Sefirat Ha-Omer: Mourning Practices During the Omer

  • Rav David Brofsky

 

 The weeks between Pesach and Shavuot are characterized by excitement and anticipation as the Jewish People count from the Exodus from Egypt until the giving of the Torah. However, they are also marked by the observance of minhagei aveilut, mourning practices.  In this shiur, we will study the source, scope, and content of these practices.  In addition, we will discuss Lag Ba-Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, which plays a central role in both halakha and minhag during this period.

Minhagei Aveilut: The Source and Content

The Geonim (Sha’arei Teshuva 278) cite an ancient custom of observing certain mourning customs during the period of the Omer.

You should know that this does not stem from a prohibition but from a mourning custom, for so said our Sages: “R. Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples and they all died between Pesach and Atzeret because they did not treat each other with respect;" and they further taught, "and they all died a cruel death from diphtheria" (Yevamot 62b).  And from that time forward, the early Sages had the custom not to marry during these days, but he who “jumps forward” and marries, we do not punish him by punishment or lashes, but if he comes to ask before the fact, we do not instruct him to marry. And as for betrothal, he who wants to betroth between Pesach and Atzeret betroths, because the main joy is the [marriage] chupa (canopy).

The Geonim record that it was customary not to hold weddings during the time of the Omer, between Pesach and Shavuot (which is referred to by the Sages as “Atzeret”). They refer to a passage in Yevamot (62b), which relates the following:

It was said that R. Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, from Gabbat 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. Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were R. Meir, R. Yehuda, R. Yossi, R. Shimon and R. Elazar ben Shammua, and it was they who revived the Torah at that time.  A Tanna taught: All of them died between Pesach and Shavuot.  R. Chamma ben Abba or, some say, R. Hiyya ben Abin said: All of them died a cruel death.  What was it? R. Nachman replied: Diphtheria. 

Kohelet Rabba (11) and Bereishit Rabba (61) record the same story, but only mention that they died “during the same period," and they attribute their death to “being stingy with their Torah” (lefi she-einehem tzara).  R. Akiva urged his new students not to behave in such a manner, and in turn, “the world was filled with Torah.”

            In the Middle Ages, the Rishonim attributed other reasons to these mourning practices. Some ascribe the mourning practices to the precarious state of the Jewish People during this period, as they pray that God judges the world favorably (see Avudraham; Rabbeinu Yerucham, Toledot Adam Ve-Chava 1:5). Thus, these practices are intended to arouse teshuva, and not necessarily as an expression of mourning.  Others relate these minhagei aveilut to the destruction of the flourishing Jewish communities of France and Germany during the Crusades (11th and 12th centuries).  The Sefer Assufot (13th century Germany), for example, records that “people do not marry between Pesach and Atzeret; this is because of the pain of the decrees, that the communities were killed in this entire kingdom.” The Taz (493:2) and the Arukh Ha-Shulchan (493) cite this reason as well. 

            Similarly, R. Yaakov Emden (1697-1776) writes in his Siddur Beit Yaakov, “R. Akiva's students died and, due to our many sins, a number of communities were destroyed at the same time of year during the Crusades in Ashkenaz and in 5408 in Poland."  The latter refers to the Chmielnicki massacres, which took place in the Spring of 1648. 

            Although some have objected to the observance of Yom Ha-Shoah, the day of commemoration for the murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust, because it falls out during the festive month of Nisan, these sources may indicate that remembering the tragedies that befell the Jewish People during the period of Sefirat Ha-Omer has its precedents. 

            Interestingly, neither the Rambam nor the Machzor Vitry records these mourning customs.

Music during Sefirat Ha-Omer

            Which minhagei aveilut are observed during this time period? As mentioned above, the Geonim write that weddings are not held between Pesach and Shavuot.  The Tur (493) mentions this custom and adds that in some places, people do not take haircuts as well.  The Shulchan Arukh (493:1-2) cites both of these customs.

