Rabbi David Brofsky
Senior Faculty, Midreshet Lindenbaum
The weeks between Pesaḥ and Shavuot are characterized by excitement and anticipation as the Jewish people count from the Exodus from Egypt until the giving of the Torah, but they are also marked by the observance of minhagei aveilut, mourning practices.
The Gemara relates:
It was said that R. Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, from Gabbat to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until R. Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were R. Meir, R. Yehuda, R. Yossi, R. Shimon and R. Elazar ben Shammua, and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: All of them died between Pesaḥ and Shavuot. R. Ḥamma b. Abba or, some say, R. Ḥiyya b. Abin said: All of them died a cruel death. What was it? R. Naḥman replied: Diphtheria. (Yevamot 62b)
Kohelet Rabba and Genesis Rabba record the same story, but only mention that they died “during the same period,” and they attribute their death to “being stingy with their Torah” (lefi she’einehem tzara). R. Akiva urged his new students not to behave in such a manner, and in turn, “the world was filled with Torah.”
Based on the Gemara, the Geonim cite an ancient custom of observing certain mourning customs between Pesaḥ and Shavuot (referred to as “Atzeret”):
Know that this does not stem from a prohibition but from a mourning custom, for so said our sages: “R. Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples and they all died between Pesaḥ and Atzeret because they did not treat each other with respect”; and they further taught, “and they all died a cruel death from diphtheria.” And from that time forward, the early sages had the custom not to marry during these days, but he who “jumps forward” and marries, we do not punish him by punishment or lashes, but if he comes to ask before the fact, we do not instruct him to marry. And as for betrothal, he who wants to betroth between Pesaḥ and Atzeret betroths, because the main joy is the ḥuppa (canopy).
In the Middle Ages, the Rishonim attributed other reasons to these mourning practices. Some ascribe the mourning practices to the precarious state of the Jewish people during this period, as they pray that God judges the world favorably. Thus, these practices are intended to arouse teshuva, and not necessarily as an expression of mourning. Others attribute these minhagei aveilut to the destruction of the flourishing Jewish communities of France and Germany during the Crusades (eleventh and twelfth centuries). The Sefer Assufot (thirteenth-century Germany), for example, records that “people do not marry between Pesaḥ and Atzeret; this is because of the pain of the decrees, that the communities were killed in this entire kingdom.” Taz and the Arukh HaShulḥan cite this reason as well.
Similarly, Rabbi Yaakov Emden writes in his Siddur Beit Yaakov, “R. Akiva’s students died and, due to our many sins, a number of communities were destroyed at the same time of year during the Crusades in Ashkenaz, and in 5408 in Poland.” The latter refers to the Chmielnicki massacres, which took place in the spring of 1648.
Although we observe certain minhagei aveilut during this period, Ramban asserts that the days between Pesaḥ and Shavuot are actually similar to Ḥol HaMo’ed:
And you should count forty-nine days, and seven weeks, and sanctify the eighth day, like the eighth day of Sukkot, and these days which are counted in between are akin to Ḥol HaMo’ed, between the first and eighth of a festival…and that is why our Rabbis refer to Shavuot as “Atzeret” (a day of cessation), as it is similar to the eighth day of Sukkot, which is called “Atzeret.”
Ramban views Pesaḥ as the first festive day, Shavuot as the last day, and the entire interim period as a quasi–Ḥol HaMoed. These days are thus fundamentally days of excitement, anticipation, and happiness leading up to the giving of the Torah on Shavuot.
If so, don’t the mourning practices discussed above contradict Ramban’s perception of this time period as one of joy and spiritual closeness to God?
While the period of Bein HaMetzarim between Shiva Asar B’Tammuz and Tisha B’Av is categorically defined as a one of mourning, and one who increases and intensifies his mourning for Yerushalayim and the Beit HaMikdash during this time is praiseworthy, the days of Sefirat HaOmer are quite different. Therefore, one must strike a balance between the customary mourning practices – reminding us of the behavior that led to the death of R. Akiva’s students, which was antithetical to the unity the Jewish people displayed before receiving the Torah – and the festive nature of the period, as described by Ramban. God willing, by learning the lessons of the tragic death of R. Akiva’s students, and preparing properly for the conclusion of this extra-long Festival, the giving of the Torah, we will be worthy of receiving the Torah anew.
Indeed, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Yeḥave Da’at 3:30) argues that “God forbid, one should not view the days of Sefira as days of tragedy,” and refrain from reciting the Sheheḥiyanu blessing or from moving into a new house.