Mourning during the period of Sefirat Haomer

What does the custom of mourning between Pesach and Shavuot entail?

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed,

מצווה. הרב מלמד
מצווה. הרב מלמד
פלאש 90

The Reason for These Customs

The days between Pesach and Shavuot are days of sorrow, because 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died then.  Therefore, we keep some of the customs of mourning during this period, postponing marriages, refraining from taking haircuts, and avoiding dancing, unless it is for the sake of a mitzvah.

We observe some customs of mourning and try to improve our interpersonal relationships, especially those between Torah students, during the period of Sefirat HaOmer.  And since this is based on Jewish custom, not an explicit rabbinic enactment, there are different customs among the various communities.

The Duration of the Mourning Period

There are many customs as to when the mourning period begins and ends.  We will mention the two primary ones:

The Sephardi Practice

According to the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 493:1-2), the customs of mourning begin on the first day of the Omer and last until the morning of the thirty-fourth.  This is based on the tradition that reads the Gemara: “R. Akiva’s students died until “P’ros HaAtzeret,” meaning fifteen days before Shavuot.  This implies that we must continue mourning until the 34th day of the Omer.  However, the halachahdetermines regarding the seven-day mourning period for a close relative that part of a day is considered like a whole day.  Therefore, when a mourner sits on the ground for a short time at the beginning of the seventh day, he effectively completes that day and may terminate his mourning.  The same applies to the mourning of the Omer period, and one need not wait until the end of the 34thday.  Rather, all customs of mourning become null and void a few moments after daybreak on the morning of the thirty-fourth, because part of a day is considered like a whole day.

Actually, one is permitted to sing, play music, and dance on Lag B’Omer, in honor of the anniversary of R. Shimon bar Yochai’s death.  However, the other customs of mourning remain binding.  Thus, according to this practice, one is forbidden to get married or take a haircut on Lag B’Omer, and when the day ends, it is forbidden to play music or dance on the night of the thirty-fourth.  When morning comes, however, all practices of mourning are nullified.  (Those who follow the Arizal’s customs act strictly and refrain from taking haircuts until the day before Shavuot).

Some Sephardi communities – like those from Turkey and Egypt – end all customs of mourning on Lag B’Omer.  And even though most Sephardim in Israel today do not follow this practice, if there is a great need to act leniently on Lag B’Omer or the night of the thirty-fourth, there is room to present the question before a wise Torah scholar.

The Ashkenazi Practice

The prevalent custom among Ashkenazi Jews today in Eretz Yisrael combines several traditions.  Most expressions of mourning last until Lag B’Omer, while some continue afterwards.  This is based on the tradition that although the plague ended on Lag B’Omer, those students who fell ill beforehand died between the 34th day of the Omer and Shavuot.  Therefore, Ashkenazim do not take haircuts, celebrate weddings, play music, or dance until Lag B’Omer.  Afterwards, however, they refrain only from weddings and very joyous affairs. From Rosh Chodesh Sivan, however, the custom is to permit weddings, because the holiday of Shavuot, which is already perceivable from the beginning of the month, cancels the mourning.  Some rule leniently and allow weddings from Lag B’Omer on, avoiding only great celebrations that are optional in nature until Shavuot.

On the day of Lag B’Omer itself, one may get married and take a haircut.  There is a dispute, however, regarding the night.  Some say that these actions are permissible at night, as well, because the entire day of Lag B’Omer is joyous.  Others maintain that one is required to observe thirty-three consecutive days of mourning.  Therefore, it is permissible to get married and take a haircut only after morning has arrived and we can apply the rule: “Part of a day is considered like a whole day.”  The custom is to act strictly, le-chatchillah (ideally), but one may follow those who rule leniently, if necessary.  According to all customs, it is permissible to celebrate with music and dancing on the night of Lag B’Omer.

Weddings and Engagements during the Omer Period

According to the custom of most Sephardim, the prohibition against weddings lasts from the beginning of the Omer until the thirty-fourth day of the count.  That is, one may get married from the morning of the 34th and on.  Some Sephardic communities follow a more lenient custom, celebrating weddings already on Lag B’Omer (the thirty-third).  In pressing situations, one may follow this practice, in accordance with the ruling of a wise Torah scholar.

The Ashkenazi custom in Eretz Yisrael is to forbid weddings from the beginning of the Omer until the twenty-ninth of Iyar, allowing them only from Rosh Chodesh Sivan and on.  Some rabbis permit those who have yet to fulfill the mitzvah of procreation to get married from Lag B’Omer and on.  When there is a special need, a wise scholar should be consulted.  All Ashkenazi customs agree that one is allowed to get married on the day of Lag B’Omer, and some are even lenient on the night of Lag B’Omer.  Everyone also agrees that if a couple gets married on the day of Lag B’Omer, they may continue the celebrations into the night of the thirty-fourth.

Haircuts

Only regular haircuts, that entail an aspect of joy, are prohibited, but it is permissible to trim one’s mustache, if it interferes with one’s eating.  Similarly, one who gets headaches when his hair is overgrown, or one who has sores on his head, may cut his hair during this period.

Both men and women are included in this prohibition.  However, a woman may cut her hair for purposes of modesty.  For example, if her hair comes out of her head covering, she may cut it.  It is also permissible to cut or pluck hair in order to avoid embarrassment.  Therefore, women may pluck their eyebrows or remove facial hairs.

One may not cut children’s hair, as well, during this period, but if there is a great need – to prevent them from suffering – it is permissible.