            Do these customs comprise a specific pattern or theme? Interestingly, the Geonim seem to prohibit holding wedding ceremonies. It seems that the custom originally only included getting married, and later, cutting one’s hair. The Tur, however, writes that it is customary “not to increase one’s joy” (le-harbot be-simcha) during this time. Does he mean to imply that other practices should be prohibited as well?

            The Magen Avraham (493:1), cited by the Mishna Berura (493:3), permits holding an engagement party (se’udat shidduchin), but adds that there should not be dancing (rikudim u-mecholot). This position implies that although a festive social gathering for a positive purpose is permitted, dancing, even in such a context, is prohibited. Although the Magen Avraham also extends the custom to avoid dancing, he does not mention either playing or listening to music.

            Apparently, the Magen Avraham identifies the festive environment caused by music as that which the Geonim prohibited.  Does this custom cited by the Magen Avraham to refrain from rikudim u-mecholot include playing or listening to music?

The Arukh Ha-Shulchan (493:2), who also permits social gatherings (se’udot reshut) without dancing, adds that since dancing is prohibited, a fortiori, playing musical instruments is prohibited as well. 

R. Yitzchak Weiss (Minchat Yitzchak 1:111) also discusses this issue. He first suggests that even if playing musical instruments does not technically fit into the activities prohibited during the Omer, if the community has already accepted upon themselves a certain stringency, the practice becomes prohibited, similar to a neder (vow).  He then argues that playing music is indeed included in the prohibited activities of the Omer.  He brings, for example, a responsum of R. Shalom Mordecai Schwadron (Da’at Torah, Orach Chaim 493:1), who cites the Da’at Kedoshim’s warning that those who hold a wedding on Lag Ba-Omer should be careful to conclude the wedding music before sundown, as it is prohibited to continue playing during the Omer, after nightfall.  He also notes that the Magen Avraham (551:9) himself, regarding the laws of the Bein Ha-Metzarim (the three weeks between Shiva Asar Be-Tamuz and Tisha Be-Av), repeats that one should not engage in rikudim u-mecholot.  R. Weiss asserts that just as the Acharonim (see Pri Megadim, Eshel Avraham, Orach Chaim 651:10; She’elot U-Teshuvot Maharam Schick, Yoreh De’ah 368; Kitzur Shulchan Arukh 122:1), regarding Bein Ha-Metzarim, include a prohibition of playing instruments in rikdum u-mecholot, the same applies during the Omer

Numerous other Acharonim, including R. Moshe Feinstein (Yoreh De’ah 2:137, Orach Chaim 1:165), R. Ovadya Yosef (Yechave Da’at 6:34), and R. Eliezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer 15:33), prohibit playing and listening to music, even from a radio, during the period of the Omer

Other recent authorities, however, have challenged the assumption that all music should be prohibited.  First, we should note that the view of the Magen Avraham, the first mention of a prohibition of rikudim u-mecholot, should most likely be viewed as a stringency, added to a custom, even if it has become accepted practice. Second, even the Magen Avraham himself never mentioned a prohibition of listening to music, but only dancing, similar to the behavior at a wedding. Although refraining from rikudim u-mecholot during the Omer may be the accepted custom, it is far from obvious that this custom includes playing or listening to music.

Indeed, R. Shlomo Daichovsky (Techumin 21) argues that during Bein Ha-Metzarim, the custom only prohibits music that leads to rikudum u-mecholot.  However, playing classical music, for example, is permitted. Furthermore, he argues that one should not compare the mourning practices observed during Bein Ha-Metzarim and those of the Omer.  Therefore, he sees no reason to prohibit music which does not involve rikudim u-mecholot during the period of the Omer

Furthermore, R. Eliyahu Schlesinger, Rav of the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem and author of numerous works on halakha, vehemently disagrees with the stringent position (Eileh Hem Mo’aday, Sefirat Ha-Omer). In a lengthy essay in which he defends his role in permitting the radio station Kol Simcha to play calm and soothing music during the Omer, he argues that only music that leads to rikudim u-mecholot is prohibited during the Omer. Music which is spiritually uplifting and soothing to one’s soul is certainly permitted. He insists that listening to music from a radio is, for many people, part of their daily experience, and can hardly be considered something that causes such great joy that it should be prohibited during the Omer. He marshals a host of contemporary Posekim, not all who wished to be identified, who agree with his view. 

