Each year, as we prepare to celebrate Israeli Independence Day on the 5th of Iyar, we hear murmurings as to the halachic appropriateness of playing music at these events. What is behind these murmurings? In some people’s minds the period between Pesach and Shavuot is somehow associated with mourning, hence the qualms as to the propriety of rejoicing and especially playing music during this Omer period.
Rabbi Yosef Karo writes in his Shulchan Aruch (493:1-2): “It is customary not to marry between Passover and Shavuot until Lag La`Omer, because during this period the disciples of Rabbi Akiva died [because they did not show respect to one another (Bavli Yevamot 62b)]; but it is fine to engage or betroth. And even to get married is fine for one who needs to be hasty lest he lose his prospective bride to another suitor; he is not to be punished. It is also customary not to cut one’s hair until Lag La`Omer (this is the Sephardi pronunciation, as written by Karo), since it is said that they stopped dying at that time.”
While some earlier thinkers – starting with Natronai Gaon (9th century) – do connect these practices to a custom of mourning, it is instructive that Karo doesn’t mention mourning in his code. Maimonides, incidentally, makes no mention whatsoever of any restrictive practices during the Omer period.
Some see these customs as analogous to the observances of the Ninth of Av. According to the Talmud, Tisha b`Av commemorates, inter alia, the evil report of the spies (Numbers, chapters 13 & 14). Still, even while the rabbis bid us ponder the sin of the spies and its consequences, they do not call for perpetual mourning over the death of the sinful generation. Moreover, fasting is not a halachic expression of mourning. Likewise, the fast of Av is not mourning per se, but rather a day to remember past misfortunes, which the Sages understood as somehow attributable to human failings. In other words, the focus is repentance rather than wallowing in self-pity.
It is difficult to bring Tisha b`Av into the discussion. For sure, practices of humility and self-abnegation may be quite appropriate for mourning. Yet, if Tisha b`Av has commonality with such mourning practices as removing one’s shoes, refraining from washing, etc., that is due to it being modeled after Yom Kippur, which is a joyous day of teshuvah – not mourning. Nevertheless, on Tisha b`Av, when we bemoan catastrophic events, the tragedy lamented in Scripture and the strongest emotions evinced in the Kinnot (dirges and eulogies) are for human tragedy and the loss of life – not for the destruction of the Temple. We understand that the prophet Jeremiah would have been guided to focus his regrets on human suffering and not on the loss of masonry, however important a symbol the Temple may have represented. (Needless to say, it would be indecent to shed tears for the Twin Towers seeing that it was accompanied by massive loss of human life.) One could argue, therefore, that if we continue to remember the tragic loss of life from the destruction in 586 B.C.E., then why not continue to mourn another mass loss of human life – the 24,000 disciples of Rabbi Akiva?
The Talmud rules that unlike other optional fasts, Tisha b`Av is different. As we noted, it is a day when people can recall all communal tragedies. The Talmud, on the other hand, did not set aside a separate day to commemorate the tragedy of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples. Nor for that matter is there any kinnah that memorializes their deaths. Therefore, after the closing of the Talmud there was no authority recognized to introduce any additional date in the Jewish calendar for perpetual commemoration of such catastrophes.
Furthermore, suspending the mitzvah of marriage is a rather suspicious thing. Without explicit authority in Scripture or Oral Law, how can this commandment, which rates so high, be put off for such a long period? This practice could never have been observed in talmudic times.
In the Talmud, we see clearly that Rabbi Akiva himself didn’t mourn! Nor did any in his or subsequent generations. No one tried to do more than simple teshuvah to learn from the event. The text in Genesis Rabbah (61:3) proves it: “Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 disciples from Gabbath to Antipatris, and all died at the same period. Why? Because they looked grudgingly on each other. Eventually he raised seven disciples…. Said he: My sons, the previous ones died only because they grudged each other the knowledge of the Torah; see to it that you do not act thus. They therefore arose and filled the whole land of Israel with Torah.”
A custom of seven weeks of mourning for those 24,000 sinners is unreasonable and argues against all the teachings of the Sages regarding mourning, and would never have taken place in their time. They taught that it is a sin to mourn too much (Babli Mo’ed Katan 27b); and to continue to complain more than 12 months is as if one is condemning God’s justice. Furthermore, the reason why there are many traditions regarding the computation of prohibited days during the Omer is due to the fact that they all have to take into account the ancient halacha that no mourning can happen during the month of Nisan.
Most likely, the refraining from marriages must be some ancient superstition, not true mourning. Scholars say that the addition of refraining from haircuts was probably a response to the Crusades, especially the ghastly ones of 1096, where Jews, thinking they were doing something meritorious, murdered their own children. Afterward, they wanted to mourn, and they heard of an old, obscure practice from Geonic times. So from there the practice of the Geonim got connected to the mourning of the Crusades. Bit by bit the ideas grew, the practices got heaped on, and they became widespread. People then thought of a reason – mourning – and then heaped upon it the well-known prohibitions of the week in which Tisha b`Av falls, such as refraining from playing music. But it’s grotesque to pretend to mourn those students who lived 2,000 years ago by not playing music for many weeks.
The loss of 12,000 students must have left a terrible mark on those who lived in that period. No one wants to belittle this story. We imagine Rabbi Akiva teaching them every day, giving them mussar at every opportunity. Surely he admonished his disciples, “Please don’t act this way!”
Nevertheless, they were problematic, obdurate people who refused to listen to their great teacher. They weren’t ignoramuses; certainly they knew how to show respect to students of Torah. It’s amazing that such a large number of people could have fooled themselves into thinking that they could study Torah without showing each other respect. Perhaps the real tragedy was that the people who were around them knew that Rabbi Akiva’s students were acting very poorly and could not inspire them to change their behavior. If these students died because they didn’t show each other respect, then our response during the Omer period should not be mourning, but studying more Torah and taking its lessons to heart “yehi kavod haverach” etc.