Before dissecting it, let’s first lay out what the accepted modern-day understanding of the origins of Sefira and Lag BaOmer customs are according to the classical Jewish sources. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim siman 493) says:

נוהגים שלא לישא אשה בין פסח לעצרת עד ל”ג בעומר מפני שבאותו זמן מתו תלמידי ר’ עקיבא אבל לארס ולקדש שפיר דמי ונשואין נמי מי שקפץ וכנס אין עונשין אותו: הגה מיהו מל”ג בעומר ואילך הכל שרי (אבודרהם וב”י ומנהגים):

It is customary not to get married from Passover to Shavous until Lag BaOmer because during that time the students of Rabbi Akiva died. But it is permitted to betroth and if someone went ahead and married we do not punish him. (Rema’s note: From Lag BaOmer onward it is all permissable.)

Then the Shulchan Aruch talks about haircuts etc. This is all based on the Tur (13th Century) of same siman.

The notion that the students of Rabbi Akiva died during this period is based on the Talmud Bavli in Yebomoth 62b that says:

רבי יהושע אומר: נשא אדם אשה בילדותו ישא אשה בזקנותו, היו לו בנים בילדותו יהיו לו בנים בזקנותו – שנא’ בבקר זרע את זרעך ולערב אל תנח ידך – כי אינך יודע אי זה יכשר הזה או זה ואם שניהם כאחד טובים. ר”ע אומר: למד תורה בילדותו ילמוד תורה בזקנותו, היו לו תלמידים בילדותו יהיו לו תלמידים בזקנותו – שנא’ בבקר זרע את זרעך וגו’. אמרו: שנים עשר אלף זוגים תלמידים היו לו לרבי עקיבא מגבת עד אנטיפרס וכולן מתו בפרק אחד מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה, והיה העולם שמם עד שבא ר”ע אצל רבותינו שבדרום ושנאה להם – ר”מ, ור’ יהודה, ור’ יוסי, ורבי שמעון, ורבי אלעזר בן שמוע – והם הם העמידו תורה אותה שעה. תנא: כולם מתו מפסח ועד עצרת. אמר רב חמא בר אבא ואיתימא ר’ חייא בר אבין: כולם מתו מיתה רעה. מאי היא? א”ר נחמן: אסכרה

Rabbi Yehoshua says: if someone married in his youth he should marry in his old age, if he has children in his youth he should have children in his old age, as it says “in the morning you shall sew your seeds and in the evening do not let your hand be idle” (Koheles 11:6) – for you do not know which (children) will be fit – this one, that one or both. Rabbi Akiva says: If one has learnt Torah in his youth he should learn in his old age, if he had students in his youth he should have in his old age as it says in the morning you shall sew your seeds and in the evening do not let your hand be idle”. It is said that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students and all of them died in a short period of time because they did not treat each other respectfully – and the world was desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our teachers in the south and taught them – Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamoua – they resurrected the Torah at that time. It is taught that they all died between Passover and Shavous. Rabbi Hamma bar Abba, or possibly Rabbi Hiyya bar Avin said: They all died a bad death. What was it (that they died from)? Rabbi Nachman says: diphtheria.

The Talmud does not mention any mourning customs enacted regarding the deaths of the students of Rabbi Akiva – however, we see from as early as the Gaonic period that there were such customs. Here is a link to a Teshuva brought in the name of Rav Natronei Gaon (9th Century) that connects the custom of not marrying during this period to the deaths of the students of Rabbi Akiva. He basically says exactly what the Tur and later the Shulchan Aruch say – but with one glaring ommision. He mentions nothing of Lag BaOmer. It seems he is speaking of a custom to not get married at all between Passover and Shavous. So where did Lag BaOmer originate from? That is the subject of some controversy. The Beis Yosef cites the work of Rabbi David Abudraham (14th Century Spain) who says as follows:

נוהגין בקצת מקומות שלא לישא אשה בין פסח לעצרת ושלא להסתפר והטעם שלא להרבות בשמחה שבאותו זמן מתו שנים עשר זוגות אלף תלמידים לר’ עקיבא באסכרה מפני שלא היו נוהגין כבוד זה לזה. וכתב הר”י בן גיאת דוקא נישואין שעיקר שמחה חופה וכניסה אבל ליארס ולקדש שפיר דאמי. ונישואין נמי מי שקפץ וכנס אין עונשי’ אותו אבל אם בא לשאול בתחלה מורין לו שלא לעשות כן. וכן הורו הגאונים. ויש מקומות שנוהגין לישא אשה ולהסתפר מל”ג לעומר ואילך שאומרי’ שאז פסקו מלמות. וכן כת’ אבן הירחי ששמע בשם הר’ זרחיה הלוי שמצא כתוב בספר ישן הבא מספרד שמתו מפסח ועד פרוס העצרת ומאי פרוס פלגא כדתנן שואלין בהלכות הפסח קודם הפסח שלשים ים ופלגא חמשה עשר יום קודם העצרת וזהו ל”ג לעומר ע”כ.

The custom of some places is to not wed during the period between Passover and Shavous and not to cut hair, and the reason why we don’t increase in joy during this time is because during this time 12,000 pair of the students of Rabbi Akiva died from diphtheria because they didn’t treat each other respectfully… and so the Gaonim instructed. There are places where they have a custom to marry and from Lag BaOmer onward and say that they stopped dying them. And so wrote Ibn Yarhi, that he heard in the name of Rabbi Zarahia HaLevi found written in an old manuscript that come from Spain that they died from Passover until … 15 days before Shavous which is Lag BaOmer

In the next installation we shall flesh out all the opinions on this matter but for now let us note a few things.

  1. No mention of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s death.
  2. Two varying customs – one to abstain from marriage for the entire period between Passover and Shavous and another to abstain only until Lag BaOmer – the first one with the older source.
  3. According to R’ David Abudraham, the discrepancy is based on different manuscripts regarding when the students of Rabbi Akiva stopped dying.
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