Seemingly, this approach would permit playing spiritually uplifting music or music appropriate for the time period (such as sad music on Yom Ha-Zikaron).  Furthermore, music played in the “background" and during exercising, and certainly music played while driving so that one should not fall asleep, should be permitted.  Finally, one may learn to play music for professional reasons (Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chaim 3:87). 

There may be another reason to permit listening to music as well. Until now we have assumed, based on the Magen Avraham, that while social gatherings are permitted, music that may lead to rikudim u-mecholot, or possibly even all music, would be prohibited. R. Soloveitchik (see Shiurei Ha-Rav [OU, 1999], Inyanei Tisha Be-Av, p.  20-21; Nefesh Ha-Rav p. 191, for example) disagreed. He explained that the aveilut customs observed during the period of the Omer, as well as those observed during Bein Ha-Metzarim, must conform to some prior halakhic pattern.

He notes that in the laws of aveilut, we generally speak of three periods of mourning: shiva (the seven day period after the burial), sheloshim (the thirty days after burial), and the yud-bet chodesh (the twelve month period after the death of a parent).  R. Soloveitchik maintained that the mourning practices of Sefirat Ha-Omer conform to the halakhic category of “yud-bet chodesh,” the twelve month period of mourning for one’s parent. Indeed, the laws that characterize the yud-bet chodesh include the prohibition of attending a “beit ha-mishteh” (Mo’ed Katan 22b; Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 391) and taking a haircut (Mo’ed Katan 22b, Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 390:4; Rama), similar to the original two laws mentioned by the Geonim

If so, then the Geonim fundamentally only prohibited social gatherings, known as simchat meri’ut.  Therefore, while a concert might be prohibited, privately listening to music, or even attending a movie, certainly is not.  Furthermore, social gatherings, even without music, such as a baseball game, may also be prohibited, against the view of the Magen Avraham

            Despite the custom to refrain from playing music and dancing during the Omer, the Magen Avraham writes that at a se’udat eirusin, a meal held in honor of a betrothal (known also as kiddushin), rikudin u-mecholot are permitted.  Although parties held in honor of an engagement nowadays are not considered to be se’udot mitzva, many posekim permit playing music and dancing at other se’udot mitzva, such as at a sheva berakhot for a wedding held on Lag Ba-Omer (Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chaim 2:9 and Even Ha-Ezer 1:97), a brit mila, pidyon ha-ben, bar mitzva (held on the actual day of the bar mitzva), or even a siyum masekhet (Yechave Da’at 6:34). Others (Minchat Yitzchak 1:111, cited above) prohibit this. 

Haircuts and Shaving during the Omer

            As mentioned above, it is customary to refrain from cutting one’s hair during the Omer.  Although this prohibition applies to both men and women, a married woman may cut hair that protrudes from her head covering, as well as trim her eyebrows, remove facial hair, and shave her legs. 

            May a man shave his face during the Omer? Many Acharonim equate shaving with cutting one’s hair (see Iggerot Moshe 2:96 and Yechave Da'at 4:32), although they permit shaving, when necessary, for work (Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:102).  One might suggest that this leniency is more applicable outside of Israel; in Israel, where it is very common for people not to shave during the Omer, it may be less appropriate to rely upon this leniency. 

