Reason for Mourning
The medrash teaches that one reason for the counting of the omer is so that we again experience the excitement of anticipating the receiving of the Torah (quoted by Ran, end of Pesachim). At the same time, it is unfortunate that this very same part of the year has witnessed much tragedy for the Jewish people. Indeed, the Mishnah (Eduyos 2:10) points out that the season between Pesach and Shavuos is a time of travail. One major calamity that befell us during this season is the plague that took the lives of the 24,000 disciples of Rabbi Akiva. They died within several weeks in one year between Pesach and Shavuos because they did not treat one another with proper respect (Yevamos 62b). The world was desolate for the loss of Torah until Rabbi Akiva went to the southern part of Eretz Yisroel to teach five great scholars, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Rabbi Yosi, and Rabbi Elozor ben Shamua, who became the upholders of the future of Torah.
Again, in the time of the Crusades, terrible tragedies happened to the Jewish communities of the Rhine River Valley during the period between Pesach and Shavuos (Taz and Aruch HaShulchan, Orach Chayim 493). Some of these catastrophies are recorded in the Kinos that we recite on Tisha B’Av. The reciting of “Av HaRachamim” after Keriyas HaTorah on Shabbos was introduced as a testimonial to remember these holy communities who perished in sanctification of Hashem’s name rather than accept baptism.
What Practices Are Prohibited
At the time of the tragic passing of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples, the minhag was established to treat the sefirah period as a time of mourning and to prohibit the conducting of weddings during this season. It is interesting to note that although it is forbidden to hold a wedding during this season, if someone schedules a wedding during this season in violation of the accepted community practice, we do not penalize him for having done so (Tshuvos Geonim #278). Thus, although this person violated the community rules by scheduling the wedding, others may attend the wedding (see Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 2:95). There are poskim who permit weddings under extenuating circumstances, such as concern that a delay may cause the engagement to be broken (Aruch HaShulchan 493:2).
In addition to abstaining from weddings, certain other mourning practices are also observed during the period of sefirah. One does not take a haircut during this season (Tur Orach Chayim Chapter 493). However, if there is a bris during sefirah, the mohel, the sandek, and the father of the baby are permitted to have their hair cut in honor of the occasion (Rema), but not the kvatter or those who are honored with “cheika” (Mishneh Brura 493:12). Those who are permitted to have their hair cut in honor of the occasion may even have their hair cut the evening before (Mishneh Brura 493:13).
Dancing is not permitted during the sefirah season (Magen Avraham). Listening to music is likewise prohibited (Igros Moshe 1:166; Minchas Yitzchok 1:111; Yechaveh Daas 3:30). One is permitted to teach, learn, or play music if it is for his livelihood (Igros Moshe 3:87). This is permitted since he is not playing for enjoyment. However, one should not take music lessons for pleasure.
Rav Moshe Feinstein ruled that if a wedding took place on Lag B’omer or before Rosh Chodesh Iyar (in places where this is the accepted practice, see below), it is permitted to celebrate the week of sheva berachos with live music and dancing (Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 2:95). There are others who disagree (Shu”t Minchas Yitzchok 1:111. See Piskei Tshuvos Chapter 493 footnotes 39 and 81 who quotes many authorities on both sides of the question.).
Although certain mourning practices are observed during sefirah, many practices that are prohibited during the three weeks or the nine days preceding Tisha B’Av are permitted. For example, house remodeling, which is prohibited during “the nine days” preceding Tisha B’Av, is permitted during the sefirah period (Shu”t Yechaveh Daas 3:30). Similarly, although during the nine days one is discouraged from doing things that are dangerous, no such concern is mentioned in regard to the period of sefirah. Thus, although the Minchas Elozor reports that he knew of people who would not travel during sefirah, he rules that it is permitted, and that this practice is without halachic basis (Shu”t Minchas Elozor 4:44).
In a similar vein, according to most poskim, one may recite a brocha of shehechiyanu on a new garment or a new fruit during the period of sefirah (Maamar Mordechai 493:2; Kaf HaChayim 493:4). The Maamar Mordechai explains that the custom not to recite shehechiyanu is a mistake that developed because of confusion with the three weeks before Tisha B’Av when one should not recite a shehechiyanu (Maamar Mordechai 493:2). However, there are early poskim that record a custom not to recite shehechiyanu during the mourning period of sefirah (Piskei Tshuvos, quoting Leket Yosher).
It is permitted during sefirah to sing or to have a festive meal without music (Graz; Aruch HaShulchan). It is also permitted to make an engagement party (a vort) or a tnoyim during the sefirah period, provided that there is no music or dancing (Shulchan Aruch Chapter 493 and Magen Avraham).
When Do We Observe Mourning?
