Based on this Gemara, the Tur (Orach Chayyim 493) states as follows: “It is customary in all places not to take a wife [in marriage] between Pesach and Shavuot, the reason being that we do not excessively celebrate then because the students of R. Akiva died during that time. The R”i Gi’at states that this applies only to marriage, which is the main simcha (joy), but engagements and betrothals are proper. Even concerning marriage, if one went ahead and did it, we [the Beit Din] do not mete out any punishment. However, if a man comes with a request to do so, we do not allow it. This is the edict of the Geonim.”
We note that the Gemara itself offered no instructions regarding mourning, but the Geonim gave their instructions based on the Gemara.
The source for mourning between Pesach and Shavuot is found in a citation attributed to Rav Hai Gaon in Teshuvot HaGe’onim (Sha’arei Teshuva 278): “And that which you asked why we do not marry between Pesach and Shavuot, you should know that this is not because of a prohibition. It is rather because of a custom of mourning, as the Gemara (Yevamot 62b) states – that R. Akiva had 24,000 disciples, and they all died during the period between Pesach and Shavuot because of not acting properly [showing honor] one toward the other, and we further learned that they all died unusually horrible deaths through askara (diphtheria).”
R. Hai Gaon continues, “From that time on, the Rishonim – the early halachic authorities – established the custom not to marry on these days, but they permitted engagements and betrothals.”
Perhaps the reason for this permission is that another person might “anticipate him and marry her,” based on what is stated in Tractate Mo’ed Katan (18b) regarding the Rabbinical prohibition to marry on Festivals: “Ein me’arvin be’simcha – One may not commingle one joy [of Yom Tov] with another joy [of one’s wife].” Betrothing on Festivals is permitted for the same reason – lest a rival suitor anticipate him and marry her. It is only the marriage itself that is considered a particularly great joy (as we see in Tractate Sukka 25b).
From the above it would seem that marriages are not performed for the entire period between Pesach and Shavuot, a 49-day period – and that is clearly not the case.
We find a similar account regarding the students of R. Akiva in the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 61:3), with the exception that there is no specific mention of the time period other than quotes from Rashi and Matnot Kehuna, who explain it as being between Pesach and Shavuot, as in our Gemara (Yevamot 62b).
To further answer our question, we find the following in Responsa Tashbatz (Vol. I, Responsum 178): “Be aware that our custom is only to prohibit [marriages] until Lag BaOmer (the 33rd day of the Omer). R. Zerachiah Halevi cites an old Sephardic manuscript as a source stating that the students died from Pesach until Peros Ha’atzeret. “Peros” is defined as “half,” which here means not less than sixteen days. [As we learned in a baraita (Megilla 29b), we are supposed to learn about the laws of Pesach 30 days before Pesach, and half of that is 15 days. Fifteen days before Shavuot is Lag BaOmer, for from Lag BaOmer until Shavuot we have 16 days, and part of the 34th day is counted as an entire day (miktzat hayom kekulo), as in all types of mourning, as we learned in Moed Katan (20b, Perek Elu Megalchin.)]
We are thus left (after the 34th day) with 15 days which are the Peros HaAtzeret, which means half of the 30 days in which we are to expound on the laws of Atzeret (Shavuot).
Based on this responsum of Tashbatz, we are left with a total of 33 days of mourning. There are various minhagim as to how we observe these 33 days of mourning. The Mechaber (Orach Chayyim 493:1-3) states as follows: “The custom is not to marry between Pesach and Shavuot until Lag BaOmer, for that is when R. Akiva’s students died…” and he repeats the Tur’s statement that “if one went ahead and married, we do not mete out any punishment.”
We are accustomed as well not to have our hair cut until Lag BaOmer because that is when the students ceased dying, but in fact one should not have his hair cut until the 34th day during the daytime. The Rema notes that in our lands (Ashkenaz) we can have our hair cut starting on the 33rd day.
The Mechaber then states that some are accustomed to have their hair cut on Rosh Chodesh Iyar, and he considers this a serious error. The Rema seems to differ when he cites yet another custom, which permits haircuts until Rosh Chodesh Iyar, but not from Lag BaOmer and on, even though on Lag BaOmer itself it is permitted. On the other hand, those who have their hair cut from Lag BaOmer and on should not do so from after Pesach until Lag BaOmer. The people in a city should not be divided between these two customs lest they violate “Lo titgodedu” (Deuteronomy 14:1), that is, having two obviously different rules in one community.
(To be continued)