirdamim 69, prohibits making new garments until Shavuot.) Furthermore, the Geonim seem to apply this prohibition throughout the sefira period, from Pesach through Shavuot.
The prohibition against cutting one's hair during sefira appears in writing for the first time towards the middle of the era of the Rishonim. Rav Aharon Ha-kohen of Lunil - the Re'a - writes the following in his work Orchot Chayim: "The custom is not to marry from Pesach until Shavuot, and we also do not cut our hair, out of mourning for the twelve thousand pairs of students… " This custom appears in the writings of other Rishonim, as well, where we also find sources for limiting the duration of the practices to the first thirty-three days of sefira.
The Time Frame of the Prohibition
Rav Yehoshua Ibn Shu'ib (14th cent; considered by the Bet Yosef as the original source of the prohibition against haircutting [though, as we saw, the Re'a preceded him]) mentions the prohibition against haircutting and adds, "We shave on the morning of the thirty-fourth day [of the omer], as we consider part of the day as the entire day." He proceeds to explain the reason for ending the prohibition at this point, one which appears as well in the "Manhig" (by the Ra'avan - Rav Avraham Ben Rav Natan Ha-yarchi) citing the Reza (regarding the custom not to conduct weddings). The Gemara describes the disciples' deaths as having occurred from Pesach "ad peros ha'atzeret," which roughly translates as, "until the eve of Shavuot." Other Talmudic sources indicate that "ad peros" denotes a period of fifteen days, which means that the plague came to an end on Lag Ba-omer. The Meiri (Yevamot 62b), too, records a tradition of the Geonim that the deaths ended on Lag Ba-omer.
(The Maharil - Minhagim 21b - posits a completely different approach to explain how tradition evolved to halt the mourning practices on Lag Ba-omer. He argues that Rabbi Akiva's students died only on days on which the "tachanun" prayer is recited, which excludes the seven Shabbatot, seven days of Pesach, two days of Rosh Chodesh Iyar and the one day of Rosh Chodesh Sivan - a total of sixteen days. Thus, the plague raged for only thirty-three days. We should note, however, that one cannot include in this count seven Shabbatot as well as seven days of Pesach, as one of these seven days inevitably falls on Shabbat.)
We have thus found the source for the prohibition against haircutting and the custom to end the mourning practices on Lag Ba-omer. We now turn our attention to the custom recorded by the Rema to observe these practices from Rosh Chodesh Iyar until Shavuot.
In the literature of the Ashkenazic Rishonim we find other customs observed during the sefira period, beyond the mourning practices we have already encountered. These include the recitation of special lamentations for victims of persecution and that of "Av Ha-rachamim" (which was established after the Crusades - Magen Avraham 284:7), as well as prohibitions such as the purchase of new clothing. This indicates that among Ashkenazic communities an additional basis for mourning practices arose: the Crusades of 5856 (1096 C.E.), which occurred during the sefira period. (The Crusades were groups of Christians who set out to conquer Jerusalem and, along the way, killed large numbers of Jews in Ashkenaz from Iyar until Av. See Sefer Ha-dorot, p.196, in the name of the Shela; Bein Pesach Le-Shavuot, p. 217.)
Therefore, these communities observed the mourning period from Rosh Chodesh Iyar on, the period that saw the bulk of the persecutions at the hands of the Crusaders. (It also stands to reason that they held a tradition that Rabbi Akiva's disciples died over the course of thirty-three days, the identity of which remained unclear. After the devastation of the Crusades, these communities selected the final thirty-three days, from Rosh Chodesh Iyar until Shavuot.)
This explanation is found in Otzar Kol Minhagei Yeshurun, p.31; Arukh Ha-shulchan 493:1; and Rav Daniel Sperber's Minhagei Yisrael, vol. 1, pp.106-107. The Taz (493:2) writes that the custom prohibiting weddings and haircuts until Lag Ba-omer commemorates the death of Rabbi Akiva's students, and a different custom, of forbidding weddings thereafter until Shavuot, laments the tragedy of the Crusades.
We should add that the "gezeirot Tach Ve-Tat," the Chmelnitzki uprising, also took place during this period. (See Sefer Ha-toda'a, pp.245-246, 357; Bein Pesach Le-Shavuot, p.218.)
