Ben Ish Hai Lag LaOmer. For R' Shimon Bar Yochai. Written by the "Ben Ish Hai" of Babel in the 19th century. Song is an acrostic (Aleph Bet) and has many allusions to the life of R' Shimon. Abraham Sitehon Manuscript
The maqamat for the Shabbats of the Omer period according
to Sassoon Manuscript #647, Aleppo, circa 1850. This tradition is not currently
By Joseph Mosseri
While studying the laws of Sefirat Ha'Omer and the customs associated with it I
noticed something that I could not figure out.
It seems as if the
mourning customs associated with this period are fairly recent in nature even
though everyone nowadays attributes the sadness of these days to the death of
the students of Ribbi Aqiba.
While following up on this fact I discovered
a discrepancy in the number of students who died, how they died and when they
Talmoud Babli, Masekhet Yebamot 62b says that 12 thousand pairs
(24,000) of students were to Ribbi Aqiba and they all died during one period
because they did not treat each other with the proper respect.
Babli, Masekhet Nedarim 54a says there were 24 thousand pairs of students
Talmoud Babli, Masekhet Ketoubot 63a says that there were 12
thousand students (12,000).
Midrash Tanhouma (at the end of Haye Sarah)
reduces the number greatly and only mentions that there were 300 students.
Midrash Rabah Qohelet chapter 11 verse 6, Ribbi Aqiba said I had 12,000
students and they all died during the period between Pesah & 'Asseret
(Shabou'ot) and when all was over 7 students remained.
chapter 61 says Ribbi Aqiba had 12,000 students and they all died during one
period because they treated each other with contempt.
Rab Sherira Gaon at
the beginning of his famous letter also mentions 12,000 students.
left with varying opinions as to who, what, when, where, how, and why.
haven't found any Rishonim or Aharonim who even attempt to explain or reconcile
As for laws and customs pertaining to mourning during the Omer
period for this or any other tragedy our 3 pillars of law, namely HaRaMBaM,
HaRoSH, and HaRIF are completely silent. Not a word at all on this subject.
Shoulhan Aroukh, Orah Haim, siman 493 lists certain customs that pertain to
this Omer period. He does not mention that any of them are law, rather they are
only customs. He does not mention who established them or where they were in
vogue. The interesting thing is that almost every word he wrote in this siman is
taken verbatim from the Tour.
The Tour was written by Rabbi Yaaqob Ben
Asher (1268-1340) he was the son of the Rosh (Rabbi Asher Ben Yehiel)
(1250-1327). Rabbi Yaaqob followed his father the Rosh from
where he was an important scholar. The Arba'ah Tourim were first printed in
Piove di Sacco in 1475.
Rabbi David AbouDirham (1286-1354) who was a
student of the Tour and Rabbi in
He wrote his famous work bearing his name (Sefer AbouDirham) in
in 1340 and it was first printed in
There he mentions that the custom in some places is not to get
married between Pesah and Shabou'ot because during that time 12,000 pairs of
Ribbi Aqiba's students died of diphtheria because they didn't treat each other
with the proper respect.
At this point I'm stuck. How did this custom
Was it a custom instituted by the Tour during his stint
A custom that he may have brought over from Germany/France ? Could it be that
the Jews who lived in Christian countries always had difficulty with blood
libels just prior to pesah and that the troubles involved carried through Pesah
and beyond with decrees and massacres throughout the 'Omer period?
Lag La'Omer , how that day was chosen and how it has been celebrated.... I'd
love to hear from you before I continue but one thing I will say is that in the
last few hundred years the night of Lag La'Omer has been celebrated with
readings from the Zohar, music and singing and candle lighting ceremonies. This
custom also seems to be fading out in the last couple of decades. Would anyone
like to take a shot as to what is happening?
RaDBaZ, Rabbi David ben
Shelomo ibn Abi Zimra (1479-1573).
and moved to
at the time of the expulsion from
Later called to
to be the Chief Rabbi there. In 1553 he moved to
then to Safed.
In his teshoubot volume 2 item 687 he says:
the entire month of Nissan and Rosh Hodesh Iyar are happy days when one is
forbidden to eulogize or fast. He says that during those days he has his haircut
and such is the custom of most of the world!
He continues to say that a
minhag can not over rule a law and that the prohibition of being sad on these
days specifically Rosh Hodesh Iyar is a DIN a law and therefore can not be over
turned by the custom that forbids it.
