Tag Archives: Nisan

Mourning and Music in the Omer

As we count each day during Sefirat haOmer in the weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, we are conscious of the 24,000 slain students of Rabbi Akiva and observe a period of mourning. It is fitting to think of those victims as we ourselves focus on personal development and self-improvement during this time, in preparation for the Sinai Revelation on Shavuot—which didn’t just take place once some three millennia ago, but happens anew each year. Having said that, it is interesting that we seemingly have so many days of mourning to commemorate the tragedy, yet we don’t have such prolonged mourning for other terrible catastrophes in Jewish history (some of which are arguably much worse). Where did this extended mourning period come from?

If we look in our legal texts, we surprisingly find very little. The Talmud says nothing about mourning in these days. It is brought down that some of the Geonim (c. 600-1000 CE) may have mentioned mourning during this period, and that there was a custom not to hold weddings between Pesach and Shavuot (see, for instance, the collection of Geonic responsa published in 1802 under the title Sha’arei Teshuvah, #278). It is strange then that the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1138-1204), who carefully codified the Talmud and the entire corpus of Jewish law up to that point (including the works of the Geonim!) makes no mention of mourning during the Omer in his monumental Mishneh Torah. The Rambam was Sephardic so one might argue that he may have omitted a custom that developed in Ashkenaz first. Yet, the Machzor Vitry, composed by Rashi’s disciple Rabbi Simchah of Vitry (in northern France) in the 11th century, fails to mention anything about mourning during the Omer either! Neither is it mentioned by great Rishonim like the Rif (Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, 1013-1103) or the Rosh (Rabbeinu Asher, c. 1250-1327).

Timeline of Rabbinic history and halakhic eras

Its first notable mention appears to be the Arba’ah Turim of Rabbi Yakov ben Asher (the “Ba’al haTurim”, 1270-1340), son of the Rosh, who was Ashkenazi but lived in Spain. In Orach Chaim 493, he says it is customary not to have weddings during the Omer, though engagements are permitted. He then states that in some places it is also customary not to take haircuts. No mention is made of abstaining from music, avoiding reciting shehecheyanu, or any other mourning rituals. Interestingly, other sources from this time period (like Sefer Asufot) argue that the mourning period arose not because of Rabbi Akiva’s students, but because of the devastation of the Crusades on Ashkenazi communities! Later sources would combine both reasons, and explain that the mourning is both for Rabbi Akiva’s students and for the Crusades.

Massacres of Jewish communities around the time of the First Crusade (1096-1102)

It should be noted that there is an alternate, more mystical reason for mourning (or at least, for avoiding festivities) during the Omer: the Mishnah brings an opinion that the wicked in Gehinnom are judged specifically between Pesach and Shavuot (Eduyot 2:10). In truth, this is only a singular opinion of one Sage, contrasting an earlier statement that judgement in Gehinnom lasts a full 12 months. It is possible to reconcile the two opinions by saying that following a person’s passing, their soul is judged for up to 12 months, and then if the verdict is for the person to remain in Gehinnom, they are subsequently rejudged each year between Pesach and Shavuot. Since we know that the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students actually ended on Lag b’Omer and did not extend all the way to Shavuot (hence the mourning stops on Lag b’Omer), we might apply that same rule to the judgement in Gehinnom as well. In this case, we have yet another mystical reason for lighting bonfires on Lag b’Omer, as these would be appropriately symbolic of the “flames” of Gehinnom.

The above somewhat contradicts the notion that judgements take place specifically on Rosh Hashanah. We assume that all souls, both Jewish and non-Jewish, living and deceased, are judged on this day. Interestingly, the Arba’ah Turim (in Orach Chaim 581) explains that Jews customarily shave before Rosh Hashanah because, unlike gentiles, we don’t grow out our beards in fear of judgement! We are certain that God will judge us favourably. This notion presents something of a problem for the idea of not shaving because of the judgement in Gehinnom.

Haircuts and Music

Continuing our journey through halakhic history, the next major law code was the Shulchan Arukh (which was really only a summary of the larger Beit Yosef). Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) produced it by integrating the Mishneh Torah with the Arba’ah Turim, and the Rif, plus updating it with newer established customs, as well as the occasional Kabbalistic practices. It was meant to be a universal code of law, and something like the authoritative “last word”, satisfying the majority of opinions. In our times, Rav Ovadia Yosef famously argued that the Shulchan Arukh should be the supreme code of Jewish law, especially in the land of Israel where it always held primacy since its publication.

