The weeks between Pesach and Shavuos are marked by minhagei aveilus. What is the source of these customs? Which activities are prohibited and why?
The Gemara (Yevamos 62b) states that 12,000 pairs of students of R. Akiva died between Pesach and Shavuos “because they did not treat each other with respect.” Other sources (Koheles Rabba 11 and Bereshis Rabba 61) attribute their death to being stingy, or competitive, with their Torah (“l’fi she’einehem tzara”).
The Ge’onim (Sha’arei Teshuva 278) cite this Talmudic passage as the source for an ancient custom to observe certain mourning customs between Pesach and Shavuos. They report that “the early sages had the custom not to marry during these days.”
In the Middle Ages, Rishonim mention other reasons for mourning during Sefirah, including the precarious state of the Jewish people between Pesach and Shavuos (Abudraham, Rabbeinu Yerucham). The Taz (493:2) and Aruch HaShulchan (493:1) attribute these minhagei aveilus to the destruction of the Jewish communities of France and Germany during the Crusades. R. Yaakov Emden (Siddur Beis Yaakov) adds the Chmielnicki massacres (1648) to the list of why we mourn during this time period.
Listening to Music
Which minhagei aveilus are observed during Sefirah? The Ge’onim write that people should not get married. The Tur adds that some people also do not take haircuts. The Shulchan Aruch (493:1-2) cites both of these customs.
In addition to not getting married or taking haircuts, the Tur adds that it is customary “not to increase one’s joy” (l’harbos besimcha) during Sefirah. Does this statement imply that other practices should be prohibited as well?
The Magen Avraham (493:1; see Mishnah Berurah 493:3) permits holding an engagement party (se’udas shidduchin) during Sefirah but adds that no dancing (rikkudim umecholos) should accompany the event. The Magen Avraham understands that the prohibition against marrying is due to the festive nature of a wedding, not just the joy of getting married.
R. Yitzchak Weiss (Minchas Yitzchak 1:111) asserts that the prohibition against playing instruments falls into the category of rikkudim umecholos. R. Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 1:165), R. Ovadia Yosef (Yechave Daas 3:64), and R. Eliezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer 15:33) all prohibit playing and listening to music, even from a radio, during Sefirah. Rav Moshe writes, though, that one may learn to play music for professional reasons (Igros Moshe 3:84).
Other authorities dispute the notion that listening to all music is prohibited. For example, R. Shlomo Daichovsky, a retired rabbinic judge in Israel, argues that only playing or listening to music that leads to rikkudum umecholos is prohibited. Thus, playing or listening to classical music, for example, is permitted (Techumin 21).
Also disagreeing with the stringent position is Rabbi Eliyahu Schlesinger. In a lengthy essay in which he defends the radio station Kol Simcha playing calm, soothing music during Sefirah, he argues vehemently that only music that leads to rikkudim umecholos is prohibited; music, however, that is spiritually uplifting and soothing to one’s soul is permitted.
He argues that listening to music on the radio is part of many people’s daily routine and can hardly be considered something that causes such great joy that it should be prohibited during Sefirah. According to him, therefore, a person may play spiritually uplifting music or music appropriate for the time period (such as sad music on Yom HaZikaron) during Sefirah. Background music while exercising – and certainly music played while driving so that one does not fall asleep – would also be okay.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik also permitted listening to music during Sefirah. He explained that Sefirah has the same status of the 12-month period after the death of a parent. And since a person can listen to music during yud beis chodesh, he may also do so during Sefirah.
Poskim (see Yechave Da’as 6:34 and Minchas Yitzchak ibid.) disagree about playing music and dancing at a se’udas mitzvah, such as a Sheva Berachos, bris milah, pidyon haben, bar or bas mitzvah, or a siyum maseches. Practically speaking local custom and the position of the local mara de’asra should govern a person’s behavior.
Haircuts and Shaving
Although the prohibition against cutting hair applies to both men and women, a married woman may cut hair that protrudes from her head covering, trim her eyebrows, and follow other standard female cosmetic hair removal practices.
May a man shave his face during Sefirah? Many Acharonim (Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 2:96) equate shaving with cutting one’s hair, but nevertheless permit shaving – when necessary – for work. This leniency may be more applicable outside of Israel. In Israel, where it is very common for people not to shave during Sefirah, it may be less appropriate to rely upon this leniency.
Some (see Pe’ulas Tzedek 2:76) permit shaving before Shabbos in honor of Shabbos. (R. Aharon Lichtenstein followed this position.) R. Soloveitchik, who equates Sefirah to yud beis chodesh, permitted shaving daily throughout Sefirah.
Purchasing New Garments and Reciting Shehechiyanu
The Maharil cites the Sefer Chasidim (840), which states that one should avoid saying Shehechiyanu on new fruit or clothing during the Three Weeks. Some (Leket Yosher p. 98) cite a custom to avoid saying Shehechiyanu during Sefirah, too. That’s why some people refrain from buying new clothes during this period – as they do not want to become obligated to recite Shehechiyanu.
Maamar Mordechai, however, criticizes those who refrain from saying Shehechiyanu during Sefirah and attributes this practice to the mistaken notion that Sefirah has the same status as the Three Weeks. The Mishnah Berurah (493:2) rules that one may recite Shehechiyanu during Sefirah. According to this ruling, there is no reason to refrain from shopping, or wearing new clothes during Sefirah.
Sefirat HaOmer: A Period of Happiness
Although many observe mourning customs during Sefirah, the Ramban (Vayikra 23:26) asserts that this period is actually similar to Chol HaMo’ed. Just like Chol HaMo’ed is sandwiched by the first and last days of Yom Tov, Sefirah is sandwiched by Pesach and Shavuos. The days of Sefirah, thus, are fundamentally days of excitement, anticipation, and happiness leading up to the giving of the Torah on Shavuos.
R. Ovadia Yosef (Yechave Daas 3:30) writes that, “G-d forbid, one should not view the days of Sefirah as days of tragedy” and refrain from reciting Shehechiyanu or moving into a new house. He writes that a person must strike a balance between mourning – to remind 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 (Rashi, Shemos 19:2) – and the festive nature of the period, as described by the Ramban.
This perspective is especially relevant nowadays when many grapple with properly observing Yom HaAtzma’ut and Yom Yerushalyim, both of which are marked during Sefirah. In light of the above, we might suggest that mourning is appropriate as it reminds us to behave in a manner that promotes unity and harmony during this period when Jews from so many different countries (and views) have returned to our ancestral homeland to build a Jewish society and state.
In memory of my mother-in-law, Mrs. Leah Adler z”l, Head Librarian of Hebraica-Judaica at the Yeshiva University Library, who passed away last Shabbos.