There are numerous customs regarding which days of sefirah are to be kept as a period of mourning. The Shulchan Aruch rules that the mourning period runs from the beginning of the sefirah counting and ends on the thirty-fourth day of the omer count (Beis Yosef and Shulchan Aruch Chapter 493; Kaf HaChayim 493:25). In his opinion, there is no celebration on Lag B’Omer, and it is forbidden to schedule a wedding on that day! The source for this opinion is a medrash that states that the plague that caused the deaths of the disciples of Rabbi Akiva ended fifteen days before Shavuos. According to Shulchan Aruch’s understanding, the last day of the plague was the thirty-fourth day of the omer. Thus, the mourning ends fifteen days before Shavuos, ending the day after Lag B’Omer.
However, the generally accepted practice is to treat the thirty-third day of the Omer count as a day of celebration (Rema and Darchei Moshe Chapter 493, quoting Maharil) because according to this tradition, the last day of the tragedy was the thirty-third day (Gra). There are several other reasons mentioned why Lag B’Omer should be treated as a day of celebration. Some record that it is celebrated because it is the yahrzeit of Rav Shimon bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar (Birkei Yosef; Chaya Odom, Klal 131:11; Aruch HaShulchan). Others say that it is celebrated because it is the day that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was able to leave the cave in which he had been hiding (Aruch HaShulchan). Another reason recorded for celebrating this day is because it was the day that Rabbi Akiva granted semichah to his surviving disciples (Kaf HaChayim 493:26). Others record that it was the first day that the man began falling for the Jews in the desert (Shu”t Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah #233 s.v. amnam yodati).
According to Maharil and Rema, the evening of Lag B’Omer should be included in the mourning period and the celebration should not begin until morning. In their opinion, Lag B’Omer is still counted as one of the thirty-three days of mourning. The aveilos period ends on the morning of Lag B’Omer because of a concept called miktzas hayom ki’chulloh, which means that the last day of mourning does not need to be a complete day (Gemara Moed Katan 19b). If one observes the beginning of the day in mourning, the entire day is included in the count of the mourning days. For this reason, someone getting up from sitting shiva does so on the morning of the seventh day. Observing mourning requirements at the beginning of the seventh day satisfies the requirement to observe the seventh day of shiva. Similarly, one satisfies the requirement to observe the thirty-third day of sefirah mourning by observing mourning only at the beginning of the thirty-third day of sefirah. According to this approach, one should not conduct a wedding on the evening of Lag B’Omer, but only in the daytime. This is because we paskin according to the opinions that the principle of miktzas hayom ki’chulloh only applies if the mourning was observed in the daytime, and it is insufficient to observe aveilos only in the evening of the seventh day.
However, there are other opinions that permit scheduling a wedding even on the evening of the thirty-third, at least under extenuating circumstances (see Gra”z 493:5; Kaf HaChayim 493:28; Igros Moshe 1:159). Some explain that since we consider Lag B’Omer to be a day of celebration, it is not counted as one of the days of mourning (see Chok Yaakov 493:6 and Kaf HaChayim 493:28). Thus, there are some poskim who contend that there are only thirty-two days in the sefirah mourning period (Gra”z 493:5). Another reason to permit scheduling a wedding the evening of Lag B’Omer is based on the opinion that rules that miktzas hayom ki’chulloh applies even when one observes the mourning only at night (Ramban in Toras HoAdam, Chavel edition page 215). Thus, according to this approach, it is sufficient to have the beginning of the night of Lag B’Omer as a mourning period. (It should be noted that according to this opinion, shiva ends in the evening of the seventh day, not in the morning.)
When Lag B’Omer falls out on Shabbos or Sunday, there is a dispute among early poskim whether one is permitted to get a haircut on Friday in honor of Shabbos. The accepted practice it to permit it (Rema 493:2 and Be’er Heiteiv ad loc.). Apparently, the combined honor of Shabbos and the approaching Lag B’Omer together supersede the mourning of sefirah. Some poskim even permit a wedding to take place on the Friday afternoon before Lag B’Omer that falls out on Sunday (Shu”t HaAlef Lecho Shelomoh, Orach Chayim #330). (Bear in mind that the custom in Europe going back hundreds of years was to schedule most weddings on Friday afternoon.)
Are those who follow the practice of observing mourning during the beginning of sefirah permitted to play music during chol hamoed? This subject is disputed by poskim, but the accepted practice is to permit music during chol hamoed (see Piskei Tshuvos 493:6).
There are several other customs that observe the mourning dates of sefirah in different ways. Some observe the mourning period the entire time of sefirah until Shavuos except for Yom Tov, Chol HaMoed, and Rosh Chodesh (and also presumably Lag B’Omer). Therefore, they permit the playing of music on Chol HaMoed and holding weddings and music on Rosh Chodesh. (One cannot have a wedding on Chol HaMoed for an unrelated reason. The sanctity of Yom Tov precludes celebrating a wedding on this day, see Gemara Moed Katan 8b.) This approach is based on an early source that states that Rabbi Akiva’s disciples died only on the thirty-three days of sefirah when tachanun is recited, thus excluding the days of Shabbos, Yom Tov, Chol HaMoed, and Rosh Chodesh (Bach, quoting Tosafos). If one subtracts from the forty-nine days of sefirah for the days of Pesach, Chol HaMoed, Rosh Chodesh, and the Shabbosos, one is left with thirty-three days. It is on these days that the mourning is observed. (This approach assumes that in earlier days they recited tachanun during the month of Nisan and during the several days before Shavuos.)
