The Mourning Period of S’firat Ha-omer

With S’firat Ha-Omer, we now are in the midst of a period of mourning that compares with the first twelve days of the “Three Weeks” period in the summer.  Thus, during this mourning period, we do not conduct weddings, take haircuts, listen to music, or attend public entertainment like movies.  Home video rentals are not deemed the same as “going to the movies,” as anyone who makes it a practice to go to movies knows.  Some are stricter and do not rent videos during the period, others more lenient.  The period is not as intensive in mourning as are “The Nine Days of Av.”  Thus, we may eat meat, drink wine, and swim during S’firah.  Even if one forgets the counting, one is obliged to engage in the partial mourning.

There are two mainstream customs as to when we mourn.

Under one custom — many mourn from the First Day of S’firahthrough the 32d day.  They terminate the mourning on Lag B’Omer – the 33d of Omer.  (They also take hiates from mourning during all the days of Pesach, and some also take an hiatus on Yom Ha-Atzma’ut.  Thus, mourning begins de facto only after Isru Chag.)  The mourning period coincides with the period discussed in the Talmud when 12,000 (one version) or 24,000 (other version) of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples died.  The Talmud reports that they died essentially because they bore wanton ill will against other Jews.  There is reason to infer that they died as part of Bar Kochba’s last-ditch rebellion against Rome, which culminated in the Fall of Betar in 135.

Under the other custom – many others, particularly certain Ashkenazim, mourn instead from Rosh Chodesh Iyar (beginning the 30th of Nisan) through the morning of the 3d Day of Sivan.  Thus, they mourn a similar number of days as in the custom described before.  Under this second custom, the primary reason for mourning between Rosh Chodesh Iyar and 3 Sivan is that the period coincides with the murders and massacres that saw Christianity’s Crusaders, inspired by the call of Pope Urban II, obliterate whole Jewish communities in 1096, primarily along the Rhine River in Germany, including the historic Jewish communities of Speyer, Wurms, and Mainz.  It is in memory of those events, the Crusades and their anti-Jewish bloodbaths,  that Ashkenazic communities recite Av Ha-Rakhamim, a prayer not found in Sephardic siddurim, even on the Shabbat that we bless the forthcoming month of Iyar.

Those who mourn instead during this latter period break the mourning on the third of Sivan, starting three joyous preparatory days – shloshet y’mei hagbalah – to parallel the three preparatory days that Hashem commanded in the Torah for the Nation to purify and sanctify ourselves in preparation for receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai when the Kodosh Barukh Hu revealed Himself, in His glory and majesty — amid thunder, lightning, and Shofar blasts – before the eyes of a Nation of more than 3 million witnesses.  (With the three preparatory days, of course, we usher in Shavuot on the 6th of Sivan, the Yom Tov that marks the time we received the gift of our Torah – z’man matan Torateinu.)  Those following this alternate custom (including my family) take a hiatus from mourning on Lag B’Omer, and some also take a hiatus from mourning on Yom Ha-Atzma’ut and/ or Yom Yerushalayim.