The Nature and Level of Stringency of These Prohibitions
It emerges from all we have seen that these prohibitions assume a lower level of stringency that that of the prohibitions observed during "the three weeks" (before Tisha B'Av). The practices of the three weeks have origins already in the mishna (Ta'anit 26a, regarding the onset of the month of Av), and during this period calamities befell the entirety of the Jewish people. The mourning practices during sefira, however, developed later; even the earliest such practice, of forbidding weddings, did not take effect until the period of the Geonim. Moreover, the disaster commemorated by sefira, however tragic and painful, befell only a portion of the nation. (In a similar vein, see Ma'amar Mordekhai 493:2 and Yechaveh Da'at 1:24 regarding "she-hecheyanu.")
Haircuts and Shaving
An explicit mishna appears to allow haircutting for the honor of Shabbat even during the three weeks - and even on the Shabbat prior to Tisha B'Av: "The week in which Tisha B'Av occurs - one may not have his hair cut or wash clothing, though on Thursday he may for the honor of Shabbat." However, the Or Zarua writes that the permission granted before Shabbat applies only to laundry, but not to cutting one's hair, as evident from the Yerushalmi. (One may wash clothing only if he has no clean garments for Shabbat; he may, however, wear a freshly laundered garment for Shabbat in any event.) The Hagahot Ashri accepts this view, as does the Magen Avraham (551:14).
We should, however, note the following three points regarding this view:
I. The Bei'ur Halakha (551:3) points out that according to the text in the common edition of the Yerushalmi, no prohibition against haircutting exists on Erev Shabbat. He adds that even according to the Or Zarua's version of the text, the Yerushalmi actually rules that haircutting is permissible on Thursday. The Bei'ur Halakha leaves this question unresolved and concludes by citing Rabbi Akiva Eiger as ruling leniently regarding both haircutting and laundry.
II. Even if we accept the Or Zarua's stringency, we must carefully examine his reasoning. The Magen Avraham (551:14) writes that no room exists to permit haircutting for Shabbat because "in any event people do not generally cut their hair every week." If so, then we should distinguish between haircutting and shaving: even the Or Zarua would allow one to shave for Shabbat. Indeed, the Chatam Sofer writes (Y.D. 348), "The Magen Avraham and all the authorities referred only to cutting the hair on one's head; but as for cutting the hair of one's beard which is common nowadays, which causes much discomfort and makes one look very unkempt - they never spoke of this and never even considered it."
III. Accepting the stringency during the three weeks (as does the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Lichtenstein) does not necessarily require doing so regarding sefira, which, as we have seen, demands a less strict standard of mourning. According to Rav Lichtenstein (and his father-in-law, Rav Soloveitchik z"tl), the mourning of sefira parallels that observed for twelve months after the loss of a parent. (The prohibitions applicable during sefira - weddings, haircuts and festive celebrations - parallel the activities forbidden during the twelve-month period after a parent's death.) As we know, a mourner may cut his hair once he reaches the point of "yig'aru bo chaveirav," at which his peers admonish him to do so. Clearly, two or three days without shaving, not to mention a week, already qualifies as a level of disorderly appearance warranting shaving. (This assumes that the mourner's peers do not actually have to pressure him to shave - see Daf Kesher vol. 2, p.54.) Certainly when the issue of respect for Shabbat arises, one may and perhaps should shave for Shabbat.
Indeed, we find documentation to this effect in the Shut Ha-Radbaz (by Rav David Ben Zimra, a contemporary of the Beit Yosef) 2:687:
"I personally conduct myself in this manner - I [allow myself to] cut my hair throughout the month of Nissan and on Rosh Chodesh Iyar, and this is the widespread custom… the custom [to allow haircutting on Rosh Chodesh, i.e. not to observe practices of mourning thereon] comes and overrides the lower-level custom. And besides, I have seen many communities who never observed this custom, and they cut their hair every week in honor of Shabbat… "
This ruling appears as well in Shut Halakhot Ketanot (Rav Yaakov Ben Rav Shemuel Chagiz - 1620), 33:
"If we allow this on Erev Shabbat and Thursday when Tisha B'Av falls on Shabbat, then certainly [we may do so regarding] this mourning for an event that occurred long ago that has no [strict halakhic] basis." (Although he speaks here specifically about the celebration of a berit on Shabbat, we may learn of his general attitude from his style of presentation in this context.)
