For many years I often wondered the same question. In many synagogues, although we count the Omer, this period of time often passes without great significance. However, a better understanding of the mourning rituals associated with this section of time has truly heightened my appreciation for the Omer period, and greatly enhances of my study at this time of year.
The traditional reasoning given for the mourning rituals relates to Rabbi Akiva, one of the great teachers of our tradition. We are told that Rabbi Akiva has 12,000 pairs of students who all died in a relatively short span of time. The Talmud in Yevamot relates the following story: “It was said that R. Akiba had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, from Gabbatha to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until R. Akiba came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were R. Meir, R. Judah, R. Jose, R. Simeon and R. Eleazar b. Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: All of them died between Passover and Pentecost. R. Hama b. Abba or, it might be said, R. Hiyya b. Abin said: All of them died a cruel death. What was it?-R. Nahman replied: Croup.” (From the Soncino Talmud)
Although there is no evidence that this was a historical plague which killed 24,000 young students during a short period of time, the story holds a great deal of power for many Jews. As one who is committed to a life of study and Jewish spiritual practice, it pains me to think of the amount of Jewish learning that left the world through a plague of this nature. Additionally, I know the pain that comes from not being treated, or not treating others, with respect. When we lose our focus on that which is important to us we have the power to truly hurt one another – and our ability to inflict both physical and emotional pain is something that we should mourn.
As we move in to this season of the Omer, I encourage you to count. A wise colleague, Rabbi Jane Litman, gave a wonderful shiur (teaching) once where she built a values-based Omer calendar to help us focus on what values were most important during this time of counting. This year, I am really touched by the values of this mourning period. As you count each day, I hope you will take a moment to think not only of the counting of the Omer, but also reflect on our ability to inflict pain on others when we do not treat them with respect. If we do that, perhaps we can avoid the loss of learning that comes when feelings are hurt, when voices are silenced, and when Jews are told they don’t belong in the community.
Your question touches on a very sensitive matter of history.
According to the Torah dictates, the Omer period was a joyous period of anticipation, literally a counting of the days leading up to Shavuot (Pentecost), simultaneously celebrating revelation and the bringing of the first fruits.
It was not a countdown; it was a count up, a welcome and happy counting.
Fast forward to generations later, and the blood libels accusing the Jews of drinking the blood of non-Jews at the seder.
Pesah became a festival observed with dread, as the Jews were at the mercy of the angry hordes who believed this libel.
Pesah and the weeks immediately following were soaked with Jewish blood. A joyous period was transformed into a melancholy time suffused with tragedy.
So, the fact that getting married in this period of time is problematic, to say the least, accurately reflects that no one was in a marrying mood then, during the period of exile following the destruction of the second Holy Sanctuary (Bet HaMikdash), when day-to-day survival was in peril.
This explanation may seem different than the more coventional connection of this time period with the death of the students of Rabbi Akiva, which itself may be connected with the Bar Kokhba rebellion which had Rabbi Akiva's strong support.
Jewish luminaries such as Rabbi Epstein of Arukh HaShulhan fame (Orah Hayyim, 493:1), are quite clear that the circumstances I referred to originally were key to this happy Omer period turning into a sad time.
On the positive side, the fact that we continue with the sadness today though the reasons no longer prevail, shows the abiding respect and appreciation we have for our ancestors, heroes and martyrs, whose uncompromising faith is the main reason we have survived to this day.
There are a few different ideas behind the idea of mourning associated with the seferat ha-omer (the counting of the days of the omer)
The most common explanation comes from the Talmud which states that thousands of students of Rabbi Akiva died in a plague as a result of their inability to treat each other with the proper respect. Yet there are some who believe that the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students could have also been a result of an unsuccessful revolt of Bar Kochba against the Romans (132-135 A.D). There are even some scholars who believe that Rabbi Akiva and other sages were martyred during the persecution of Emperor Hadrian.
Other scholars associate omer mourning practices with the loss of Jewish life in Europe during the Crusades. An even later association is made with the massacre of Ukrainian Jewry in 1648, which, as Rabbi Michael Strassfeld points out, occurred during the Omer.
Historians have cited parallels between the mourning practices associated with the omer and Roman customs during the month of May. Romans typically did not solemnize weddings during this month because the souls of the dead were believed to return to earth and required their own rites. Traditional Jewish practice holds that during a time of mourning: one should not attend a concert, no weddings are to be held, no hair it be cut, and no facial hair shorn. Theodor Gaster suggests that mourning of the omer period derives from uncertainty about the harvest, and this, in turn was extended to human fertility by prohibiting weddings.
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