Regarding mourning during the Omer, the Shulchan Arukh again mentions only weddings and haircuts. It explains that, of course, the mourning ends on Lag b’Omer, and doesn’t extend all the way to Shavuot. The Rama (Rabbi Moshe Isserles, c. 1530-1572) adds in his gloss for Ashkenazim that some have the custom to allow haircuts until Rosh Chodesh Iyar, and only start the mourning period after this. That actually makes a great deal of sense, since we consider the entire month of Nisan to be a festive month, and we don’t recite tachanun at all throughout the month. This is stated clearly in Masekhet Sofrim 21:2-3, which also says that fasting in Nisan should be avoided (except for the firstborn before Pesach). For this reason, many religious authorities opposed the Zionists establishing Yom HaShoah—Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day—in Nisan, because there shouldn’t be a mourning day within the festive month. It is therefore quite ironic that, at the same time, many religious authorities typically encourage mourning practices in the same Nisan days for the Omer!

It must be repeated that our ancient Sages did not actually institute such mourning, and it is a later custom. Rabbi David Bar-Hayim argues that the Sages did not institute mourning during the Omer because they understood we already have enough mourning days on the Jewish calendar, particularly on Tisha b’Av and the three weeks leading up to it. If we add several more weeks of mourning during the Omer, plus all the other fast days and sad days on the Jewish calendar, it can become quite depressing and psychologically unhealthy. Rabbi Bar-Hayim adds that while we may have a minhag to mourn during the Omer, it is certified halakhah to honour Shabbat and appear presentable and regal on the holy day, therefore it is entirely permitted to trim or get a haircut before Shabbat, even during the Omer.

For many today, the biggest question during the Omer is regarding listening to music. None of the ancient sources speak of abstaining from music, all the way up to the Shulchan Arukh, and beyond. So where did it come from? In his commentary on the Shulchan Arukh, the Magen Avraham (Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, c. 1635-1682) adds that dancing at parties during the Omer is forbidden. Based on this, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (1829–1908) argued in his Arukh haShulchan (first published in 1884) that if dancing is prohibited, then we must extend the prohibition to music as well, since it inevitably leads to dancing. This appears to be the first clear argument anywhere for avoiding music during the Omer. The position has been rejected by others, as there is no direct guaranteed leap from music to dancing. After all, many people listen to music just to relax, or while driving or cleaning, or to motivate themselves to work or exercise, and so on. For these reasons, some only prohibit live music, not recorded music.

Rav Soloveitchik argued that the Omer mourning should have a precedent from other mourning practices, like the shiva, shloshim, or the year-long mourning following the death of a parent. Since the Omer mourning is likened to the latter, the prohibition is only on going to parties or concerts, but not listening to music in private. His contemporaries, Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Ovadia Yosef, disagreed on this and prohibited all music during the Omer. (In the case of Rav Ovadia, this is somewhat inconsistent, since he always argued for the primacy of Shulchan Arukh, which makes no mention of abstaining from music! Nonetheless, it seems he was upholding a modern-day stringency, even if it isn’t mentioned in his go-to law code.)

To summarize, there is no doubt that forbidding weddings between Pesach and Lag b’Omer is based on a valid ancient custom that likely goes back as far as the Geonim. (Though some, even today, do permit and hold weddings up through Rosh Chodesh Iyar.) Abstaining from haircuts is a bit more recent, but still has a source going back some 700 years. It should be remembered that many authorities starting from the Rishonim and up to the present allow haircuts and trimming (or even shaving) to stay presentable, especially in honour of Shabbat, or if necessary for work purposes. This is particularly true if a person is accustomed to trimming or shaving daily.

Finally, regarding music, there is no ancient source for the prohibition. While it is true that one should ideally avoid parties and concerts during the Omer, not listening to music in private is a very recent stringency, perhaps just over a century old. For those who simply cannot go so long without music, there is definitely on whom to rely to permit it. Either way, there is no need to worry about passively hearing background music in the elevator or supermarket, nor any concern for those who make a living working in the music industry. Nor should a person who has a birthday during the Omer feel condemned to never be able to have a festive birthday party in their life! (See also ‘Should Jews Celebrate Birthdays?’) Lastly, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that, despite the seriousness, the Sefirat haOmer period is simultaneously a time of great joy, since we have the opportunity to do a most-precious Torah mitzvah of counting the Omer, while eagerly anticipating a new year of Torah learning ahead starting on Shavuot.

Happy counting! 