Some permit shaving in honor of the Sabbath. They base this practice upon a discussion regarding shaving before Shabbat during Bein Ha-Metzarim.  The Talmud (Ta’anit 26b) teaches that “During the week on which Tisha Be-Av falls, it is prohibited to cut hair and to wash clothes, but it permitted on Thursday for kevod Shabbat." The Rishonim disagree as to whether the gemara permits taking a haircut and laundering in honor of Shabbat or only laundering. The Rama (551:3) rules that one may wear laundered clothing for Shabbat during the Nine Days, and implies that one may wash them as well. The Magen Avraham (14) cites the Darkhei Moshe, who writes that although it is customary to refrain from laundering even for the Shabbat, if one doesn’t have another shirt, one may wash a shirt for Shabbat.  He adds that we do not permit haircuts before Shabbat, as people are not generally accustomed to taking a haircut every week, as they are to laundering (and bathing!).  The Chatam Sofer (Yoreh De’ah 348) suggests that this rationale would imply that one who shaves daily would certainly be able to shave for Shabbat

Thus, according to some Rishonim, one may even take a haircut before Shabbat during the week of Tisha Be-Av. Even according to those who only permit laundering, haircuts were only prohibited because one does not normally cut one’s hair weekly. According to this argument, shaving before Shabbat may be permitted. 

Based upon the above, some (R. Aharon Lichtenstein and R. Yichya Tzalach [Maharitz] in his responsa Pe’ulat Tzedek 2:76, for example) permit shaving before Shabbat during the period of the Omer

According to R. Soloveitchik (cited above), who equates the aveilut practices of the Omer to those of yud-bet chodesh, shaving would be permitted daily, throughout the Omer.  That was his custom, and of many of his students acted accordingly. 

The Mishna Berura (493:5) rules that when Rosh Chodesh Iyar falls on Shabbat, one may cut one’s hair (or shave) on Friday, Erev Sabbat.  He explains that the combination of Rosh Chodesh and Shabbat generates “tosefet simcha” (extra joy) for which one may certainly cut one’s hair in honor of the Shabbat

The posekim disagree as to whether one may cut one’s hair before Shabbat when Lag Ba-Omer falls on Sunday. The Maharil (Dinim U-Minhagim Bein Pesach Le-Shavuot 8) writes that in this case, one may not cut one’s hair on Friday. The Mahari Weil (Chidushei Dinim Ve-Halakhot, 51) disagrees and rules that one may cut one’s hair on Friday. The Rama (493:2) rules accordingly and writes that if Lag Ba-Omer falls on Sunday, one may take a haircut before Shabbat.

Purchasing New Garments and Reciting She-hechiyanu during the Omer

            Should one refrain from purchasing new garments and reciting the blessing of she-hechiyanu during the Omer?

            R. Yaakov ben Moshe Moellin (1360–1427), known as the Maharil, cites the Sefer Chassidim (840), who writes that during the period between Shiva Asar Be-Tamuz and Tisha Be-Av, one should avoid saying the berakha of she-hechiyanu on new fruit or new clothing. The Shulchan Arukh (551:17) rules accordingly. Although some (see Leket Yosher, Orach Chaim p. 97) cite this custom, the Ma’amar Mordekhai (493:2) criticizes those who refrain from saying she-hechiyanu during the Omer as well.  He writes:

Some have the practice of avoiding the recitation of she-hechiyanu during the period of sefira, though I have not seen this in any work by a Rishon or Acharon; there is no doubt that this custom evolved [mistakenly]… from [the halakhot] of Bein Ha-Metzarim [the Three Weeks].

The Ma’amar Mordekhai attributes this practice to those who mistakenly equate the period of the Omer with Bein Ha-Metzarim. In addition, the Kaf Ha-Chaim (493:4), Mishna Berura (493:2), R. Ovadya Yosef (Yabi’a Omer, Orach Chayim 3:26 and Yechave Da’at 1:24) agree that one may recite she-hechiyanu during the Omer

Similarly, although some discourage moving into a new house during the Omer, most posekim (Yechave Da’at 3:30, Tzitz Eliezer 11:41) are lenient.

During Which Days are the Mourning Customs Observed?

            Different communities observe the minhagei aveilut during different parts of the Omer period.  What is the basis for these customs? One can identify three different approaches, with different variations. 

