The main purpose of mourning during the days of the Omer Counting is the honoring of Torah scholars from different circles * One can take a haircut for the purpose of removing bothersome hair, for essential aesthetic needs, or for modesty * Today, shaving is not considered a festive act, and therefore, one who does not have a family custom can go according to the custom of permitting shaving, in particular before Shabbat *One can listen to calm songs at low intensity on the radio and computer * In times of need, one can be lenient and purchase new items that require the ‘Shehechiyanu’ blessing * The main custom in Ashkenazic communities abroad is not to marry at the end of Sefirat Ha’Omer, and it is proper for Ashkenazi Jews in Israel to avoid getting married during these days
Peace among Torah Scholars
During the days of Sefirat Ha’Omer (the counting of the Omer), twenty-four thousand students of Rabbi Akiva died; consequently, Jews are accustomed to observe some mourning practices during these days, for example, not to get married, not to take a haircut, and not to hold public dances unrelated to a mitzvah. Our Sages said that the disciples died “because they did not respect one another,” and as a result, the world was desolate of Torah – to the point where many believed there was no hope for Israel. Rabbi Akiva, however, did not despair, and despite the severe calamity, he once again gathered new students and taught them Torah, “and it was they who revived the Torah at that time” (Yevamot 62b).
After gathering new students, Rabbi Akiva said to them, “My sons, the first students died because of jealousy among them – make sure not to do as they did” (Bereshit Rabba 61:3). From the fact that we are accustomed to remember their deaths and its cause, we should learn that during these days in particular, we must increase honor and respect between Torah scholars from different circles.
How Long does the Mourning Last?
According to the custom of Ashkenazi Jews in the Land of Israel, the customs of avelut (mourning) continues until Lag BaOmer, and since “mikzat ha’yom k’kulo” (mourning for part of the day is considered as if one had mourned the whole day), already from the morning of Lag BaOmer it is permissible to take a haircut and get married (some authorities are lenient and permit this from the night of Lag BaOmer). According to the Sephardic custom, mourning continues until the morning of the 34th. However, even according to the Sephardic custom, during the evening of Lag BaOmer and during the day, it is also permissible to sing, to play musical instruments, and dance in honor of the hilula celebration of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, but it is still forbidden to take a haircut and marry until the morning of the thirty-fourth day of the Omer (later on the Ashkenazic custom regarding the days after Lag BaOmer will be explained).
Which Type of Haircut is Forbidden?
According to Sephardic custom, haircuts are forbidden until the morning of the thirty-fourth day of the Omer, and according to the Ashkenazi custom, until Lag BaOmer. For those who go according to the Ari HaKadosh, haircuts are forbidden until the eve of Shavuot, but this is based on kabbalah, and not because of mourning.
The haircut that is forbidden during the days of mourning is a regular haircut that has an aspect of forbidden joy, but trimming one’s mustache is permitted if it interferes with eating. Also, someone whose hair has grown to the point where it causes him a headache, or has wounds on his scalp, may take a haircut during these days.
It is also permissible for a woman to cut her hair for the needs of modesty, such as a woman whose hair pokes out of her head-covering. Also, when there is a need to remove something distasteful, women are permitted to pluck their eyebrows, and remove facial hairs.
Even young children should not be given a haircut during these days, but for a ‘tzorech gadol‘ (a great need), to prevent sorrow, it is permissible to cut their hair (Peninei Halakha: Z’manim 3: 6).
Brit Milah and Rosh Chodesh
In honor of a brit milah (circumcision), the main celebrants are allowed to take a haircut. The celebrants are the father of the son, the sandak (the one who holds the baby while being circumcised), and the mohel (the one who performs the circumcision) (Mishna Berura, 493:12).
When the Rosh Chodesh Iyar falls on Shabbat, according to the Ashkenazic custom it is permissible to take a haircut in its honor (M.B. 493: 5), and according to the custom of the Sephardim, only in pressing situations are they lenient (Kaf HaChaim 493:42).
Is Shaving Forbidden?
According to numerous poskim, shaving is included in the taking of a haircut, and on all the days when it is forbidden to take a haircut, it is forbidden to shave; only if one is liable to lose his livelihood if he does not shave is permitted to shave (Kaf HaChaim, Iggrot Moshe). This is the practice of most yeshiva students, who do not shave during the days of mourning of Sefirat HaOmer.
On the other hand, some poskim believe that there is a fundamental difference between a haircut and a shave. Taking a haircut involves an aspect of festivity, as it is customary for people to take haircuts before holidays and festive events; on the other hand, today shaving is routine, performed every day or every few days, and its goal is to remove the stubble that mars the faces of those who are accustomed to shave, and the custom of not taking a haircut does not apply to such a person. According to these poskim, particularly on the eve of Shabbat it is appropriate to shave, so as not to accept Shabbat in an undignified manner. Apparently, this is the opinion of some of the eminent Gedolei Achronim, that in honor of Shabbat, it would be appropriate to shave (Magen Avraham 551:14; Biur Halakha 551:3).
