Change the Omer?
Pesach is over and normal services have resumed. But what is “normal”? We are now in a period called “the Omer.” It is a time of mourning. No weddings or parties are permitted and, for the decadent among us, no public entertainment, opera, concerts, theater, or cinema.
None of these restrictions are mentioned in the Torah. In fact, all it says is that the Omer was the first sheaf of the new barley harvest. Until it was brought and dedicated at the Temple on the morning after the Pascal sacrifice, one was not allowed to eat any of the new agricultural produce of that year. Then we were instructed to count seven weeks (49 days) until the festival of Shavuot, when the wheat harvest began.
This time of the Omer is now an integral part of our Jewish calendar, but as a period of mourning. The only clue we have for why this is the case is that, quite separately, without any seeming connection, the Talmud (Yevamot 62a) says that 12,000 pairs of Rabbi Akiva’s pupils died during this period, because they did not treat each other with respect.
In the post-Talmudic period, Lag B’Omer (the 33rd day of the Omer) is mentioned as a happy day, because the plague that was killing off the pupils of Rabbi Akiva stopped. And that is all. There is no suggestion of any lengthy period of mourning, or not listening to music — although some communities refrained from music altogether, in memory of the destruction of the Temple.
The legal code in the Shulchan Aruch by Rabbi Yosef Caro (1563) takes this up and says, “We have the custom not to get married from Pesach until the 33rd day of the Omer because of what befell the pupils of Rabbi Akiva.” It goes on to add that one does not cut one’s hair until the 33rd day. However, the Ashkenazi version adds that one does not start the period of mourning until Rosh Chodesh Iyar, a week after Pesach, stopping for the 33rd day, then resuming until three days before Shavuot.
So how did we get to our current period of strict public mourning? Here’s a theory: We know that mainstream rabbis opposed fighting the Romans in 70 CE and that Rabbi Akiva died supporting the failed Bar Cochba revolt from 132-135 CE. This in itself was highly controversial. Almost all the other mainstream rabbinic leaders disagreed with him. Both rebellions led to massive loss. Was the story about his pupils dying a sort of code? A cover to discourage the idea of rebellion, because of so many casualties on both occasions?
The whole issue also reminds us how we were divided into rival camps and political parties in the past. Things haven’t changed very much. Religiously, we are as split now as we were then. Perhaps it is this split that we need to mourn, as much as the violence and death.
Here’s another theory: Throughout the Middle Ages, Easter was a period of disaster, murder, and suffering for the Jews. Christian preachers in their Easter sermons called for vengeance for the death of Jesus. Easter was when the Blood Libel regularly reappeared — the myth that Jews needed Christian blood for the Passover matzah (ironic, given the Christian belief that the wine of the eucharist turns into the blood of Jesus).
The Crusades were a time of constant horror for European Jews, and indeed for those living in the Land of Israel. The days of the Omer coincided with the spring, peak marching time for hordes of murderous anti-Jewish fanatics.
But if this explains the period of mourning during the Omer, one would also have to explain why the tradition extended to the whole of Eastern Jewry as well. Perhaps it was because, there too, the spring was a time when armies started to march and religious fanatics came out in force. Regardless of where you lived, this time of the year was a fraught and dangerous one.
What about the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students? Can we really argue that this in itself was so cataclysmic? Why is it still relevant? One answer might be the emphasis on the loss of Torah students. The other answer usually given is that however relatively safe we are nowadays, we Jews are still constantly hated around the world. Antisemitism is alive and well — and sadly growing, not diminishing.
But if that is the message, why not make the Holocaust its symbol instead of Rabbi Akiva’s students? Why is the Holocaust not regarded as a far greater catastrophe?
Some will say that the Holocaust is deeply embedded in our psyche anyway. It certainly is in the Haredi world, which sees its very existence as a response to Hitler. On a public level, many Jews include a Holocaust Day within this period of the Omer. It is mentioned in our synagogues and in our prayers all the time, often at our celebrations. Why don’t we formally restructure this whole period of the Omer as one of mourning the Holocaust? And if the argument is that we should respect tradition, then what about all those other local tragedies over the past 2,000 years that — for a period of time — were turned into public fast days, but now are forgotten or ignored?
The Prophet Zachariah said, “The fasts of the fourth (month), the fifth, the seventh, and the tenth will be turned, for the houses of Judah and Israel, into days of happiness and celebration.”
We were prepared to consider adapting to changing circumstances then, why not now? Is the answer the strength of tradition and its inertia — that our fractious religion and rabbinate seem incapable of flexibility, leniency, and anything other than making life more difficult, intolerant, and obscurantist? Sometimes accommodation is the better part of valor.
If logic plays any part, this mindset makes no sense. But then you could say that the whole point of religion is not to make sense. Indeed, the world itself does not seem to make much sense nowadays. Only we as individuals might. Some of us, sometimes!
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than forty years in Europe and the US.