The days between Pesach and Shavu’ot are days of sorrow, because 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died then. Therefore, we keep some of the customs of mourning during this period, postponing marriages, refraining from taking haircuts, and avoiding dancing, unless it is for the sake of a mitzvah.
Before we discuss the details of these customs, it is fitting to expand a bit upon the main point, which is the reason R. Akiva’s students died. The Talmud states in Tractate Yevamot (62b): “Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students… and they all died during the same period, because they did not treat each other with respect… It is taught in a bereita, ‘They all died between Pesach and Atzeret (Shavu’ot)’… They all died an evil death. And the world was desolate, until R. Akiva came to our Rabbis in the South and taught them (and these are the new students): R. Meir, R. Yehudah, R. Yosi, R. Shimon, and R. Elazar son of Shamu’a; and they established the Torah.” The Midrash (BeReishit Rabbah 61:3) further recounts that R. Akiva said to his new students, “My sons, the first ones died only because they begrudged one another; make sure not to do as they did.” 1 that they died at the time of the Bar Kochva rebellion. Some students went out to fight the Romans, while others continued studying Torah, and the two groups denigrated one another, saying: “I am greater than my colleague, for my contribution is important and beneficial, while my friend’s is useless.” Because of this baseless hatred, they were defeated by their enemies, [which explains why] they all died around the same time. Indeed, the date is not coincidental – between Pesach, which represents Jewish nationalism, and Shavu’ot, which symbolizes the celestial Torah. By showing disrespect for one another, these students separated between the holiday of Pesach and that of Shavu’ot, between nationalism and Torah, causing them all to die during this season. Some quote the passage from BeReishit Rabbah as follows, “They begrudged one another’s Torah.” According to this, the primary rectification needs to be directed towards increasing respect between the Torah scholars of the different camps. (See below, end of note 13, [where we explain] that these days have a festive side, as well, serving as a chol ha-mo’ed [of sorts] – intermediary days between Pesach and Shavu’ot.) ]
Since then, we observe some customs of mourning and try to improve our interpersonal relationships, especially those between Torah students, during the period of Sefirat HaOmer. And since this is based on Jewish custom, not an explicit Rabbinic enactment, there are different customs among the various communities, as we will explain below.
Around a thousand years later, during the Crusades that began in 4856 (1096), the Christians slaughtered tens of thousands of Jews in Germany. These tragedies also occurred mainly during the days of the Omer. Approximately five-hundred years later, from 5408-5409 (1648-49), terrible massacres befell the Jews once again, this time in Eastern Europe. Tens, and perhaps even hundreds, of thousands of Jews were murdered. These pogroms also occurred, for the most part, during the Omer period. Therefore, Ashkenazi Jews are inclined to rule more strictly regarding these customs of mourning.
- The Gemara says that the harsh death they suffered was “ascara” (croup), and Rav Sherira Gaon writes in his Iggeret that they died as a result of religious persecution. In this regard, I heard an interesting explanation, [which postulates ↩