In practice, it is appropriate for every person to continue his father’s custom. For those who do not have a custom – it is preferable to shave before every Shabbat, as well as before Yom Ha’atzma’ut (Independence Day). And if one wishes, he can shave every day, because the lenient opinion seems more logical (Peninei Halakha, ibid 3: 7).
Joy and Trips
During these days, public dancing or sing-a-longs should not be held, and performances by singers or orchestras should not be held. Youth trips where the participants are accustomed to sing out loud and make noise should not be held, but a regular trip is permitted. It is also permissible to go on a vacation during these days.
The Joy of a Mitzvah
It is permitted to hold a seudat mitzvah (festive meal) and to sing and dance there as is customary throughout the year. For example, it is permissible to conduct seudat brit milah, pidyon ha’ben (redeeming the first born son), and a siyum masechet (concluding a tractate of Talmud) during the days of Sefirat HaOmer. And those who are accustomed at such meals to dance and play joyful music – may do so, because this is the joy of a mitzvah.
It is permitted to insert a new Torah scroll into a synagogue with song, melodies and dancing as is customary, because these are dances and melodies for the sake of a mitzvah.
The same applies to a seudat Bar Mitzvah that takes place on the day the boy reaches Bar-Mitzvah, which is permitted to be observed as is customary throughout the year. When the Bar Mitzvah party cannot be held on the day the boy reaches Bar-Mitzvah, it is permitted to hold the meal without playing music. And if they set to finish a Tractate or an Order of the Mishnah at the beginning of the party, they can play music as they are accustomed to at every Bar Mitzvah celebration (Peninei Halakha, ibid, 3: 9).
But a wedding, although it is a joy of a mitzvah, is not held, because the joy of a wedding is exceptionally splendid.
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) (Iggrot Moshe, Y.D. 2:137, Yechaveh Da’at 6:34).
On the other hand, some authorities hold that the prohibition against listening to musical instruments during this period 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. 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 (Peninei Halakha, ibid, 3:10). According to all opinions, a driver may listen to music in order to keep himself awake.
Buying New Products
Unlike “Yamei Bein Ha’Maytzarim” (The Three Weeks) when it is customary not to recite the ‘Shehecheyanu‘ blessing, during Sefirat HaOmer it is permissible to buy a garment, a new piece of furniture, or a new fruit, and to recite the ‘Shehecheyanu‘ blessing. Indeed, there are some poskim who, l’chatchila, (from the outset) are stringent not to recite the blessing; however, in practice, when necessary, it is possible to be lenient. And someone who wishes to enhance the mitzvah should attempt to wear or use the new product and recite “Shehecheyanu” over them in times of joy, such as Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, or Yom Ha’atzma’ut (Peninei Halakha 3:11).
Between Lag BaOmer and Shavuot
As we learned according to Sephardic custom, the customs of mourning cease on the thirty-fourth day of the Omer, because the rule is that fifteen days before Shavuot, the days of mourning cease. However, according to Ashkenazic custom, the rule is that 33 days of mourning can be observed at the beginning of the Omer until Lag BaOmer, or it is possible to observe them at the end of the days of Sefirat HaOmer from Rosh Chodesh Iyar until the eve of Shavuot.
In the past, most Ashkenazic communities preferred mourning at the end of the days of the counting, because during these days there were more catastrophes in Ashkenaz. About 1,000 years after the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students, during the Crusades that began in the fifth millennium (1096), the Christians in Ashkenaz murdered tens of thousands of Jews, and most of these disasters occurred during the days of Sefirat HaOmer. About five hundred years later, in 1648 and 1649, terrible murders again took place in Eastern Europe. Tens of thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered, and these riots also took place mostly during the days of the Omer.
Even though the principle is that when different communities gather, each community is permitted to continue its practice, l’chatchila (ideally), it is preferable not to increase divisions. Therefore, as a result of the custom of the Sephardim, almost all the Ashkenazim in Israel are accustomed to observe the days of mourning until Lag BaOmer. However, an Ashkenazi who wishes to do so may continue the custom of his family and observe the days of mourning at the end of the Omer.
Marriage and Joy after Lag BaOmer
According to Sephardic custom, after the thirty-fourth of Omer, there is no longer any custom of mourning, and it is permitted to hold marriages and celebrations without limitation.
However, according to the custom of the Ashkenazim, since the prevalent custom in the past was to practice mourning customs at the end of the Omer period because of the calamities that occurred in them, even today, when the main mourning customs end on Lag Ba’Omer, it is customary not to hold large celebrations such as musical performances and happy dance evenings until Rosh Chodesh Sivan. Nevertheless, an aerobic dance class and the like can be held, because it is mainly for exercise. On the 28th of Iyar, the day of the Liberation of Jerusalem, it is permitted to hold large celebrations and marriages even according to the custom of Ashkenaz.
Many Ashkenazic Jews do not get married during these days, but some poskim are of the opinion that Ashkenazic Jews are also permitted to get married during the days following Lag BaOmer, and when necessary, one should consult with the local rabbi, or one’s distinct rabbi, whether to rely on the lenient opinion.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought-provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at: http://revivimen.yhb.org.il/