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The Puzzle of Rosh Hashanah

How do we know that Rosh Hashanah is really the new year for the world? And how do we know it is a judgement day if the Torah seemingly doesn’t say so? Find out in this class! Also discussed is the geographical location of the Garden of Eden, the identity of the Forbidden Fruit, the nature of Satan, and how the current generation is a return of the generation of the Exodus, as well as the connections between ancient Egypt and the modern world.

A New Theory of Shabbat HaGadol

This Saturday is Shabbat HaGadol, the “Great Sabbath” before Pesach. One of the big mysteries surrounding the holiday is the origin of this term. Why is the Shabbat preceding Pesach described as being gadol? Why aren’t the Sabbaths before other big holidays described the same way? What makes this Shabbat so special? Over the centuries, many different explanations have been given.

Perhaps the most famous explanation is that on the Shabbat before the Exodus, the Egyptians got word of the impending Tenth Plague and Death of the Firstborn so, naturally, all the Egyptian firstborn rose up in protest. They revolted against Pharaoh and pressured him to free the Israelites so that their lives would be spared. A civil war ensued and many Egyptians were struck down. This is why we read in Psalms (136:10) that God “struck down the Egyptians through their firstborn”. The verse can be read to mean that God struck down the Egyptian firstborn, or that He struck down the Egyptians at the hands of their own firstborn! This great civil war (a mini-plague in its own right) gave Shabbat HaGadol its name.


Another explanation is that on (or just prior to) the Sabbath before the Exodus the Israelites had been commanded to prepare the sheep for the paschal sacrifice. Since this was in the month of Nisan, the astrological sign for which is a sheep or ram, the Egyptians were in the midst of worshipping their ram-headed sheep god Khnum. To the Egyptians, the sacrifice of a sheep at that time would have been appalling and sacrilegious. Yet, in great dread of the Israelites and their God, the Egyptians stayed silent and did not protest what they knew was about to happen. This was a mini-miracle and yet another display of God’s greatness, hence Shabbat HaGadol.

A more pragmatic explanation for Shabbat HaGadol is that, since it is the Sabbath before Pesach, rabbis in all synagogues give an extra-long sermon in preparation for the holiday. There are a lot of halakhot to go over, and there is also a need for some words of inspiration. Because of the long speeches, it became known as Shabbat HaGadol. Finally, some hold that the name comes from the Haftarah typically read on the Shabbat before Pesach (Malachi 3), and its concluding prophesy about the return of Eliyahu before the “Great [Gadol] and Awesome Day of Hashem”. After all, we had finished last year’s seder by praying and hoping that next year we will be redeemed and in Jerusalem. So, the Shabbat right before the upcoming Pesach is our final wish that the Great Day of God will come now so that this year’s seder can be in Jerusalem as we hoped.

All of the above are wonderful explanations. I believe there might also be one more coming out of an oft-forgotten historical detail from the end of the Second Temple era.

The Great Calendar Debate

As is well-known, at the end of the Second Temple era Jewish life in the Holy Land was dominated by two major groups: the Perushim (“Pharisees”) and the Tzdukim (“Sadducees”). The latter held only to the strict observance of the Written Torah, with no particular reverence for oral tradition or oral law. For this reason, the Sadducees famously did not believe in an afterlife, since the Torah never explicitly mentions it, nor did they allow any use of an existing flame on Shabbat, based on their straight-forward reading of Exodus 35:3.

Another major debate between the Sadducees and Pharisees was regarding Sefirat haOmer. The Torah states that we must start counting the Omer from the day after the Sabbath (Leviticus 23:11, 15). The Sadducees took this literally, and began the Omer count from the day after the Shabbat of Pesach. This meant that they always began counting on Sunday and always celebrated Shavuot on Sunday. The Pharisees, meanwhile, based on oral tradition, held that the count must begin from the day after the first yom tov of Pesach, since the Torah often refers to holidays themselves as “Shabbats”, too. The count would always begin on the 16th of Nisan, making Shavuot always land around the 6th or 7th of Sivan (depending on lunar month lengths). The Pharisees insisted this was the correct way going back to Sinai, as taught by Moses.

Intriguingly, there was a third up-and-coming group of Jews at the time, the mysterious Essenes. They were originally a small break-away sect of Sadducees that also had beliefs similar to the Pharisees and did maintain certain binding oral traditions. The Essenes would have a large impact on the development of Rabbinic Judaism as we know it (which came mostly out of Pharisee Judaism) following the destruction of the Second Temple. Unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees, which held by a lunisolar calendar that used lunar months but aligned with solar years (as we still do today), the Essenes believed such a calendar was inaccurate and too flexible. They did not like it one bit that the lunar months were proclaimed by the Sanhedrin based on eyewitnesses who might be mistaken. Instead, the Essenes held only to a finely-tuned solar calendar which they thought was perfect.