1- The entire Omer: The Sha’arei Teshuva (493:8) reports that the Ari z”l would not take a haircut for the entire period of the Omer, until Erev Shavuot.  This, of course, is based upon the simple understanding of the Talmud’s description of the death of the students of R. Akiva, “from Pesach until Atzeret.”  Similarly, the Mishna Berura (15) relates that some observe these minhagei aveilut for the entire period of the Omer, excluding Rosh Chodesh Iyar, Lag Ba-Omer, and from Rosh Chodesh Sivan until Shavuot

2- From Pesach until Lag Ba-Omer: Many are accustomed to observe only the first part of this period. Assuming that the minhagei aveilut were instituted in commemoration of the students of R. Akiva who died during this period, there are conflicting traditions regarding the days upon which they died. R. Yehoshua ibn Shu'ib (1280-1340), a student of the Rashba, cites two possibilities in his Derashot (Yom Rishon shel Pesach).  According to one approach, based upon a midrash, the students of R. Akiva died until “peros ha-atzeret.”  The term “peros ha-atzeret” is understood to refer to “half of a month," or at least fifteen days.  If so, then peros ha-atzeret falls out on the 34th day of the Omer, fifteen days before the end of the count. One should therefore observe the customs of mourning for the first 34 days of the Omer. R. Ibn Shuib, however, writes that one may invoke the principle of “miktzat ha-yom ke-kulo” (part of a day counts as the entire day), which is applicable when the halakha demands that one count days, such as the “shiva neki’im” (seven clean days) of a zava gedola and the seven days of mourning (“shiva”). Therefore, just as a mourner finishes the shiva on the mourning of the seventh day, one may finish the mourning of the Omer period on the morning of the 34th day.  The Shulchan Arukh (493:2) cites this opinion. 

The Tur (495) mentions those who cut their hair on the 33rd day of the Omer, Lag Ba-Omer.  Apparently, they understand that R. Akiva’s students died until the 33rd day of the Omer (Sefer Ha-Manhig, Hilkhot Eirusin Ve-Nisu’in; Meiri, Yevamot 62b; Mishna Berura 493:8).  Therefore, using the same rationale, they invoke the principle of “miktzat ha-yom ke-kulo” and cease to observe the mourning practices on the morning of Lag Ba-Omer. The Gra explains that this is the basis for the opinion of the Rama, who writes that Ashkenazim do not observe mourning customs on Lag Ba-Omer, but rather take haircuts and “rejoice a bit.”

3- Thirty Three Days of Mourning: The Derashot Ibn Shu’ib cites the opinion of the Tosafot, which appears in the Maharil (Minhagim, Dinei Ha-Yamim She-Bein Pesach Le-Shavu’ot 7) as well, which claims that the students of R. Akiva did not die on days in which “techina” (tachanun) is not recited, i.e. on festive days.  Therefore, if one subtracts the 16 days (seven days of Pesach, the three days of Rosh Chodesh (Iyar [2] and Sivan [1]), seven Shabbatot) from the 49 days of the Omer, we are left with 33 days upon which the students of R. Akiva died. Therefore, the custom fundamentally is to observe mourning practices for 33 days.  According to this custom, when are these 33 days observed?

Some observe these 33 days from the beginning of the Omer, i.e.  the second day of Pesach until Lag Ba-Omer.  The Bach (493) explains that this is the reason behind the opinion of the Rama, cited above.  Many communities, especially German communities, observed these 33 days during the “second half” of the Omer, as the Crusades occurred during the months of Iyar and Sivan.  Some observe them from the second day of Rosh Chodesh Iyar until Erev Shavuot.  Others begin from the first day of Rosh Chodesh (the 30th of Nisan) and observe until the 3rd of Sivan, leaving out the three days before Shavuot, known as the “shaloshet yemei hagbala.

Based upon the calculation cited above, the Magen Avraham (493:5) cites another view, which claims that one should observe minhagei aveilut on all days that R. Akiva students died.  Therefore, aside from Pesach, Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, and Lag Ba-Omer, one should keep the mourning practices throughout the Omer.  The Rama, as he notes, clearly rejects this opinion. 

