There are many customs as to when the mourning period begins and ends. We will mention the four primary ones:
1) The laws of mourning last the entire Omer period. This custom is based on the version of the Gemara that appears in our texts (Yevamot 62b), which states that R. Akiva’s students died between Pesach and Atzeret (Shavu’ot). If so, one should follow the customs of mourning throughout that period.
2) The mourning period continues until Lag B’Omer (the 33rd day of the Omer). This custom is based on the well-known tradition that R. Akiva’s students stopped dying on Lag B’Omer.
3) The customs of mourning cease on the 34th day of the Omer. This is based on a Sefardic tradition, according to which the Gemara reads: “R. Akiva’s students died until P’ros HaAtzeret.” P’ros means half, that is, [they died] until half-a-month before Shavu’ot. When we subtract fifteen days from the forty-nine days of the Omer, we are left with thirty-four days during which R. Akiva’s students died and we observe customs of mourning.
4) The mourning period lasts thirty-three days. This custom is based on a tradition that R. Akiva’s students died on every non-festive day of the Omer period, which add up to thirty-three days. Consequently, we must observe customs of mourning for thirty-three straight days, no matter whether they coincide with the beginning or the end of Sefirat HaOmer. 1. Orchot Chayim states this with regard to both weddings and haircuts (Minhagei Yisrael, vol. 1, pp. 101-102). The author of Shibolei HaLeket and Rabbeinu Yerucham give two additional reasons why we mourn during the Omer period: a) it is based on R. Yochanan ben Nuri’s opinion that the wicked are judged in geihinom (hell) between Pesach and Shavu’ot, b) this is when we are judged regarding grain.
2, 3) [These customs] are based on a tradition that R. Akiva’s students stopped dying on Lag B’Omer. Several Rishonim mention this, including the Meiri (Yevamot 62b): “The Ga’onim had a tradition that the dying ceased on the 33rd day of the Omer. We, therefore, have a custom to refrain from fasting on that day. This is also why there is a custom not to get married between Pesach and that [day].” There is a different version in Tractate Yevamot, as the author of Sefer HaManhig writes in the name of R. Zerachiyah HaLevi (Razah), that according to Sefardic tradition, R. Akiva’s students died until “P’ros HaAtzeret.” Since P’ros implies half-a-month, or fifteen days, it comes out that we must observe the customs of mourning until the 34th day of the Omer. This raises a difficulty, for according to the above-mentioned tradition, the students ceased dying on the thirty-third, but according to the calculation of P’ros, we mourn until the thirty-fourth. Indeed, there are two opinions regarding this issue. Some say we must observe the customs of mourning until the 34th day. This is the viewpoint of Ibn Shu’ib and Tashbetz (vol. 1, 178), cited in Beit Yosef 493. The Shulchan Aruch (493:2) concurs: “The custom is not to take haircuts until Lag B’Omer, for they say that [R. Akiva’s students] stopped dying then. One should not take a haircut until the morning of the thirty-fourth.” Perhaps these authorities explain that the students continued dying throughout the day of the thirty-third; therefore, the mourning period ends only on the thirty-fourth. In contrast, the words of HaManhig (Hilchot Eirusin, end of 106) imply that the period of mourning actually ends on Lag B’Omer. Other Rishonim and Acharonim write similarly. According to them, we must explain that [when Chazal say] “P’ros,” they mean approximately half-a-month, because in reality, we stop mourning sixteen days before Shavu’ot. So writes R. Ya’akov ben R. Avraham Castro (Maharicas) in Erech Lechem (see also below, note 3).
4) The Rishonim cite a tradition in the name of Tosafot (it is not printed in our Gemaras) that R. Akiva’s students died on the thirty-three ordinary, non-festive days of the Omer period. If we subtract from the forty-nine days six days of Pesach, isru-chag, six Sabbaths, and three days of Rosh Chodesh, we are left with thirty-three days on which the students died. Consequently, we observe customs of mourning for thirty-three consecutive days. Some observe them at the beginning of the Omer, while others do so at the end. The Beit Yosef cites this tradition in the name of Ibn Shu’ib, and the Rama (493:3) mentions it as well. Bach, M.B. (493:13), and B.H. (ibid.) explain its laws. Many Ashkenazim observe the customs of mourning during the latter part of the Omer, because the Crusades – during which the wicked [Christians] carried out terrible massacres – began in the months of Iyar and Sivan. On the eighth of Iyar, the Jews of Speyer were massacred; on the twenty-third of the month, the community of Worms [was decimated]; on the third of Sivan, [the murderers massacred] Mainz’s Jews; and on the sixth of Sivan, Cologne [was attacked]. The earliest custom in this regard was to begin the mourning period on the second of Iyar and end it on the day before Shavu’ot. Nonetheless, one [who follows Ashkenazi practices] may start the mourning period at the beginning of the Omer, as well. Even though the laws of mourning do not manifest themselves on chol ha-mo’ed Pesach – for there is a mitzvah to rejoice [throughout the holiday] – this does not take away from the thirty-three days, just as the days of Shabbat, on which mourning is precluded, count towards the thirty-three days of the Omer and the seven days of regular mourning.
See Siddur Pesach KeHilchato 12:1-3 and Hilchot Chag BeChag 7:21. The author of Minhagei Yisrael, vol. 1, pp. 101-111, explains the Sefardi and Ashkenazi customs. In his addenda, vol. 4, pp. 237-241, he brings proofs that the word P’ros does not usually mean half, but “close to.” According to this, the version that reads, “until P’ros HaAtzeret” means until Erev (the day before) Shavu’ot. It is important to note that there is another custom: to observe mourning throughout the Omer period, except the days of Rosh Chodesh and Lag B’Omer, when everything is permitted. We do not follow this practice (cited in M.A. 493:5 and M.B. 15). ]
- Sources: 1) Rav Natrunai Gaon, Rav Hai Gaon, and R. Yitzchak Gi’at write that ever since Rabbi Akiva’s students died, we refrain from making weddings between Pesach and Shavu’ot. The Tur (493) cites this opinion anonymously, [indicating that it is the accepted opinion ↩