MOURNING CUSTOMS DURING THE OMER
(adapted from Minhagei Yisrael by Daniel Shperber)
TheShulchan Aruch (O.C. 493:2) states that there is a practice to not take a haircut during the period of the Omer until Lag Ba'Omer, since that was when the students as Rabi Akiva stopped dying (as per the gemara in Yevamot 62b). He further notes that there are some people who do shave or take a hair cut on Rosh Chodesh Iyar, but that such a practice is mistaken. Ramo comments that there are some places in the Ashkenazic world where there are those who shave up until Rosh Chodesh Iyar, and only begin counting thirty-three days of mourning from that point.
The reason for these various customs stems from the deaths of the students of Rabi Akiva, who died during the period between Pesach and Shavuot. As such, it would seem that the entire seven weeks would be subject to these restrictions, and such was the practice during the time of the Geonim (see Ritz Giat and Rav Natronai Gaon), who forbade weddings during this span of time. However, Ra'avan HaYarchi (Sefer HaManhig) had a tradition that the students only died until Lag Ba'Omer, and this idea was picked up by bothAbudraham and Tashbetz, ultimately being codified by the Shulchan Aruch.
The custom of not shaving during this time period is first found along with a slightly different view on how long the mourning period is supposed to be. Rabi Yehoshua Ibn Sho'iv claims that one should not take a haircut until the thirty-fourth day of the Omer (utilizing a different interpretation of the original custom). However, invoking a well-known principle of the laws of mourning, he rules that once mourning comes on the thirty-fourth day one can shave and take a haircut, since a small fraction of the day is counted as if the entire day has passed ("miktzat ha-yom k'kulo"). Additionally, this practice of not cutting one's hair is brought down by both theOrchot Chaim and the Shibbolei HaLeket, both times in the context of the tradition that Rabi Akiva's students died for only the first thirty-three days of the Omer.
Thus, the Sephardic view codified by the Shulchan Aruch is well understood and has ample support. However, what is the source for the Ashkenazic custom put forth by Ramo? Neither the Geonim nor the Sephardic Rishonim ever considered a mourning custom that begins only at Rosh Chodesh Iyar!
It seems that the key to the practice may be found in some of the liturgy of the Ashkenazic communities of this time. As brought down byMaharam MiRutenberg, there was a practice of reciting "zulatot," lamentation poems, every Shabbat between Pesach and Shavuot, as well as saying Av HaRachamim. The reason for this practice was as a memory for the many people killed throughout Ashkenazic lands during the Crusades (specifically the first Crusade in 1096).
With this in mind we can understand the practice from the world of Ashkenaz. The Sefer Minhag Tov notes that people had the custom to not even cut their nails or wear new clothing during the period between Pesach and Shavuot (with Lag Ba'Omer being an exception), in memory of those who martyred themselves. These customs, along with the recitation of the aforementioned lamentations, reveal a very strong sense of mourning prevalent during these days in Ashkenaz. Indeed, the custom in these lands was to recite Av HaRachamim only during these days, and not year round as is now the prevailing custom.
The final piece of our puzzle comes from the many historical documents that we have about the Crusades and the Jewish communities who suffered at the hands of the Crusaders. From these documents we learn the exact dates when several of the most important communities in the Rhine Valley fell - Speyers on the 8th of Iyar, Worms on the 23rd of Iyar, Magence on the 3rd of Sivan, Colon on the 6th of Sivan. As such, some of the worst disasters came only after Rosh Chodesh Iyar. Since the mourning practices connected to the students of Rabi Akiva came to be connected to the mourning for the martyrs of the Crusades, the practice developed to begin the thirty-three days of mourning at Rosh Chodesh Iyar, in order to highlight the more recent tragedy as well.
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