He also says that the laws, the
dinim, are not there for us to suffer. He compares this issue to the laws of
soukot where if one is distressed by eating in the soukah he is exempt and eats
inside, he continues and says that all the more so in such a case of minhag,
custom, where it is difficult for people to nut cut hair for 33 days which is
true suffering , as well as that custom not being universally recognized, that
one can cut hair on Rosh Hodesh Iyar as well as every Friday in honor of
Based upon this responsa from HaRaDBaZ it's pretty clear that
the custom prohibiting the cutting of hair was not as adhered to as it is in our
The custom regarding marriages on the other hand is first mentioned
by the Geonim and seems to have been in full force even though as we stated in a
previous email that Rabbi David AbouDirham also from
said that it was only in effect in some places.
Most Sefaradi aharonim
though wrote that for a person who as yet did not fulfill the missvah of piryah
veribyah (being fruitful and multiplying) he could get married even during these
days of the Omer.
As for Haircutting, it's interesting to note that we
have a direct oral testimony from Hakham Yom Tob Yedid HaLevi (the last chief
rabbi of Aleppo, Syria) that on Yom Isrou Hag Pesah (23 Nissan) he would go
annually with his teacher (the chief rabbi of Aleppo prior to him) Hakham Mosheh
Tawil HaKohen to get a haircut!
That's right they both got their haircut
during these first days of the 'Omer.
When Rabbi Yedid arrived in NY he
could not believe or understand the custom he saw here of no haircuts.
the way he shaves daily during the 'Omer till this very day.
I guess that
the words of the Tannaitic Megilat Taanit which refers to the entire period from
Pesah until Shabou'ot as a happy season need to be restudied and re-examined.
Even prior to that we know from our earliest sources that the time of Qessirat
Ha'Omer and the days attached to it were always ones of joy and happiness for
I hope we see that happiness again soon.
History of the "Omer" Season It is now the almost universal practice among
traditional Jews to observe the season of counting the "Omer" as a time of
sadness, by refraining from activities that are associated with gaiety and
celebration. The mourning period lasts from Passover until the thirty-third day,
known as La"g ba'omer.
The melancholy mood of the Omer season is usually
linked to the well-known Talmudic tradition about how thousands of Rabbi Akiva's
students perished between Passover and Shavu'ot. The Babylonian Talmud states
that they died of a plague, though many historians discern a reference to death
in battle, in the ill-fated Bar Kokhba revolt (in 135) of which Rabbi Akiva was
an active supporter.
The earliest records we possess about mourning
during the Omer are contained in the Responsa of the Babylonian Ge'onim, who
observed the restrictions during the entire forty-nine-day period, with no
respite on the thirty-third day. The only prohibitions that are enumerated in
these early texts are the holding of weddings and doing work after nightfall.
Not until the thirteenth century was the list augmented to include shaving and
cutting the hair.
The cessation of mourning practices on La"g ba'omer is
not mentioned before the twelfth century in
and the original significance of this date remains shrouded in obscurity. The
shortening of the period was justified by means of an ingenious new
interpretation of the Talmudic passage about the deaths of Rabbi Akiva's
disciples, according to which the plague had come to a halt half a month before
Shavu'ot, just after the thirty-third day of the Omer.
The new practice
and its historical rationale were accepted by most of the Sephardic halakhic
authorities, including the Shulh\an Arukh. It is now followed by Jewish
communities throughout the world.
Examination of early texts reveals that
the older practice among Ashkenazic Jews was somewhat different from its current
form. Instead of excluding the last third of the Omer period from the mourning
observances, the Jews of medieval Germany used to commence the mourning customs
two weeks into the Omer--at the beginning of the month of Iyyar--and continued
them all the way through to Shavu'ot.
The reasons for the special
character of the Omer season among Ashkenazic Jews becomes evident when we
survey some of their synagogue rituals. From the beginning of Iyyar they would
include special liturgical poems (piyyut) in commemoration of local massacres,
and a memorial prayer for the souls of martyrs was recited on the Shabbat
preceding Shavu'ot. This last-mentioned prayer was the familiar "Av Harah\amin"
text that we still read on most Saturdays, and it is for this reason that we
recite it during the Omer season even on festive Sabbaths (such as when Rosh
Hodesh is announced), although it would have been omitted on equivalent
occasions at other times of the year.
In the Ashkenazic custom, the
intensity of the mourning was also increased by forbidding additional
activities, such as wearing new clothing, bathing for pleasure and trimming
It is possible to identify with precision the tragic events
that were being commemorated by these practices. In the year 1096, bloodthirsty
bands of Crusaders marched through the
basin, mercilessly slaughtering Jewish men, women and children. The worst
bloodshed occurred between the first of Iyyar and Shavu'ot. The Jewish populace
was attacked on the eighth of Iyyar, and the illustrious communities of
and Köln fell to the marauders during the week preceding Shavu'ot.
hardly surprising that subsequent generations of Ashkenazic Jews came to focus
their grief on the massacres that had occurred during that time of the year.