Shaving

A question arises regarding the issue of shaving during the Omer period.  Is one who shaves regularly throughout the year allowed to shave during Sefirah?  Many authorities maintain that shaving is included in the prohibition of taking haircuts and whenever it is forbidden to cut one’s hair, it is also forbidden to shave.  Most yeshiva students follow this practice, to the point that refraining from shaving has become the most prominent and discernable sign of mourning during the Omer period.

Some poskim, however, hold that there is a fundamental difference between taking a haircut and shaving.  Haircuts are celebratory; it is therefore accepted that people get their hair cut before holidays and festive occasions.  Shaving, on the other hand, has become an ordinary task nowadays, done every day, or every few days, in order to remove the stubble that mars the faces of those who are accustomed to shaving frequently.  Therefore, the custom to refrain from cutting hair does not apply to shaving.  According to this opinion, it is especially appropriate to shave on Fridays, to avoid bringing in the Sabbath unfittingly.

Those who want to rely on the lenient opinion may do so, and one should not rebuke them for this.  In practice, however, everyone should follow his father’s custom or his rabbi’s instructions.  For even though, according to the letter of the law, one can rely on the reasoning of those who rule leniently, one cannot ignore the fact that the custom to abstain from shaving during Sefirah is an indelible expression of willingness to sacrifice for the sake of mitzvah observance, and there is room for concern that nullifying this custom will compromise one’s dedication to upholding customs.

Therefore, it is appropriate for everyone to do as his father does, or as his rabbi instructs him to do, because the issues of tradition and how one’s actions influence others are more important here than the specific question of whether or not shaving is included in the customs of mourning.

Dancing and Musical Instruments

Since the custom is not to celebrate too much during the Omer period, the Acharonim write that one is forbidden to engage in optional dancing as opposed to dancing for the sake of a mitzvah.  They also forbid playing or listening to musical instruments.

According to Sephardi custom, the laws of mourning last until the morning of the 34th of the Omer.  Nevertheless, in honor of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s Hillula (festivities marking the day of his passing), music and dancing are permitted on the 33rd (Lag) of the Omer.  Afterwards, however, the prohibition resumes and continues through the night of the thirty-fourth, until the next morning, when all customs of mourning expire.

According to Ashkenazi practice, the prohibitions last until the end of the 32nd day of the Omer, meaning that music, dancing, and rejoicing are permitted from the beginning of the night of Lag B’Omer, in honor of R. Shimon bar Yochai’s Hillula.  Most Jews of Ashkenazi descent refrain from large celebrations – like gala evenings of dance – until the holiday of Shavuot, but one may play and hear musical instruments.  It is also permissible to hold aerobic classes, because their main purpose is to provide exercise, not joyous dancing.

Listening to Music on Electronic Devices

Many poskim hold that there is no difference between listening to live music and listening to music on the radio, or by way of any other electronic device; both are forbidden during Sefirah (until Lag B’Omer) and the Three Weeks.  It is permissible, though, to listen to a cappella songs via electronic music players.  Some forbid even this, because the device is considered like a musical instrument.

On the other hand, some authorities hold that the prohibition against listening to musical instruments during these periods of mourning does not apply to listening to music on the radio or any other household, electronic device.  The rationale being that listening to music this way is not as festive as is listening to it live.  Furthermore, nowadays, everyone listens to music on electronic devices regularly, and since it has become so routine, the festiveness and joy associated with listening to music has disappeared.  This is similar to singing without musical accompaniment, which is permitted during the Omer. 

In addition, a distinction should be made between joyous songs and regular songs.  Only regarding joyous songs is it logical to prohibit household devices, but one should not prohibit regular music – and certainly not sad tunes – during the mourning period of the Omer.  One who wishes to act leniently may rely on this opinion and listen to regular and sad songs on a household, electronic device.  He should not, however, listen to them loudly, because the force of the sound that fills the room generates a certain atmosphere of jubilation.

Apparently, everyone would agree that a driver who is worried that he might fall asleep at the wheel may listen to music in order to keep himself alert.

SheHechiyanu

During the Omer period, one is permitted to buy a new fruit, garment, or piece of furniture and recite the SheHechiyanu blessing over it.  True, after the Crusades and the horrific massacres that the Christians carried out during the Omer period, some rabbis in the Ashkenazi community began treating the mourning of the Omer period as strictly as that of Three Weeks.  And just as we refrain from saying SheHechiyanu during the Three Weeks – because it is inappropriate to say, “Who has kept us alive… and brought us to this time,” during the period in which the Temple was destroyed – so too, it is inappropriate to say SheHechiyanu during a time in which holy Jews were murdered.

In practice, however, the accepted halakhah is that there is no prohibition against saying SheHechiyanu during the Omer period, for these days are not comparable to the days between the 17th of Tammuz and Tish’a B’Av.  Nonetheless, one who wishes to act stringently and refrain from buying clothing and furniture during this period deserves a blessing.  If there is a special need, however, even such a person may act leniently.  For example, someone who needs an article of clothing or a piece of furniture may buy it.  Similarly, if someone comes upon an opportunity to buy one of these items at a reduced price, he may buy it. 

Those who follow the stricter custom should wear the garment for the first time, and recite the SheHechiyanu blessing over it, on Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, Yom HaAtzmaut, or at a se’udat mitzvah.  Likewise, if one buys a new piece of furniture, he should try to begin using it on these joyous days.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting and informative articles by Rabbi Melamed, including all of his highly acclaimed series of books “Peninei Halakha” in Hebrew, and some in English, can be found at:
http://en.yhb.org.il/


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