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5764

Mourning Customs During the Omer


Written by the rabbi

Dedicated to the memory of
Yaakov Ben Behora

1.. The Reason for Mourning During the Omer
2.. On Which Days Does One Mourn?
3.. Marriage During the Omer Counting Period
4.. Dancing and Music During the Omer
5.. Listening to Music via Radio, Tape, CD, Etc.
6.. The "Shehechiyanu" Blessing


The Reason for Mourning During the Omer
The days between Passover and Shavuot are marked by pain, for during this period twenty-four thousand of Rabbi Akivas students died. For this reason, the custom is to observe mourning practices during these weeks - weddings, haircuts, and dancing are all forbidden.

Before addressing the details of these mourning customs, it is worth expanding a bit upon the core of the matter: the reason for the deaths of Rabbi Akivas students. The Talmud states: "Rabbi Akiva had twenty-four thousand students and all of them died in one period of time because they did not treat each other with respect. It is taught that they all died between Passover and Shavuot, and that they all suffered bitter deaths" (Yevamot 62b). Another source informs us that after this tragedy Rabbi Akiva raised up additional students, and he said to them, "All of my former students died because they looked jealously upon one another. Make sure not to do as they did.."

Since then, the days of the Omer counting are observed as days of semi-mourning, a period wherein we attempt to improve relations with others.
I heard an interesting explanation of the reason behind the deaths of Rabbi Akivas students. It goes as follows:

The plague which took the lives of Rabbi Akivas students concurred with the Bar Kochba uprising. Some of Rabbi Akivas students joined the rebellion while others continued in their studies.. The two camps behaved contemptuously toward one another. Each claimed to be greater than the other, boasting that its behavior was more important and effective and that that of the other was of no benefit. Because of this groundless hatred between soldiers and students all of them were stuck down before the enemy..

Indeed, the date is not coincidental. It falls between the Passover Festival on the one hand, which represents Israels national aspirations, and Shavuot on the other, which represents the giving of Gods spiritual Torah. By not respecting each other the students of Rabbi Akiva in effect drove a wedge between Passover and Shavuot, between national aspiration and Torah, and therefore they all died during this period.

Some thousand years later, with the onset of the Crusades, Christians killed tens of thousands of Jews. These tragedies also took place for the most part during the Omer counting period. And again, some five hundred years later, an additional slaughter of Jews took place - this time in eastern Europe - which claimed the lives of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of innocent Jews. The latter massacres too took place during the days of the Omer. For this reason, Ashkenazi Jews have customarily been more stringent about mourning during this period.

On Which Days Does One Mourn?

It is worth noting at the outset that precisely because this is a custom which was practiced by Jews without any kind of explicit rabbinic enactment, great differences developed between the practices of the various ethnic communities - each community according to its own tradition and in keeping with what it saw fit to emphasize. We will begin by outlining the principal customs as far as concerns the question of the appropriate days for observing mourning customs.

According to Shulchan Arukh, mourning practices begin with the first day of the Omer counting and continue until the morning of the thirty-fourth day of the Omer. This is in keeping with the Sephardic tradition that Rabbi Akivas students died up until half a month before Shavuot. If we subtract half of a month (i.e., fifteen days; a Hebrew month is generally thirty days long) from the forty-nine days of the Omer, we are left with thirty-four days. It was, then, during these days that Rabbi Akivas students died and it is during them that we practice mourning. This is indeed the custom for most Sephardic communities. And because there is a rule, regarding mourning, that "part of the day is equivalent to the entire day," there is no need to mourn for the entire thirty-fourth day. With the arrival of the dawn of the thirty-forth day, it already becomes permissible to marry and to cut ones hair.

According to Ashkenazi custom, however, the duration of the mourning period is thirty-three days. This is in keeping with the tradition that Rabbi Akivas students died during the thirty three weekdays between Passover and Shavuot. In memory of this event thirty three consecutive days of mourning are observed. There are two principal practices regarding the arrangement of these thirty-three days, and each individual can choose which he prefers.

According to the first custom, mourning is observed from the beginning of the month of Iyar and continues until Shavuot. During the month of Nisan no mourning is practiced because it is a joyous month. In addition, the suffering of the Ashkenazi communities during the Crusades was experienced during the days after Lag BaOmer.

The second custom holds that the thirty-three days are set in motion with the beginning of the Omer counting and continue until Lag BaOmer. This is in keeping with the tradition that on Lag BaOmer the plague halted and the last of Rabbi Akivas students expired. In recent generations, this custom has predominated. An explanation for this fact might be that according to Ashkenazi custom one is permitted to choose which group of days he will observe. In order not to emphasize the differences between the Sephardic and Ashkenazi practices, many have chosen to observe mourning during the first thirty-three days of the Omer. In this manner, the only difference that remains is that Ashkenazim conclude their mourning on the thirty-third day of the Omer while Sephardic Jews continue until the thirty-fourth. It is worth mentioning that even among Sephardic Jewry there were those who had the custom of ceasing mourning on the thirty-third day of the Omer..