Another custom recorded is to refrain from taking haircuts or making weddings from the beginning of sefirah until the morning of Lag B’Omer, but after Lag B’Omer to observe partial mourning by refraining from weddings, although haircuts were permitted. This approach follows the assumption that the original custom of aveilus during sefirah was based on the fact that the plague that killed the disciples of Rabbi Akiva ended on Lag B’Omer. Later, because of the tragedies of the Crusades period, the custom developed not to schedule weddings between Lag B’Omer and Shavuos. However, the mourning period accepted because of the tragedies of the Crusades was not accepted as strictly, and it was permitted to take haircuts (Taz 493:2).
Still others have the custom that the mourning period does not begin until after Rosh Chodesh Iyar but then continues until Shavuos (Maharil, quoted by Darchei Moshe 493:3). This approach assumes that the thirty-three days of mourning are contiguous, but that the mourning period does not begin until after the month of Nisan is over. In Salonica they observed a Sefardic version of this custom: They practiced the mourning period of sefirah from after Rosh Chodesh Iyar until Shavuos. However, they took haircuts on the thirty-fourth day of the sefirah count (cited by Shu”t Dvar Moshe, Orach Chayim #32).
A similar custom existed in many communities in Lithuania and northern Poland, where they kept the mourning period of sefirah from the first day of Rosh Chodesh Iyar until the morning of the third day of Sivan. According to this practice, weddings were permitted during the three days before Shavuos. This practice was based on the assumption that the disciples of Rabbi Akiva died after Lag B’Omer until Shavuos (Aruch HaShulchan, based on Gemara Yevamos). Magen Avraham reports that this was the custom in his area (Danzig/Gdansk); Chayei Adam reports that this was the practice in his city (Vilna), and Aruch HaShulchan report that this was the custom in his community (Novardok). These customs are followed to this day in communities where weddings are allowed after Pesach through the month of Nisan.
Rav Moshe Feinstein points out that although these customs differ which days are considered days of mourning, the premise of most of the customs is the same: Thirty-three days of sefirah should be observed as days of mourning in memory of the disciples of Rabbi Akiva. In Rav Moshe’s opinion, these different customs should be considered as one minhag, and the differences between them are variations in observing the same minhag (Igros Moshe 1:159). This has major halachic ramifications, as we shall see.
Can One Change From One Custom to Another?
We would usually assume that someone must follow the same practice as his parents – or the practice of his community – because of the principle of al titosh toras imecha, “do not forsake the Torah of your mother (Mishlei 1:8)”. This posuk is understood by chazal to mean that we are obligated to observe a practice that our parents observed. However, Rav Moshe Feinstein contends that since the different customs that are currently observed are all considered to be one minhag, changing from one custom to another is not considered changing one’s minhag, and it is therefore permitted. There is ample evidence that other, earlier poskim also agreed that a community may change its custom how it observes the mourning days of sefirah (see Shut Chasam Sofer, Orach Chayim #142). According to this opinion, the specific dates that one observes are not considered part of the minhag and are not necessarily binding on each individual, as long as he observes thirty-three days of sefirah mourning.
How Should a Community Conduct Itself?
Rama rules that although each of the various customs mentioned has halachic validity (Darchei Moshe 493:3), each community should be careful to follow only one practice, and certainly not follow the leniencies of two different customs. This is because if a community follows two different practices, it appears that Hashem’s chosen people are following two different versions of the Torah, G-d forbid.
Rav Moshe Feinstein points out that the Rama is discussing a community that has only one besdin or only one Rav. Under these circumstances, the entire community must follow the exact same practice for sefirah. However, in a city where there are many rabbonim and kehilos, each of which has its own custom regarding the observance of sefirah, there is no requirement for the entire community to follow one practice (Igros Moshe 1:159). Thus, there is no requirement that everyone in a large city follow the same custom for sefirah, unless it has been accepted that the community has one standard custom.
Of course. as in all matters of halacha, each community should follow its practices and Rabbonim, and each individual should follow the ruling of his Rav.
Attending a Wedding During One’s Sefirah Mourning
If a friend schedules a wedding for a time that one is keeping sefirah, is it permitted to attend? One is permitted to attend and celebrate a wedding during his sefirah mourning period, even listening to music and dancing there (Igros Moshe 1:159).
Thus, although I am required to have a mourning period during sefirah of at least thirty-three days, I may attend the wedding of a friend or acquaintance that is scheduled at a time that I keep the mourning period of sefirah. However, Rav Moshe rules that if one is going to a wedding on a day that he is keeping sefirah, he should not shave, unless his unshaved appearance will disturb the simcha (Igros Moshe 2:95).
We should all hope and pray that the season between Pesach and Shavuos should cease from being a time of travail, but instead revert to being a time of total excitement in anticipation of the receiving of the Torah.