The Essene calendar (as described in the apocryphal but hugely important Book of Jubilees, ch. 6, among other sources) went as follows: There were 52 weeks divided up into 4 seasons, each with exactly 13 weeks totalling 91 days. The result was that holidays would always fall on the exact same weekday all the time. Shavuot was always celebrated on a Sunday, the 15th of Sivan. (They argued that Shavuot should be on a 15th just like the other regalim, Pesach and Sukkot.) The Essenes interpreted that verse in Leviticus to mean that the Omer count must start from the day after Shabbat after Pesach is over. So, the Essenes always celebrated Shavuot a week after the Sadducees! (Depending on when Pesach would fall in a given year, the Sadducees and Pharisees might celebrate Shavuot on the same day, or a day or two apart. In a year like this year, when Pesach falls on Shabbat, the Pharisees and Sadducees would have begun counting the Omer on the same Sunday and celebrated Shavuot on the same day.) The problem with the Essene calendar is that it had a year of 364 days, and it isn’t clear how they intercalated to stay aligned with the solar year of 365.24 days.

After the Temple was destroyed, Sadducee and Essene Judaism both disappeared (along with numerous other, smaller sects). Pharisee Judaism continued and evolved into “Rabbinic” Judaism. It was precisely the richness and fluidity of the oral tradition that allowed Judaism to survive and flourish. And we still have many remnants of our ancient Sages instituting practices partly to counter the mistaken Sadducee claims. Lighting Shabbat candles and eating warm chamin (like cholent) was a direct assault on Sadducee Judaism which kept the lights out and ate cold food to avoid making use of a flame. With this in mind, I believe we can posit another hypothesis for the origin of Shabbat HaGadol:

Unlike the Sadducees (and Essenes), our Sages held that the Omer count must start from the second day of Pesach since the first day of Pesach is itself like Shabbat. When the Torah says to count from the day after “Shabbat”, it means the day after the first yom tov of Pesach. In that case, if we insist on calling the first day of Pesach a Shabbat, what does that make the actual Shabbat preceding it? It’s like we have two Shabbats in a single week! So, perhaps it became customary to refer to the actual Shabbat as Shabbat haGadol, both to distinguish it from the Pesach mini-Shabbat and to emphasize the wrongness of the Sadducees and Essenes.

This leads us to an even bigger question: why did our Sages insist that Pesach is the Shabbat in question? Isn’t the Torah quite clear that the count should start from the Sabbath after Pesach? What is so important about tying Pesach to Shabbat?

Purpose of Creation

Rashi begins his commentary on the Torah by pointing out that Beresheet means that God created “for resheet”, and what is resheet? Proverbs 8:22 calls the Torah resheet darko, “the first of His way”, while Jeremiah 2:3 calls Israel resheet tevuato, “the first of His grain”. Therefore, God created the cosmos with the intention to eventually forge Israel and give His Torah. If not for this, He would have never created to begin with, as we read in Jeremiah 33:25-26 that “If not for My covenant day and night, I would have never established the laws of Heaven and Earth, so I will never reject the offspring of Jacob…”

The ‘Pillars of Creation’ in the Eagle Nebula (Courtesy: NASA)

Therefore, there is a deep, intrinsic connection between Creation and Pesach: Without a Genesis, there would be no Exodus, and without an Exodus God would have never bothered with a Genesis! This is why, when reciting Kiddush every Friday evening to welcome Shabbat, we say zekher l’yetziat Mitzrayim, “in memory of the Exodus from Egypt”. And it is why, when the Torah gives the Ten Commandments twice (in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5), the first time it says Shabbat is in order to commemorate Genesis, while the second time it says Shabbat is in order to commemorate the Exodus! In the former, we are told to keep Shabbat because God rested on the Seventh Day of Creation, while in the latter we are told to keep Shabbat because we were once slaves working around the clock and we are no longer slaves so we should celebrate our freedom with a day of rest and divine service.

In short, Pesach and Shabbat are inseparable and represent two sides of the same coin. Our Sages insisted on commemorating Pesach itself as a Shabbat, for it cannot be any other way. Pesach is a Shabbat, the very reason for the existence not only of the Jewish people, but of the whole universe. And before the Pesach-Shabbat of Exodus comes the Great Shabbat of Genesis.

Shabbat Shalom!