Haircuts, Shaving, and Music During the Omer – A Meqori Perspective

No haircuts, no trimming, no shaving, no music, no engagements, no marriages – at least not until “Lag Ba-Omer.” Right? …Not exactly.

We have all heard the story about Rabbi Aqiva’s 12,000 (some say 24,000) students who, because they were not polite enough to one another, were wiped out in some sort of a plague. Because of these incredibly sad events – so the traditional story goes – we need to nationally mourn during these days. But when did this begin? Where is it written in Hazal that we need to abstain from such things? The fact is – it doesn’t.

The section of the Gemara that discusses this incident is found in b.Yevamoth 62b, which says:

TEXT

אמרו שנים עשר אלף זוגים תלמידים היו לו לרבי עקיבא מגבת עד אנטיפרס וכולן מתו בפרק אחד מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה והיה העולם שמם עד שבא ר”ע אצל רבותינו שבדרום ושנאה להם ר”מ ור’ יהודה ור’ יוסי ורבי שמעון ורבי אלעזר בן שמוע והם הם העמידו תורה אותה שעה תנא כולם מתו מפסח ועד עצרת אמר רב חמא בר אבא ואיתימא ר’ חייא בר אבין כולם מתו מיתה רעה מאי היא א”ר נחמן אסכרה

TRANSLATION

“They said, ‘Rebbi Aqiva had twelve thousand pairs of students from Givath to Antifras and all of them died at once because they did not conduct themselves with honor one to another, and the world was desolate until Rebbi Aqiva came to our teachers in the South and taught them [Torah]. Those masters were Rebbi Me’iyr, Rebbi Yehudhah, Rebbi Yosiy, Rebbi Shim’on, and Rebbi Eli’ezer ben Shammua. And they upheld the Torah in that [difficult] hour. It was taught by a Tanna that all of them died between Pesah and Shavu’oth. Rav Hama bar Abba, or possibly Rav Hiyya bar Abiyn, All of them died an evil death. What was it? Rav Nahman says, Asphyxiation.”

Despite the fact that Rav Sherira Gaon (in his well-known Iggereth) describes the cause of death as being shemada (i.e. the Aramaic form of “shmad,” or government murder of Jews), and not askarah (“asphyxiation”) – which lends itself more plausibly, in the view of some scholars, that the original reference is to the death of Rebbi Aqiva’s students who fought during the Second Jewish Revolt under Bar Kokhvah and perished at the hands of the Romans – this passage leaves us with several questions.

[1] Where does it say that Kelal Yisra’el needs to nationally enter a state of mourning due to this?

[2] Which students died between Pesah and Shavu’oth, the twelve thousand pairs or the rabbaniym from the South who arose after them?

[3] Is the story – as told in the Bavli (and the parallel passage in Bereshiyth Rabbah) – midrashic, and therefore metaphoric, in nature or are we to take it literally? It doesn’t seem likely that Rebbi Aqiva would have produced students who were so terrible that they deserved Divine destruction to the point of endangering the Torah.

[4] If it is obvious that the import of this passage is to cause Kelal Yisra’el to actively mourn during sefiyrath ha-omer, then why does the passage not just say so? And, further, why do neither Rashi nor Tosafoth discuss it there on the daf? In fact, the Mahzor Vitry does not mention this practice [i.e. to mourn] at all.

[5] The Rambam never mentions such a thing as national [quasi] mourning for any event during the omer. When he mentions other later customs, why doesn’t he mention this one?

As far as being meqori is concerned, a few of the Geonim mentioned in their writings that due to the tragedy of Rebbi Aqiva’s students some did not contract marriages during the omer. And this is probably a good idea, although it is not a halakhah that was ever mentioned, or even a suggested practice, in the Mishneh Torah. Refraining from the contracting of marriages during the omer likely falls under being respectful to Jewish communal traditions. But refraining from music, haircuts, or shaving – things which are private – are certainly mutar according to halakhah.

According to the Rambam, there is no directive to mourn in this way except for actual halakhic mourning (such as during shiva and sheloshiym – Hilkhoth Evel 6:1-3) and the week in which Tisha Be-Av falls (Hilkhoth Ta’aniyoth 5:6). And so, that which is permissible throughout the year is halakhically permissible during sefiyrath ha-omer.

The entire timbre of the omer period seems to have been turned on its head; from a time of joy and celebration to a time of sadness and mourning. Shavu’oth is referred to as Assereth (עצרת) and as “the” assereth to Pesah. This designation means that Shavu’oth is meant to be the official end (read, culmination) of the Pesah celebration in the same way that Sheminiy Assereth is the capstone to Sukkoth in the Fall. This should strongly indicate to us that the omer is supposed to be a time of quasi-celebration for Kelal Yisra’el, not mourning and sadness at all.

This is yet another example of asceticism and kabbalah obscuring the true meaning of the Torah and the halakhah. In fact, it is a misswah to trim your beard and cut your hair bikhvodh shabbath, which is why Rav Soloveitchik z”l and others took a “lenient” position with regard to the custom of not shaving or taking haircuts during the omer. For those who are interested in his position on the matter, it is easily located in sources written about Rav Soloveitchik and his teshuvoth on various halakhic questions.

In the next post, I will talk about the fake holiday of “Lag Ba-Omer” that has led to some idolatrous practices (halilah) and should, in my opinion, be avoided as much as possible.

Enjoy your haircut and your tunes,

YB

[Note: The above is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act or not act upon any of it is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those which are intricate and/or are severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]

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