THOUGHTS ON SEFIRAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Acharei – פרשת אחרי
May 4, 2019 – כט ניסן תשעט
The Origins of Sefirah Mourning Practices
For more than a millennium, Jews have observed various mourning practices during all or parts of Sefirah, the seven-week interval between Passover and Shavuot. The origins of the custom and its true purpose have been obscured by the passage of time and by popular legend. There is not the slightest hint in Scripture, nor is there any explicit mention in the Talmud, of Sefirah as a period of mourning. It was left for the Geonim and early Rishonim to posit Judaic explanations for the custom. More recent academic scholars have expanded the inquiry to include elements of comparative religion.
The earliest mention of Sefirah as a mourning period is found in a Geonic responsum. The questioner wanted to know whether the practice of not getting married between Passover and Shavuot had the force of binding law. The respondent ruled that the practice did not have the force of law, identifying it instead as a custom memorializing 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiba who died between Passover and Shavuot. The respondent claimed that the custom was not of recent origin but that it dated back to the time of those events (Teshuvot Ha-Geonim, Shaarei Teshuvah 278).
Joel Muller, in his 1893 edition of Halakhot Pesukot, attributed this responsum to Rav Natronai Gaon. There were two Geonim by that name, Natronai ben Nehemiah (8th century) and Natronai ben Hilai (9th century). Robert Brody, in his 1994 edition of Teshuvot Rav Natronai bar Hilai Gaon, attributed the responsum to Rav Hai Gaon (939-1038) on the basis of another Geonic snippet about Sefirah mourning practices that is expressly stated in his name.
Several early Rishonim, including Rabbi Isaac ibn Ghayyath (11th century Spain) and Abraham ben Nathan Ha-Yarchi of Lunel (12th century Provence), mention the custom of not having weddings during Sefirah and connect that practice to the deaths of Rabbi Akiba’s students (Ri”tz Ghayyat Hilkhot Hadash u’Sefirat Ha’Omer 344; Sefer Ha-manhig Hilkhot Eirusin v’Nisuin 538). The custom eventually was codified by the Tur and the Shulhan Arukh (Orach Chaim 493:1). Other Rishonim, however, make no mention of mourning during Sefirah. Maimonides lists those days of the year when it is inappropriate to conduct a huppah ceremony and leaves out any reference to Sefirah (Hilkhot Ishut 10:14).
The story of the deaths of Rabbi Akiba’s students appears in rabbinic literature in several recensions, the most famous of which is in the Bavli. According to this version, Rabbi Akiba had twelve thousand pairs of disciples spread from Gevat to Antipras. At one point in time בפרק אחד, between Passover and Shavuot בין פסח לעצרת, they all died horrible deaths from diphtheria because they did not treat each other respectfully. The world was bereft of Torah learning until Rabbi Akiba went to the South and offered instruction to Meir, Judah, Jose, Simon, and Elazar ben Shamua, who re-established Torah for their era (Yebamoth 62b).
That the Talmud makes no mention of mourning rites established in remembrance of Akiba’s disciples makes it difficult to accept the Geonic suggestion that the Sefirah restrictions of the medieval period actually began in the second century CE. Moreover, some of the parallel recensions do not mention that these deaths occurred between Passover and Shavuot. Also, there remains the problem why mourning practices should be introduced for people smitten by God in gruesome fashion for their ethical misconduct (see Hemdat Yamim 3:42b)
The historicity of the episode is called into question by discrepancies between the various recensions. Whereas the Bavli states that Akiba had 24,000 students, two accounts in the Midrash mention 12,000 students (Genesis Rabbah 61, Ecclesiastes Rabbah 11); another account mentions 300 students (Tanhuma Hayye Sarah 6); and a Rishonic citation of a lost Midrash mentions 80,000 students (Arugat Ha-Bosem 1:75). [In rabbinic literature, the numbers 12, 300, and 12,000 are often used as exaggerations (see Rashi Shabbat 119a and Hullin 95b).] Whereas the Bavli has Akiba teaching five surviving disciples, Genesis Rabbah and Ecclesiastes Rabbah mention seven disciples and themselves differ over the identity of the seventh disciple. The lost Midrash cited in Arugat Ha-Bosem, which, unlike the earlier parallel texts, in fact mentions the medieval Sefirah custom, has the dead students being disciples of Hillel and Shammai, not of Akiba. Whereas this narrative has the leading fourth-generation Tannaim studying with Akiba late in his career, another narrative places those same budding scholars under the tutelage of Rabbi Judah ben Baba (Sanhedrin 14a). Lastly, Akiba’s career resulted in his being incarcerated and executed during the Hadrianic persecutions. It is unlikely that, after the general demise of the rabbinic class, Akiba had the opportunity to travel and offer instruction to new disciples.
In the twentieth century, many Jewish writers, especially those with Zionist leanings, have posited that the story of Akiba’s disciples contained a kernel of historical truth. But, instead of the students’ deaths occurring by plague as Heavenly retribution for sin, it was asserted that they died in battle during the Bar Kokhba Rebellion. Akiba’s ill-fated association with Bar Kokhba is conceded in rabbinic texts (Yerushalmi Ta’anit 68d), and so it is reasonable to assume that some of his pupils fought in the Third Jewish-Roman War. Evidence for this theory is mustered from the 10th century Epistle of Sherira Gaon, which mentions that Akiba’s disciples’ deaths were caused by persecution שמדא, not by illness. Some claimed that even Maimonides alludes to this alternative understanding of history (Hilkhot Melakhim 11:3). Proponents of this theory – which is based upon the principle that the Talmud speaks in coded or euphemistic terms about the events of the failed Bar Kokhba revolt -- point to the passage in the Passover Haggadah about the five rabbis gathered all night in Bnei Brak discussing the Exodus (when they were, in this view regarding “coding,” instead really plotting the overthrow of Roman rule in Eretz Yisrael).
Contra this view, Aaron Amit of Bar-Ilan University, in his article “The Death of Rabbi Akiva’s Disciples: A Literary History,” convincingly shows that by identifying the literary kernel of the story it necessarily follows that no historical kernel exists. The matter began with an interpretative dispute between Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Akiba on the verse “Sow your seed in the morning and do not hold back your hand in the evening, since you don’t know which one is going to succeed, the one or the other, or if both are equally good (Ecclesiastes 11:6).” Rabbi Joshua applied the verse to the siring of children in one’s early years and in one’s later years. Rabbi Akiba applied the verse to the raising up of disciples (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 3). To fit Akiba’s viewpoint with his personal experience, the writers of the narrative had to tell a story of an earlier set of Akiban disciples coming to a disappointing end only to be replaced by a later set who found lasting success. The number twenty-four was borrowed from two other stories involving destruction. Twenty-four wagons carried deputies from the House of the Patriarch who went to intercalate the year at Lydda. Tragically, everyone in that delegation died באותו פרק (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 18c). Twenty-four municipal councils functioned in the South, but all were destroyed because of vain oaths (Yerushalmi Shevuot 34d). The next step was to connect twenty-four with the period between Passover and Shavuot. To do so, the doctors of the narrative borrowed from an incident in which a man sent his betrothed twenty-four wagons full of produce during the harvest season between Passover and Shavuot (Yerushalmi Baba Batra 17a).
A careful rereading of the Bavli’s account, too, reveals that the story underwent stages of literary development. The original Tannaitic kernel knew only of Akiba’s interpretation of Ecclesiastes. The expanded Tannaitic passage spoke of 24,000 disciples dying at one juncture בפרק אחד. Two later Amoraic accretions introduced the Passover-Shavuot interval and the specific manner of death.
Yet even if one concludes that the story of Akiba’s disciples is purely legendary, one cannot dismiss it as the basis for Sefirah restrictions, especially if those restrictions post-date the second century CE by a considerable time. Why? Because first millennium Jews did regard the story as historical and may well have established mourning customs on that premise. It would not be the first time in the history of religion (Judaism or others) that religious observances commemorated an ahistorical event.