There are stringent authorities that believe that it is best to practice mourning for the entire forty-nine day period of the Omer counting, for, according to the accepted text of the Talmud, Rabbi Akivas students died during all of the days between Passover and Shavuot. It is therefore only fitting, say these authorities, that mourning be observed throughout. In practice, some Ashkenazi Jews take this custom into account and hence eschew joyful activities like dancing and even marriage for the entire Omer period.

Marriage During the Omer Counting Period
Already in the Geonic period we find rabbis writing that since the deaths of Rabbi Akivas students, Jews have refrained from marrying during the days between Passover and Shavuot.

For most Sephardic Jews this custom begins immediately with the onset of the Omer counting period and extends to the thirty-fourth day of the Omer. From the morning of the thirty-fourth day of the Omer it becomes permissible once again to hold weddings. There are some Sephardic communities that allow weddings already on the thirty-third day of the Omer.

The widespread Ashkenazi custom is to prohibit marriages until the day of Lag BaOmer, when weddings are permitted. Some authorities are lenient and allow marriages even on the eve of Lag BaOmer. We have seen that there are some Ashkenazi Jews who refrain from marrying from the first of Iyar until the eve of Shavuot.. Some are more stringent when it comes to marriages than haircutting because the joy of marriage is great. They therefore refrain from marrying throughout the entire Omer period (Taz 493:2). The predominant custom in the Land of Israel is to avoid holding weddings from Passover until the first of Sivan. According to all Ashkenazi customs marriage is permitted on Lag BaOmer.

It is the opinion of some authorities that only "optional" marriages are to be avoided - i.e., marriages wherein the groom was previously married and has fulfilled the Torah obligation to have children. One, though, who has not yet fulfilled this commandment, say these authorities, can marry during the Omer counting period. This is because the commandment to marry outweighs the custom to mourn (Pri Chadash). In practice, however, later authorities agree that the custom calls upon even those who have not yet fulfilled the commandment to reproduce to refrain from marrying during this period (Mishnah Berurah 493:1).

If an individual is invited to a wedding on one of the days which, according to his own custom, it is forbidden to marry, he is permitted to attend the wedding, to partake in the meal, and to make the bride and the groom happy by dancing in their honor (Iggrot Moshe, Orach Chaim 1:159; see also Piskei Teshuvot 493:13).

It is the act of matrimony that is forbidden; permissible, however, is the composition of the marriage conditions. It is also permissible to hold an engagement party of the sort which is customary held after the couple decides to married. And even though such a party is indeed joyful in nature, authorities prefer to be lenient rather than the delay the opportunity. There is a fear that waiting too long will result in the marriages cancellation. No live music or dancing is allowed at engagement parties, for the meal at such parties does not have the status of a "Seudat Mitzvah," i.e., an obligatory meal which accompanies a religious celebration; it is, rather a "Seudat Reshut" - voluntary meal.


Dancing and Music During the Omer
Because the custom during counting of the Omer period is to refrain from joyous celebration as much as possible, later halakhic authorities write that dancing, unless it is for the sake of a mitzvah, is customarily prohibited (Magen Avraham 493:1). Included in this abstention is the prohibition against performing and listening to music instruments. Therefore, it is forbidden to attend dance groups or live concerts during the mournful days of the counting of the Omer period. In addition, it is forbidden for schools to hold parties which involve the performance of live music during this period.

According to Sephardic custom, mourning practices continue to be observed until the morning of the thirty-fourth day of the Omer. Yet, on the thirty-third day of the Omer, dancing and playing musical instruments is permitted, for on this day, "Lag BaOmer," there is a custom to observe a "Hilula" celebration in honor of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. This being the case, the dancing and live music on this occasion is part of the fulfillment of a Mitzva and is therefore permitted.. After Lag BaOmer, dancing and performing music continues to be forbidden during the evening and night of the thirty-fourth day of the Omer. With the arrival of the morning of the thirty-fourth day of the Omer (keep in mind that according to Judaism the day begins at sundown and ends the following sundown) all mourning customs are discontinued.

According to Ashkenazi custom, the prohibitions continue until the nightfall of Lag BaOmer. Some Ashkenazi Jews have the custom to eschew dancing and music after Lag BaOmer until Shavuot. Some authorities explain that this custom commemorates the terrible hardships which the Jews were forced to endure during these days in the time of the Crusades.

During the intermediate days of Passover, the custom is to permit dancing and the performance of musical instruments; we are commanded to be happy during these days (Mishnah Berurah 529:16; see also Piskei Teshuvot 493:6). Marriages, though, are not performed during this period because of the principle that we "avoid mixing joy with joy" (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 546:1). In addition, the sages prohibited hair-cuts during the intermediate days of Passover and Sukkot, in order to cause people to cut their hair before the holiday.

