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? Rav Yosef Tzvi Rimon explains: “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.” 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.
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.)
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. 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.)
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim