April 28, 2003 – Number 11
Celebrations and the Omer
There is a wide belief that during the days of counting the Omer that one is prohibited from celebrating. This would not affect a Shabbat Bar/Bat Mitzvah since all such prohibitions are suspended for Shabbat. But it does mean that a wedding would not be scheduled. The prohibition falls upon any occasion that involved music and dancing. The reason for curtailing celebrations has to do with a story about a plague that devastated the student of Rabbi Akiva in the Talmudic period. This plage miraculously ended on the 33rd day of the Omer. For this reason the 33rd day (called Lag B’Omer) is a day where celebrations are permitted. It is also customary not to shave or cut hair during this time. There is no historical evidence of such a plague but one can find plenty of other reasons for seeing this season as one where celebrations should be curtailed. First of all it was harvest time and that alone is a reason for concern. Second almost every invasion of the land took place after Pesach and the end of the rainy season. As the roads became passable again, so to did trouble come down the road.
But the custom of refraining from celebrations is not as set as we might think. The rules for the Omer and celebrations are so convoluted that it almost defies reason. Some people only curtail their celebrations until Lag B’omer and they permit celebrations. Some say that the month of Nisan, containing the first two weeks of the Omer should not be a time for signs of mourning, Nisan is the month of our freedom and should be reserved for celebrations. The last week, the first week in the month of Sivan is by all accounts exempted from the ban on celebrations, leaving just four of the seven weeks under the ban.
The Rabbinical Assembly’s Law and Standards committee has recommended that celebrations should be curtailed from the beginning of the Omer until Lag B’Omer but on any day where “Tachnun” (prayers of penitence in the weekday Shacharit service) is NOT recited, celebrations would be allowed. This would include the end of the month of Sivan, the fifth day of Iyyar (Israel Independence day), Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem day, the day we celebrate the reunification of the city in 1967) and Rosh Hodesh for Iyyar and for Sivan. On these days celebrations are permitted and haircuts etc. are also allowed.
There are other days that are also observed during the Omer period. The 27th day of Nisan is Yom HaShoah, the day the Warsaw Ghetto uprising began. It is a day when we remember all the victims of Nazi Germany.
The 4th day of Iyyar, the day before Yom Haazmaut (Israel Independence day) is Yom HaZikaron, the Memorial Day for soldiers who have died defending the State of Israel.
The 14th day of Iyyar is Pesach Sheni, the “second” Pesach. In the Torah, it was observed by those who were too far from Jerusalem to observe Pesach or were not permitted to observe it because of ritual purity issues. This too is a day where Tachnun is not recited and celebrations permitted.
Lag B’Omer is more than just a special day in the Omer count. It is a minor holiday in its own right. It is also the Yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, the Tamudic sage most often associated with Jewish Mysticism. It is a day of picnics and bonfires in Israel. American Jews also schedule picnics around this day. In the mystical community, it is a good day for an Upsheeran, the celebration of a boys first haircut. The city of Safat (near the tomb or Rabbi Shimon) is the place to be for haircuts on this day.
On Shabbat Afternoon, during the Omer, it is customary to read a chapter from Pirke Avot, an ethical section (massechet) of the Talmud. This begins the Shabbat after Pesach so there will be one Shabbat for each of the six chapters.
Next week: Shavuot: The Forgotten Yom Tov
Michelle K. Writes about counting the Omer:
I read an explanation about the counting, a midrash. It teaches that B’nai Yisrael knew that at the end of the proscribed time they would receive a special gift, and so they counted with excitement and anticipation. It compared the explanation to waitng for something really special and unordinary – like a bar mitzvah or a birthday. It helped to explain why people didn’t forget to count.
Thanks, I really intended to add that information so thanks for reminding me. There actually are many midrashim and explanations about why we count the Omer and why it is important. Some relate it to the anticipation of receiving the law after the Exodus. Other see the Law as the “completion” of the Exodus as freedom without law is incomplete (take Iraq for instance) Some compare the count to waiting for a lover who will soon arrive, we count the days and the hours until we meet again, so too Israel longed to meet the Holy One. The real reason for the delay may be more prosaic, so the Midrash adds the element of anticipation and love.