The Rama (493:3) states that one should not accept the leniencies of both opinions – for example, to take a haircut on Rosh Chodesh Iyar and after Lag Ba-Omer

Incidentally, in Israel, it is customary for many Ashkenazim to refrain from holding weddings for the entire period of the Omer, until Rosh Chodesh Sivan, excluding, of course, Lag Ba-Omer

May one who observes the second part of the Omer, from Rosh Chodesh until Shavuot (excluding Lag Ba-Omer), attend a wedding held by one who observes the first part of the Omer? Although the Chatam Sofer (Orach Chaim 142) prohibits this, as by participating one has not fully observed either part of the Omer, R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chaim 1:159) and R. Soloveitchik (see Nefesh Ha-Rav, p. 192) permit it.

            It is customary to suspend the mourning practices on the morning of Lag Ba-Omer, by invoking the principle “miktzat ha-yom ke-kulo.” Can that principle be employed at night as well? Indeed, it is quite common for weddings to be held on the eve of Lag Ba-Omer.

            The Beit Yosef (493) cites the Ramban (Torat Ha-Adam), who applies the principle of miktzat ha-yom ke-kulo to the nighttime. Accordingly, one would be able to shave and get married on the evening of Lag Ba-Omer. The Shulchan Arukh (493:2), however, rejects this view. 

The Eliya Rabba (493:7) writes that although one may act leniently regarding haircuts on the night of Lag Ba-Omer, he has not seen that people permit holding a wedding on the evening of Lag Ba-Omer. He concludes that on Erev Shabbat, in extenuating circumstances, one would be permitted to be married at night of Lag Ba-Omer (i.e. Thursday night).  R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe Orach Chaim 1:159) argues the opposite: while one should be stringent and not apply the principle of miktzat ha-yom ke-kulo at night regarding shaving, one may apply it for a marriage, as marriage is a mitzva. Some Acharonim endorse relying upon this view.  Furthermore, the Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav (493:5) claims that those who do not recite tachanun at Mincha before Lag Ba-Omer clearly believe that the entire day of Lag Ba-Omer is celebratory, and therefore one may get married at night without invoking the principle of miktzat ha-yom kekulo! One who is invited to a wedding on the evening of Lag Ba-Omer may certainly attend (see above) and may shave if his appearance would cause great discomfort (Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chaim 2:95). 

            One who does not have a specific family custom may accept any of these minhagim (Mishna Berura 493:17). Some maintain that one may even change one’s custom from year to year without hatarat nedarim (Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chaim 1:159). 

Lag Ba-Omer

As mentioned above, almost all communities suspend, or even cancel, the minhagei aveilut for Lag Ba-Omer.  What is the uniqueness of Lag Ba-Omer?

Lag Ba-Omer does not appear in Rabbinic literature until the early 14th century.  As we discussed, the Meiri (Beit Ha-Bechira, Yevamot 62b) relates that “according to the tradition of the Geonim… the plague ceased” on Lag Ba-Omer. The Derashot R. Ibn Shuib also cites a midrash which claims that the plague that killed the students of R. Akiva ended “be-peros ha-atzeret," which, according to some, refers to Lag Ba-Omer.

The Peri Chadash (493) questions how Lag Ba-Omer, the day which apparently marks the death of the last of R.  Akiva’s students, can be considered a day of simcha. He suggests that the simcha relates to those students who didn’t die - to the five students he began teaching afterwards. Indeed, the Chida (Tov Ayin, Orach Chaim 493:8) explains that on Lag Ba-Omer, R. Akiva began teaching these five students, the next generation of Torah scholars. As the midrash (Kohelet Rabba 11) relates, when R. Akiva began teaching his five new students, “the world was filled with Torah.” R. Chaim Vital (Sha’ar Ha-Kavannot, Inyan Sefirat Ha-Omer, Derush 12) asserts that R. Akiva “gave semicha” to his five students on Lag Ba-Omer. Much of our Torah She-be’al Peh is based upon the teachings of these students, including R. Shimon bar Yochai. 