As always, our Jewish religious calendar maintains a living link between
ourselves and the Jews of earlier eras. The rhythms of the Omer period,
originating in the joys of the harvest and the associations with Passover and
Shavu'ot, were transformed into monuments to national tragedy during the Bar
Kokhba revolt and the Crusades. In recent times we have forged our own links to
this living historical chain, by setting aside days to commemorate the momentous
events of out times, the Holocaust and the sacrifices of Israel's soldiers, as
well as the elation of renewed Jewish statehood and the return to Jerusalem.
MOURNING CUSTOMS DURING THE OMER (adapted from Minhagei Yisrael by Daniel
The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 493:2) states that there is a practice
to not take a haircut during the period of the Omer until Lag Ba'Omer, since
that was when the students as Rabi Akiva stopped dying (as per the gemara in
Yevamot 62b). He further notes that there are some people who do shave or take a
hair cut on Rosh Chodesh Iyar, but that such a practice is mistaken. Ramo
comments that there are some places in the Ashkenazic world where there are
those who shave up until Rosh Chodesh Iyar, and only begin counting thirty-three
days of mourning from that point.
The reason for these various customs
stems from the deaths of the students of Rabi Akiva, who died during the period
between Pesach and Shavuot. As such, it would seem that the entire seven weeks
would be subject to these restrictions, and such was the practice during the
time of the Geonim (see Ritz Giat and Rav Natronai Gaon), who forbade weddings
during this span of time. However, Ra'avan HaYarchi (Sefer HaManhig) had a
tradition that the students only died until Lag Ba'Omer, and this idea was
picked up by both Abudraham and Tashbetz, ultimately being codified by the
The custom of not shaving during this time period is
first found along with a slightly different view on how long the mourning period
is supposed to be.
Rabi Yehoshua Ibn Sho'iv claims that one should not
take a haircut until the thirty-fourth day of the Omer (utilizing a different
interpretation of the original custom). However, invoking a well-known principle
of the laws of mourning, he rules that once mourning comes on the thirty-fourth
day one can shave and take a haircut, since a small fraction of the day is
counted as if the entire day has passed ("miktzat ha-yom k'kulo"). Additionally,
this practice of not cutting one's hair is brought down by both the Orchot Chaim
and the Shibbolei HaLeket, both times in the context of the tradition that Rabi
Akiva's students died for only the first thirty-three days of the Omer.
Thus, the Sephardic view codified by the Shulchan Aruch is well understood and
has ample support. However, what is the source for the Ashkenazic custom put
forth by Ramo? Neither the Geonim nor the Sephardic Rishonim ever considered a
mourning custom that begins only at Rosh Chodesh Iyar!
It seems that the
key to the practice may be found in some of the liturgy of the Ashkenazic
communities of this time. As brought down by Maharam MiRutenberg, there was a
practice of reciting "zulatot," lamentation poems, every Shabbat between Pesach
and Shavuot, as well as saying Av HaRachamim.
The reason for this
practice was as a memory for the many people killed throughout Ashkenazic lands
during the Crusades (specifically the first Crusade in 1096).
in mind we can understand the practice from the world of Ashkenaz.
Sefer Minhag Tov notes that people had the custom to not even cut their nails or
wear new clothing during the period between Pesach and Shavuot (with Lag Ba'Omer
being an exception), in memory of those who martyred themselves. These customs,
along with the recitation of the aforementioned lamentations, reveal a very
strong sense of mourning prevalent during these days in Ashkenaz. Indeed, the
custom in these lands was to recite Av HaRachamim only during these days, and
not year round as is now the prevailing custom.
The final piece of our
puzzle comes from the many historical documents that we have about the Crusades
and the Jewish communities who suffered at the hands of the Crusaders. From
these documents we learn the exact dates when several of the most important
communities in the
fell - Speyers on the 8th of Iyar,
on the 23rd of Iyar, Magence on the 3rd of Sivan,
on the 6th of Sivan. As such, some of the worst disasters came only after Rosh
Chodesh Iyar. Since the mourning practices connected to the students of Rabi
Akiva came to be connected to the mourning for the martyrs of the Crusades, the
practice developed to begin the thirty-three days of mourning at Rosh Chodesh
Iyar, in order to highlight the more recent tragedy as well.