Early rabbinic writers were not entirely satisfied with the story of Akiba’s disciples as the basis for Sefirah restrictions. Rav Hai Gaon suggested that the custom of not working at night during Sefirah commemorates the fact that since Akiba’s students died near sundown the Jewish public had to abstain from labor at night while busy burying the dead. Hai Gaon added another explanation (possibly because of a perceived weakness in the first explanation): One refrains from work during the (night-time) counting of the Omer just as one refrains from working the land during the Sabbatical year (Otzar Ha-Geonim Yebamoth number 328). Zedekiah ben Abraham Anav wrote that “some people associate” Sefirah restrictions with the grisly fate of Akiba’s students, but he himself suggested other explanations. He theorized that women abstain from work during Sefirah because the Omer offering was analogous in content and measure to the suspected adulteress’ offering (Shibbole Ha-Leket, Seder Pesach 235). Zerachiah Ha-Levi, while not addressing Sefirah restrictions per se but, rather, the absence of the recitation of Shehecheyanu from the Sefirah liturgy, noted that the period is one of sadness, since the nightly counting is done only in remembrance of the destroyed Temple (Baal Ha-Ma’or Pesahim 28a).
In 1869 Julius Landsberger wrote the first major academic article about the origins of Sefirah mourning practices. He posited that Jews borrowed the aversion to springtime weddings from the Roman custom of Lemuralia. For Latin paganism, the month of May was a time when the ghosts of the previously departed roamed the earth and caused trouble for the living. The only way to propitiate them was through odd sacrificial rituals. It was considered an inauspicious time to get married. Ovid reported, “She who married then will not live long. The common folk say ‘tis ill to wed in May’ (Fasti 5:419-497).” Plutarch, a century after Ovid, took for granted that people did not marry in May. He suggested several possible reasons: April and June are the months sacred to divinities of marriage; offerings are made to the departed in May; purification rituals happen in May; May stands for major while June stands for Junior, and it is young people, not old people, who marry (The Roman Question of Plutarch 86). As these concepts survived the transition from pagan Rome to Christianity, there later developed the English epigrams “Marry in Lent, live to repent,” and “Marry in May, rue the day.” Landsberger argued that the Jewish custom of prohibiting weddings during the 32 days preceding Lag Ba’Omer mirrors the 32-day period on the Roman calendar when nuptials were taboo. In this view, Sefirah restrictions were at first limited to the conducting of wedding ceremonies and had nothing to do with mourning. That the Sefirah restrictions only later came to be seen as manifestations of mourning would explain why it is that although all Jewish communities banned weddings נוהגין בכל מקומות, only some banned haircuts יש מקומות שנהגו (Tur Orach Chaim 493).
Lou Silberman, writing in 1949, was grateful to Landsberger for opening up a vista of inquiry, but disagreed with him on key points. Silberman noted that Ovid also wrote of a ban on weddings during the first two weeks of June. In early June, the city of Rome would undergo purification from physical and spiritual pollution by throwing some of the polluted contents into the Tiber River, which then carried the undesirable items out to sea. During those two weeks, the Flaminica Dialis (wife of the second leading Roman ecclesiastic) said “it is not lawful for me to comb down my hair with a toothed comb or cut my nails with iron (Fasti 6:219-234).” A six-week restriction on marriage as well as hair and nail cutting seems eerily similar to Jewish Sefirah. [Jews, not unlike another people, regarded shorn bodily growths to be sources of danger because evil spirits lurked therein. The righteous and pious are to bury or burn nail clippings (Moed Katan 18a).] Silberman did not argue that Jews consciously copied Roman ways. Rather, broader human culture led to the adoption of similar ritual behaviors across national and religious boundaries.
