Raanana Community Kollel
Rabbi Dovid Horwitz
Because Rabbi Akiva’s students perished during the period between Pesach and Shavuot, we have a custom to refrain from certain activities that involve an element of joy. Most Jewish communities observe this “mourning” period for only thirty three days, although there are forty nine days between Pesach and Shavuot. This is because, according to the Midrash, Rabbi Akiva’s students died over a span of thirty three days within the Sefirat HaOmer period. There are two primary customs regarding when to observe these days. Some communities observe this period from the beginning of the Omer, the second day of Pesach, until Lag BaOmer. Others begin from Rosh Chodesh Iyar until three days prior to Shavuot. Both customs are equally valid and a person is allowed to alter his or ehcustom from year to year if he so chooses.
Similar to the three-week period before Tisha B’Av, the halacha requires us to curtail activities of simcha. Because of this, many have a custom not to perform any activity that would require one to recite a bracha of Shehechiyanu. Accordingly, one should not eat a new fruit or purchase new clothing that would require a blessing. Although this is a widely accepted custom, the “letter of the law” halacha does not require one to refrain from doing so. Some draw a distinction between eating a new fruit, which is permissible, to buying new clothing, which one should refrain from, since purchasing new clothing invokes a greater feeling of joy and satisfaction than eating a new fruit. Most people today do not recite a Shehechiyanu on purchasing new clothing, as we acquire clothing more frequently than they used to, and therefore it is not special enough to warrant a bracha. Accordingly, it would be less problematic to purchase new clothing during Sefirah, since it is an act that does not involve Shehechiyanu. Nonetheless, if it can be avoided, the contemporary authorities advise against purchasing new outer garments, unless it is needed urgently and cannot be postponed until after Sefirah.
Listening to music is another activity that one should refrain from since music brings great joy to the heart. There are opinions who maintain that due to the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash one should never be overly joyous, and therefore music should not be listened to throughout the entire year. Although most of us do not adopt such a stringent custom, it is certainly appropriate to adopt this custom during Sefirah when we are mourning the additional loss of Rabbi Akiva’s students. The Poskim include even recorded music in this custom. One should therefore refrain from listening to music on radio, cassette or compact disc as well. The prevelant custom is to permit listening to a capella music (vocal without instruments).
The two major restrictions that Sefirat HaOmer imposes are weddings and taking haircuts and shaving. Weddings are strictly forbidden during the thirty three day mourning period since they are occasions of great joy. Although engagements are also joyous occasions, the halacha allows a man and woman to become engaged out of concern that due to the delay, she may be courted by another man and decide to marry him instead. They are even allowed to have a festive meal to commemorate the engagement, as long as no music and dancing is present. Marriages can be performed on Lag BaOmer according to both customs, since the festive nature of the day overrides the mourning period of Sefirah. It is questionable as to whether this festive nature begins during the night of Lag BaOmer or only on the morning. Most people will therefore schedule a wedding on the day of Lag BaOmer as opposed to the night before. One who cannot schedule the wedding by day should consult a halachic authority regarding having the wedding on the night of Lag BaOmer. Similarly, haircuts and shaving should also be done only from the morning of Lag BaOmer and not from the night before, unless for a pressing matter in which case a halachic authority should be consulted.