Another significant ruling in this regard was issued by the Chida, in Shut Chayim Sha'al (1:6):
"One who looks carefully at the origins and roots of this matter… that this custom is very lenient… and for any reason we may override it… According to the straightforward understanding, we have no proper or sufficient reason to prohibit shaving." (See also Rav Sperber's Minhagei Yisrael, vol. 1 chaps. 12-13.)
Nevertheless, some authorities have ruled stringently in this regard, particularly Ashkenazic rabbis (as mentioned above, because of the Crusades). However, plenty of room exists to permit shaving for Shabbat. Indeed, a lenient ruling in this regard was issued by Rav Shlomo Min-Ha-har (who mentioned in a shiur that one is obligated to shave for Shabbat during sefira), is cited in the name of Rav Shlomo Fisher (who also claims that this constitutes a mitzva; though he personally prohibits shaving in general, all year round), and appears in Shut Divrei Chakhamim (418) in the name of "Rabbeinu" (perhaps referring to Rav Kaminetzky).
We should add, however, that many other contemporary authorities indicate that one should not shave for Shabbat during sefira; see Iggerot Moshe 2:96 and Yechaveh Da'at 4:32. It is worth noting as well that those who allow shaving for Shabbat do so not as a leniency, but rather out of a stringent outlook on the requirement of "kevod Shabbat."
In conclusion, we may perhaps draw a parallel between this issue and that of wearing a kippa. Whereas in Talmudic times only distinguished individuals adopted this practice, today, when it has become a powerful symbol, this custom assumes far greater importance (see Iggerot Moshe 1:1). Similarly, in many areas refraining from shaving during sefira has emerged as a symbol of sorts; in these locales, it is a given that someone who follows halakha meticulously does not shave during this period. At times the presence of a cleanly shaven "ben Torah" during sefira may very well be considered inappropriate (particularly in light of the widespread acceptance of the prohibition, despite our inclination to permit shaving for Shabbat). One must therefore take this consideration into account, according to the prevalent practice in his locale and the possibility of explaining one's conduct to others.
The Sefer Chasidim (840) writes that one should not recite the berakha of "she-hecheyanu" during the three weeks (before Tisha B'Av). Accordingly, the Shulchan Arukh (551:17) rules that one should preferably avoid the recitation of "she-hecheyanu." Some have imposed this halakha on the period of sefira, as well. This extension appears in the Leket Yosher (O.C. p.97) citing his rabbi, the Terumat Ha-deshen, as well as in the writings of a few other Acharonim.
By contrast, the Ma'amar Mordekhai (493:2) writes as follows:
"Some have the practice of avoiding the recitation of she-hecheyanu during the period of sefira, though I have not seen this in any work by a Rishon or Acharon; there is no doubt that this custom evolved [mistakenly]… from [the halakhot] of 'bein ha-metzarim' [the three weeks]."
In conclusion, the Ma'amar Mordekhai writes that one cannot compare the two mourning periods, as the mourning over the destruction of the Temple requires a stricter standard. He thus permits reciting the berakha over both new fruits and new garments during sefira. Likewise, the Orchot Yosher (11) writes that this custom arose out of ignorance. Other authorities rejecting this practice include the Kaf Ha-chayim (4), Rav Ovadya Yosef (Yabi'a Omer, vol. 3, O.C. 26; Yechaveh Da'at 1:24) and the Mishna Berura (493:2). (The Mishna Berura actually writes, "If one comes upon an item over which he must recite she-hecheyanu, he may recite the berakha," implying that one should preferably avoid such situations. However, the work "Sefer Ha-bayit" quotes Rav Chayim Kaniyevsky as rejecting this reading of the Mishna Berura.)
 Nevertheless, many Ashkenazim observe the mourning period from Pesach until Lag Ba-omer, and everyone should follow their particular practice (Rema and Mishna Berura, 493:3). However, the Ashkenazim allow haircutting and shaving on Lag Ba-omer itself (Rema), but only from the morning. Others permit haircutting and shaving already from the evening, but one should preferably adopt the stringent view (Mishna Berura 11; Rav Y.M. Tuketchinski in Sefer Eretz Yisrael). The Sefaradim allow this from the morning of the thirty-fourth day (Shulchan Arukh 493:2).