Several sources in rabbinic literature indicate that the Sefirah period is a critical time for condemned souls and that it was a generally inauspicious part of the annual calendar. Bloodletting on the eve of all holidays was forbidden lest someone submit to bloodletting of the eve of Shavuot when it can be mortally dangerous. A demonic spirit named “Tabo’ach” (meaning “slaughter”) is loosed at that time and would have destroyed the Israelites at Sinai had they not accepted the Torah (Shabbat 129b). Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri said that the judgment of the wicked in hell occurs between Passover and Shavuot (Mishnah Eduyot 2:10). Shibbole Ha-Leket cited the view of his brother Benjamin that the underworld judgment of disembodied souls is the primary reason for the Sefirah marriage restrictions. Further indication that Sefirah is a cursed slice of the year can be extrapolated from liturgical practice. The admonitions in the Book of Leviticus must be read before Shavuot, just as those in the Book of Deuteronomy must be read before Rosh Hashanah, so that the year and its curses will come to an end (Megillah 31b).
Another proposed explanation for Sefirah restrictions is that people experience anxiety during the harvest season between Passover and Shavuot מפני שהעולם בצער (Abudarham, Tefillot Ha-Pesach). Tradition teaches that the world is judged four times a year, including on Passover concerning the grain harvest and on Shavuot concerning the fruit of trees (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:2). Rabbi Akiba interpreted certain rituals as fulfilling the need to propitiate God in relation to these various moments of judgment; on Passover we bring the barley Omer offering so that God might bless the grain harvest, and on Shavuot we bring the Two Loaves of wheat so that God might bless the fruit- bearing trees (Rosh Hashanah 16a).
Farmers in Eretz Yisrael feared that a post-Passover rainstorm would cause crops drying in the field to rot. Post-Nissan rainstorms were regarded as curses (Ta’anit 12b). Ideally, the Lord “assures us of the regular weeks of the harvest (Jeremiah 5:24).” This was interpreted as Divine protection against harmful winds and rains (Leviticus Rabbah 28) or from heat waves (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 8) during the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. The ceremonial waving of the two sacrificial lambs of Shavuot was done in all four directions as well as up and down to secure protection against dangerous weather systems from He Who controls the four winds and Who is the Master of heaven and earth (Sukkah 37b). Given the state of public nervousness, the celebration of nuptials during Sefirah was regarded as ill-timed. Cutting hair and nails was also taboo, as the ancients believed that cutting off bodily growths stirred storm patterns. [This might explain why seafarers were loathe to cut their hair and why halakhah permitted them to do so even if their return ashore happened on intermediate festival days (Mishnah Moed Katan 3:1).]
Over the centuries, some rabbinic writers added later tragedies to the list of reasons why Jews ought to mourn during Sefirah. An anonymous 13th century Italian sage wrote that it is a worthy custom to abstain during Sefirah from haircutting, wearing new clothes, inaugurating a new household item, bathing for pleasure, or cutting one’s nails in memory of the righteous Jews who gave their lives for the Sanctification of the Divine Name during the Crusade of 1096 (Sefer Minhag Tov 231). That view was seconded by Rabbi David Halevi Segal in the early 17th century (Taz Orach Chaim 493:2). Rabbi Jacob Emden added the Chmielnicki Massacres of 1648-1649 as a reason to adhere to Sefirah restrictions (Siddur Beit Yaakov).
In recent decades, several prominent rabbis have advocated that Sefirah restrictions be recast as mourning rites in memory of the Holocaust. I consider that a worthy suggestion. A rabbi who inconveniences a marginally affiliated Jewish couple desirous of a springtime wedding on the grounds that some scholars died nineteen centuries ago will likely only alienate those constituents. If the rabbi were able to say instead that an alternate wedding date is necessary in solemn remembrance of the six million martyrs of the Shoah, the couple is more likely to heed that request. Moreover, the memory of the victims is thereby sustained in the minds of people who might otherwise forget.
Precisely because of the ambiguity about the historical origins of Sefirah restrictions, it is possible to imbue them with new layers of meaning, or at least to refresh old interpretations with more contemporary significance. Whether the custom began as a display of mourning, a fear of underworld forces, or anxiety about the climate, it is now a firmly entrenched Jewish practice that ought not cavalierly to be dislodged. Any occasion to reflect soberly on the vicissitudes of the historical Jewish experience should be honored and cherished.