At a "Seudat Mitzvah," i.e., a meal which accompanies a religious celebration, it is permissible to sing and dance just like during the rest of the year. Hence, it is permissible to hold celebrative "Sheva Berachot" meals during the seven days after the wedding for a bride and groom who were wed on Lag BaOmer. Furthermore, it is permissible on such an occasion to arrange for musicians to perform music in honor of the newlyweds as is customary throughout the year. And even though some authorities hold that one should be stringent in this matter, the rule is that it is permissible to be lenient, for what we have here are conflicting opinions over a custom (This appears to be the opinion of Magen Avraham 493:1; see also Piskei Teshuva 493:5).

In addition, it is permissible to bring in a new Torah Scroll to a Synagogue amidst singing, music, and dancing in keeping with the usual custom, for such singing and dancing is done out of honor for Gods commandment.

It is permissible for a Jewish musician to perform at non-Jewish celebrations if this is his vocation. In addition, it is permissible to study and to teach music during the mournful days of the Omer because this is not considered "joyful." Yet, a student who at any rate is not accustomed to practicing regularly during the course of the year would do best to refrain from studying music during this mournful period.

Listening to Music via Radio, Tape, Compact Disc, Etc.
Because the custom during counting of the Omer is to refrain from joyous celebration as much as possible, later halakhic authorities rule that dancing, unless it is for the sake of a mitzvah, is customarily prohibited (Magen Avraham 493:1). Included in this abstention is the prohibition against performing and listening to music instruments. Therefore, it is forbidden to attend dance lessons or live concerts during the mournful days of the counting of the Omer period.

Some authorities are of the opinion that in the same manner that the custom was adopted to refrain from listening to musical instruments during the mournful period of the Omer counting and the "Three Weeks, so too, one should avoid listening to such instruments even via tapes, compact disks, etc. and that the only form of music that it is permissible to listen to during the Omer counting and the "Three Weeks" is vocal, unaccompanied song (Iggrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2:137; Yachveh Daat 6:34). There are also opinions that it is even forbidden to listen to purely vocal songs during these periods (Tzitz Eliezer 15:33).

All the same, there are lenient opinions that hold that it is permissible to listen to the performance of musical instruments on the radio, tape, etc. This is because hearing such music does not carry with it the same celebrative air that does listening to a live performance. In addition, today, all of us are accustomed to listening to recorded music, and the regularity of this has eliminated all celebrative feeling. It is, according to these opinions, no more stirring than vocal music - which itself is permitted during the Omer.. In addition, a distinction must be made between celebrative and non-celebrative songs, for it is only appropriate to forbid listening to joyful music on these days.. Ordinary songs, not to mention sad songs, need not be prohibited during the mournful days of the Omer. Many follow this opinion, including the Arutz Sheva radio station which broadcasts ordinary songs and avoids playing celebrative, danceable songs during the mournful days of the Omer.

The "Shehechiyanu" Blessing
It is permissible, during the period of the counting of the Omer, to buy new fruit and to recite the "shehechiyanu" benediction over them. It is likewise permissible to buy new clothing or furniture and to recite this same blessing (Mishnah Berurah 493:2).

In Ashkenazi communities, because the murderous Crusades were carried out during this same Omer counting period, some of the rabbis decided to take on more strict mourning customs during the Omer. These rabbis even took to equating the mourning which is observed during the Omer to the mourning observed during the "Three Weeks.." Just as it is not appropriate to thank God for "sustaining us and preserving us and bringing us to this time" during the period wherein the Temple was destroyed, so too, they charged, it is not fitting to recite this blessing during those days in which so many holy Jews were senselessly murdered.

All the same, it was decided that there is no actual "prohibition" against reciting the shehechiyanu blessing during the Omer counting period, for these days cannot really be compared to the "Three Weeks.." To the contrary, the days of the Omer even possess a festive element, and, according to Ramban, they are actually comparable to the intermediate days of a Festival ("Chol HaMoed") beginning with Passover and extending to Shavuot. Therefore, one need not refrain from blessing "Shehechiyanu" during the days of the Omer counting. One who wishes to at any rate be stringent and to refrain from buying new clothes or furniture during these days merits Gods blessing. Yet, when necessary, even those who are ordinarily stringent are permitted to buy such items. For example, one who is in particular need of a certain piece of clothing or furniture is permitted to buy such an item. In addition, one who has an opportunity to buy such an item at an especially good price may make the purchase. If, in such a case, a person at any rate wishes to be stringent, he can buy the clothing and then wear it and recite the blessing over it on Sabbath or on Lag BaOmer, or at a meal which accompanies a religious celebration ("Seudat Mitzva"). Similarly, if one buys a new piece of furniture, he can start to use it on one of these joyous occasions.

In addition, it is permissible to buy a house and to begin living in it during this period, especially if it is a house in the Land of Israel - all the more so in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, for whoever buys a house in one of these places fulfills the commandment to settle the Land of Israel in an exceptionally admirable manner; he assures that such areas be in our possession and not in the possession of some other nation. If one person buys the house he blesses "Shehechiyanu, and if a couple buys the house they bless "HaTov VeHaMetiv."

It is permissible to go on trips and hikes during these days, and it is also permitted to invite friends to a meal so long as no music is performed on such occasions.


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