Haircuts, Bonfires and Weddings: Lag BaOmer and the customs of Sefira

It is customary for all Jews to observe some customs of mourning during the days of Sefiras HaOmer – between Pesach and Shavous – and to have a festive day on either the 33rd day of the Omer – or for Sephardim the 34th. These customs are binding for all observant Jews as codified in the Tur and the Shulchan Aruch etc.

That said, it seems to me that the origins of these customs have come under disingenuous scrutiny by some and far too little scrutiny by others, so I thought it would be fun to do our own research.

It all started when a post on Facebook was brought to my attention. Someone had asked a simple question regarding the mourning customs of sefiras haomer. She was answered by someone who was claiming that the whole thing is a big mistake. The mourning and the celebration on the 33rd day of the omer was all a Roman custom borrowed by Jews in the Sixteenth or Seventieth Century.

After a bit of Googling, I determined that the poster was also the author of this article from the Times of Israel blog.

In this Reddit post where she posts her article, a comment by “barkappara” seems particularly astute:

The final explanation doesn’t make much sense to me — if Lag Ba’omer originated in the 16th century, it’s bizarre that a Roman custom survived for 1100 years and finally became a Jewish custom.

But frankly I don’t find this article very interesting. It is rather poorly researched and the author contradicts herself in several places. For instance, in the beginning of the article she claims:

First, Lag BaOmer celebrations are only a few centuries old. No evidence suggests that Jews celebrated Lag B’Omer before the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. At this time, the followers of Isaac Luria, the father of modern or Lurianic kabbalah, decided to transform the day into one of festivity. They held celebrations in honor of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whom they believe died on this day.

But in the very next paragraph she claims:

Nevertheless, what became the widespread attribution of his death to the thirty-third was the result of a printing error. In the 1802 printing of Peri Etz Chaim in Dubrowno, the text refers to “she-met” (“that he died”), but the original 1785 edition uses the word “samahh” (“was joyous”). The difference between life and death could be found in confusion over one letter, when the Hebrew Het in one edition became a Tav in the next.

So which was it? Did Rabbi Isaac Luria (died in 1572) and his students believe that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai died on Lag BaOmer or was it all based on a typo made in 1802?

Also, as we will soon see, her claim that Lag BaOmer was first mentioned by Rabbi Isaac Luria and his students is patently false.

Later she claims to be an expert in which versions of the Talmud are more reliable, in the process ignoring many manuscripts of the Talmud as well as manuscripts of Gaonim, Rishonim and Achronim subsequently quoting the Talmud. We’ll explore the actual sources later.

According to “tradition,” his students stopped dying on the thirty-third. Nevertheless, we know from the more reliable medieval Spanish versions of the same page that his students died from a “shmada,” a government- sponsored religious persecution.

It seems to me that the determination of “reliability” is being made as a matter of convenience to buttress a weak theory rather than a expertise in Talmudic manuscripts and printings. We’ll soon see that this story is mentioned in more places than just this one folio of the Talmud. Also, the use of quotations around the word “tradition” is totally unwarranted, even she can’t deny that that is the tradition – whether she thinks it’s valid or not, it is certainly tradition. She then comes out of left field with a theory about it originating from Lemuralia – but cites no evidence, sources or background.

I found an article that was somewhat more well written and better researched on the subject by Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin here. He mentions the classical understanding – that it is to commemorate that the students of Rabbi Akiva died during this period, and then asserts:

Nonetheless, the Rabbi Akiva theory is extremely problematic for a number of reasons:

Here’s his list:

  1. 12 and 12,000 are round numbers in rabbinic literature; (See Binyamin Kosovsky, Otzar Leshon Hatalmud, Volume 30, Jerusalem, 5733, pp. 1208-1211; Boaz Cohen’s Index to Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, Vol. 7, Philadelphia, 1938, p. 483; and Rashi to Shabbat 119a and Hullin 95b).
  2. In the parallel passages, there are other round numbers; (Yevamot 62b: 12,000 pairs; Kohelet Rabbah to 11:6, ed. Vilna, fol. 29b: 12,000; Bereshit Rabbah 61:3, ed. Theodore-Albeck, p. 660: 12,000 ; Tanhuma Haye Sarah 6 and Tanhuma Buber, ibid, p. 122: 300; Arugot Habosem, ed. Urbach, Vol. 1, Jerusalem, 1939, p. 75: 80,000; and cf. Silberman, p. 222[/note]
  3. Most of the parallel passages do not mention when the tragedy occurred; (See Bereshit Rabbah; Tanhuma and Tanhuma Buber; Arugot Habosem).
  4. The tone is legendary: “because they did not treat each other with respect”;
  5. The Talmud itself says nothing about mourning customs to commemorate this tragedy.

So, in case you’ve read this list and determined that you’re convinced, I must admit that I don’t find most of these reasons convincing. Here’s my list:

  1. The fact that the numbers are “round” and symbolic in Rabbinical literature maybe suggests that the number is imprecise or even exaggerated, but it is quite a leap to claim that therefore the whole story didn’t happen. (The second “problematic” item seems to be a repetition of the first item.)
  2. I’m not sure what the fact that he has found other mentions of the tragedy with varying levels of detail demonstrates. We should also note here that Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin has found quite a few places where this story was mentioned. We will soon see if these sources say askara (diphtheria) or shamda ( government decree), as the “reliable” Spanish edition reads.
  3. Anyone even slightly familiar with the Talmud knows that it is commonplace for the Talmud to assign Divine retribution as the cause for all tragedies.
  4. There are many customs not mentioned in the Talmud – and it is mentioned as early as the Gaonim, shortly after the Talmud.

Anyhow, Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin is convinced (seemingly based on these criticisms – or perhaps some other material cited in ed. Schechter, pp. 15-16) that the whole thing is fake.

Indeed, Dr. Aaron Amit of Bar Ilan University and the Schechter Institute has recently shown that this story has no historical basis at all. It was woven together from various legendary motifs in order to illustrate Rabbi Akiva’s opinion in Avot D’rabbi Nattan (ed. Schechter, pp. 15-16) that just as a person should teach disciples in his youth, he should continue to do so in his old age. It was the Babylonian Amoraim who added the motifs of “from Pesah to Atzeret” and diphtheria.

Finally we find the source for the previous article in his next theory:

The Lemuralia Theory
In 1869, Dr. Julius Landsberger explained that the Jewish period of mourning from Pesah until Lag Ba’omer was borrowed from the Romans. According to Ovid (43 b.c.e.-18 c.e.), the Romans did not marry during the 31 days of May which is called Lemuralia. These are funeral rites honoring the souls of the departed which return to wander over the earth, disturbing the peace of the living. Lemuralia rites were held during this season and no Roman maiden would risk her happiness by marrying in May. This superstition later migrated from Rome to France, Scotland and Germany and gave birth to the popular couplets: “If you marry in Lent, you will live to repent” and “Marry in May, rue the day”. Indeed, this is why so many people get married in June! Theodore Gaster later concurred with this theory (pp. 52-53).

Odd that these sources weren’t mentioned at all in the previous article. I’ve never heard of Dr Julius Landsberger, but I have heard of Theodore Gaster.

To be fair though, the claim is this form is much less insane when you don’t claim that it first popped up in the Sixteenth or Seventeenth century.

Stay tuned as we go look further into the origins of the customs of Sefira and Lag BaOmer!

DewofyourYouth

Rabbi, web developer, banjo enthusiast and dad blogging about whatever interests me at the moment.

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