Alternatively, R. Chaim Vital (Peri Etz Chayyim, Sha’ar Sefirat Ha-Omer, ch.7) describes Lag Ba-Omer as the “hilula," the anniversary of the death, of R.  Shimon bar  Yochai, the Tanna to whom the Zohar is attributed. Interestingly, a parallel text, also authored by R. Chaim Vital (Sha’ar Ha-Kavannot, Inyan Sefirat Ha-Omer, Derush 12), describes Lag Ba-Omer as “yom simchato” (the day of joy), and not “yom she-meit” (the day he died), possibly relating to his receiving semicha (as above) on Lag Ba-Omer.  The Benei Yissaschar (Ma’amar 3, Lag Ba-Omer 2) insists that R. Shimon bar Yochai was also born on Lag Ba-Omer (see Kaf Ha-Chaim 493:4).  Some (see Arukh Ha-Shulchan 493:7) suggest that R. Shimon bar Yochai “emerged from the cave” (see Shabbat 33-34) on Lag Ba-Omer

R. Chaim Vital (above) relates how his teacher, the Arizal, would visit the grave of R. Shimon bar Yochai at Meiron, and even cut his son’s hair there, on Lag Ba-Omer.  The modern celebrations at Meiron began in 1833 and to this day attract hundreds of thousands of visitors.  Shai Agnon wrote regarding these festivities:

One who has not seen the festivities of Lag Ba-Omer on the grave of R. Shimon bar Yochai in Meiron, has never seen true joy. Jews, in droves, ascend with songs and instruments, and come to this place, from all of the cities of Israel and the lands of Edom and Yishmael and stand there all night and day and learn… and pray and recite psalms…

Celebrations spread throughout Northern Africa and to Chassidic communities in Russia and Poland and were often marked by the study of the Zohar

Not everyone was pleased by the festivities at Meiron.  R. Moshe Sofer (Yoreh De’ah 236), for example, harshly criticizes the celebration.  He suggests that although it may be permitted, and possibly obligatory, to establish a festive day in honor of one’s being saved from a life-threatening situation, treating Lag Ba-Omer as a festival may violate the biblical prohibition of bal tosif! He further suggests that one should commemorate Lag Ba-Omer as the day that the manna  began to fall, but not through festivities. 

Despite the Chatam Sofer’s objections, Lag Ba-Omer is observed around the world, often with bonfires accompanied by singing and dancing. The Jewish people celebrate the continuation of the Torah after the death of R. Akiva’s students, and attempt to taste the depth and secrets of the Torah, revealed by R. Shimon bar Yochai. 

Sefirat Ha-Omer - A Period of Happiness

            Although we discussed the custom of observing certain minhagei aveilut during this period and we noted that some commentators view this time as a period of judgment, the Ramban (Vayikra 23:36) asserts that the days between Pesach and Shavuot are actually similar to Chol Ha-Moed.

And you should count 49 days, and seven weeks, and sanctify the eighth day, like the eighth day of Sukkot, and these days which are counted in between are akin to Chol Ha-Moed, between the first and eighth of a festival… and that is why our Rabbis refer to Shavuot as “atzeret” (a day of cessation), as it is similar to the eighth day of Sukkot, which is called “atzeret.” 

The Ramban views Pesach as the first festive day, Shavuot as the last day, and the entire interim period as a quasi Chol Ha-Moed.  These days, fundamentally, are days of excitement, anticipation, and happiness leading up to the giving of the Torah on Shavuot

The period of Bein Ha-Metzarim, between Shiva Asar Be-Tamuz and Tisha Be-Av, is categorically defined as a period of mourning. One who increases and intensifies his mourning for Yerushalayim and the Beit Ha-Mikdash is praiseworthy.  The days of Sefirat Ha-Omer, however, are quite different. Indeed, R. Ovadya Yosef (Yechave Da’at 3:30) argues that “God forbid one should not view the days of Sefira as days of tragedy,” and refrain from reciting the she-hechiyanu blessing or from moving into a new house.  Therefore, one must strike a balance between the customary mourning practices, which serve to remind us of the behavior which led to the death of R. Akiva’s students, antithetical to the unity which the Jewish people displayed before receiving the Torah (Shemot 19:2, see Rashi), and the festive nature of the period, as described by the Ramban.