It is now the almost universal practice among traditional Jews to observe the season of counting the "Omer" as a time of sadness, by refraining from activities that are associated with gaiety and celebration. The mourning period lasts from Passover until the thirty-third day, known as La"g ba'omer.
The melancholy mood of the Omer season is usually linked to the well-known Talmudic tradition about how thousands of Rabbi Akiva's students perished between Passover and Shavu'ot. The Babylonian Talmud states that they died of a plague, though many historians discern a reference to death in battle, in the ill-fated Bar Kokhba revolt (in 135) of which Rabbi Akiva was an active supporter.
The earliest records we possess about mourning during the Omer are contained in the Responsa of the Babylonian Ge'onim, who observed the restrictions during the entire forty-nine-day period, with no respite on the thirty-third day. The only prohibitions that are enumerated in these early texts are the holding of weddings and doing work after nightfall. Not until the thirteenth century was the list augmented to include shaving and cutting the hair.
The cessation of mourning practices on La"g ba'omer is not mentioned before the twelfth century in Spain and southern France, and the original significance of this date remains shrouded in obscurity. The shortening of the period was justified by means of an ingenious new interpretation of the Talmudic passage about the deaths of Rabbi Akiva's disciples, according to which the plague had come to a halt half a month before Shavu'ot, just after the thirty-third day of the Omer.
The new practice and its historical rationale were accepted by most of the Sephardic halakhic authorities, including the Shulh\an Arukh. It is now followed by Jewish communities throughout the world.
Examination of early texts reveals that the older practice among Ashkenazic Jews was somewhat different from its current form. Instead of excluding the last third of the Omer period from the mourning observances, the Jews of medieval Germany used to commence the mourning customs two weeks into the Omer--at the beginning of the month of Iyyar--and continued them all the way through to Shavu'ot.
The reasons for the special character of the Omer season among Ashkenazic Jews becomes evident when we survey some of their synagogue rituals. From the beginning of Iyyar they would include special liturgical poems (piyyut) in commemoration of local massacres, and a memorial prayer for the souls of martyrs was recited on the Shabbat preceding Shavu'ot. This last-mentioned prayer was the familiar "Av Harah\amin" text that we still read on most Saturdays, and it is for this reason that we recite it during the Omer season even on festive Sabbaths (such as when Rosh Hodesh is announced), although it would have been omitted on equivalent occasions at other times of the year.
In the Ashkenazic custom, the intensity of the mourning was also increased by forbidding additional activities, such as wearing new clothing, bathing for pleasure and trimming fingernails.
It is possible to identify with precision the tragic events that were being commemorated by these practices. In the year 1096, bloodthirsty bands of Crusaders marched through the Rhine basin, mercilessly slaughtering Jewish men, women and children. The worst bloodshed occurred between the first of Iyyar and Shavu'ot. The Jewish populace of Speyer was attacked on the eighth of Iyyar, and the illustrious communities of Mainz and Köln fell to the marauders during the week preceding Shavu'ot.
It is hardly surprising that subsequent generations of Ashkenazic Jews came to focus their grief on the massacres that had occurred during that time of the year.
As always, our Jewish religious calendar maintains a living link between ourselves and the Jews of earlier eras. The rhythms of the Omer period, originating in the joys of the harvest and the associations with Passover and Shavu'ot, were transformed into monuments to national tragedy during the Bar Kokhba revolt and the Crusades. In recent times we have forged our own links to this living historical chain, by setting aside days to commemorate the momentous events of out times, the Holocaust and the sacrifices of Israel's soldiers, as well as the elation of renewed Jewish statehood and the return to Jerusalem.
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