The period of Sefirat Ha-omer is often thought of as one full of limitations and prohibitions. Beyond Shulhan Arukh’s restrictions of refraining from weddings and haircuts, contemporary guides to the halakhot of Sefirah include advice such as: “It is also customary to minimize joyous activities, which include dancing, playing musical instruments, or listening to music.” Given this mainstream custom and perspective, it is unsurprising that Sefirah is often thought of as one of the saddest and most restrictive periods on the Jewish calendar, surpassed only by the Three Weeks and Tishah be-Av.
But given the heavy significance to the period, it is surprising that, unlike the mourning before Tishah be-Av, there is no obvious root for our mourning or sadness during Sefirah in the Talmud. If this custom isn’t talmudic, where does it come from?
The Rebbe Akiva Story: Communal Mourning
In fact, the most popular explanation for the origin of this custom does find its roots in the Talmud. Yevamot 62b records:
They said by way of example that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students in an area of land that stretched from Gevat to Antipatris in Judea, and they all died in one period of time, because they did not treat each other with respect… With regard to the 12,000 pairs of Rabbi Akiva’s students, the Gemara adds: It is taught that all of them died in the period from Passover until Shavuot.
The talmudic account of the death of R. Akiva’s students does in fact mention the auspicious period between Pesach and Shavuot as the time period when the tragedy took place. However, not in Yevamot, nor anywhere else across ancient rabbinic sources, is there any mention of mourning or any restrictions during the period between Pesach and Shavuot.
Indeed, the earliest recorded mention of a custom of mourning during this period is from the time of the Ge’onim, hundreds of years after the story of R. Akiva’s students was first recorded. Rav Natronai Ga’on was asked the following question:
And regarding your question, why don’t we betroth or marry between Pesach and Atzeret (Shavuot) – is it because of an actual prohibition or not?
It is important to note just how strange the content of this question is, as far as responsa regularly go. The questioner is not asking if they are permitted or prohibited to perform a certain act. Rather, they are observing that there is already a pre-existing custom – not to get married between Pesach and Shavuot – and the questioner is merely asking about the origin, and thereby the authority, of the custom. Neither the question nor the answer seems to be concerned with changing or dictating a practice as much as it is concerned with explaining an already occurring practice.
R. Natronai Ga’on answers:
You should know that this does not stem from a prohibition but from a mourning custom, for so said our Sages: “Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples, and they all died between Pesach and Atzeret because they didn’t 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 Rishonim (early sages) had the custom not to marry on these days…
It may seem like R. Natronai Ga’on’s answer settles the matter and ends the mystery of our Sefirah practice’s origins, as the Ga’on invokes the story of R. Akiva’s students. Thus, R. Natronai – our earliest source of the practice of not getting married during Sefirah – is also our source of this practice being related to mourning the death of R. Akiva’s students. Yet, while that may be the case, as we will soon see, this early explanation was hardly considered definitive by later rabbinic authorities, in part because it is not stated anywhere in rabbinic literature. In fact, many other rabbinic explanations were given across the centuries following R. Natronai, indicating that the matter of Sefirah’s origins was considered far from settled.
Other Reasons to Mourn
While later authorities all seem to echo R. Natronai Ga’on’s sentiment that the restrictions around Sefirah are expressions of mourning or sobriety, they offer numerous creative reasons for the season of solemnity.
For example, Abudraham, in the 14th century, gives us an explanation for our Sefirah practice that appeals to the biblical depiction of Sefirah, and thus would pre-date even R. Akiva and his students. Biblically, Sefirat Ha-omer is tied to the harvest season, as the grain harvest kicks off with the barley harvest on Pesach and concludes with the wheat harvest as well as the offering of bikkurim, first fruits, on Shavuot.
Given the economic significance of this period, as the harvest was effectively the main source of wealth collection for a primarily agrarian society, Abudraham explains that the customs of Sefirah developed to respect the seriousness of the season. Since people were stressed about their forthcoming grain-based paychecks, we limit our displays of frivolity and public celebration.
As proof, Abudraham references the Mishnah in Rosh Ha-Shanah which says:
At four times of the year the world is judged: On Passover, judgment is passed concerning grain; on Shavuot, concerning fruits that grow on a tree…
As the Mishnah indicates, this is a serious moment of economic judgment, comparable to Rosh Ha-Shanah and the High Holiday season. Thus, we can understand how the practice could develop to respect that seriousness with reduced frivolity. That said, within Abudraham’s answer, it is curious that these practices of limiting public happiness would only develop during the season of Pesach to Shavuot, and not be paralleled in the public customs relating to the High Holidays.
While Abudraham may present one of the most grounded explanations for our solemnity during this period, a century earlier, Tzidkiyah Ha-Rofei, in his Shibolei Ha-Leket, presents one of the strangest explanations in our tradition. He writes, in the name of his brother Binyamin, referencing Seder Olam Rabbah:
Rabbi Akiva says there that the sentence of the wicked in Gehinnom (Hell) is twelve months, but Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri says that the sentence of the wicked in Gehinnom is from Pesach until Atzeret. Therefore, we mourn during Sefirah, between Pesach and Shavuot, for the wicked who are suffering in Gehinnom.
In other words, Shibolei Ha-Leket links the practice of refraining from marriage during Sefirah to a rabbinic position that states that the period between Pesach and Shavuot is when the damned are forced to suffer in Hell. Out of respect for their suffering, we limit our happiness.
While this explanation is already strange enough in its own right, it becomes even less convincing when considered in the broader context. As the Shibolei Ha-Leket was living in 13th century Rome, he was surely exposed to the Roman, and later Catholic, tradition of Lemuralia. The rites of Lemuralia took place during the month following Easter, and were meant to excise tortured souls who escaped Hell to wander the earth. Out of respect and fear for these suffering souls from Hell, the practice developed to not get married during the month following Easter, leading to superstitious, and later, religious guidance against marrying in May or during Lent. Given this context, the Shibolei Ha-Leket’s unusual explanation for our communal attitude of solemnity may reflect some of the popular practices and attitudes of his time, albeit while tying them to rabbinic sources.
Whether biblical or mystical, what we are left with is an open question as to the origin of our Sefirah practice. We see that there are a number of reasons given for our sadness, ranging from mourning to seasonal stressors. But why is this such an unlegislated question? How could it be that the reason for Sefirah observances was left unsettled by tradition, while the practice itself proliferated? And why has R. Natronai’s explanation about the death of R. Akiva’s students been so universally accepted as the explanation for this custom?
The Historical Role of Mourning
With regard to the latter question, I think it is obvious why the story of R. Akiva’s students’ death has retained more relevance than any of the other explanations we’ve seen so far. While we may no longer feel the financial stress of the harvest season, and we may not be surrounded by a Roman Catholic society that swears off May marriage, Jews across the ages continue to experience and re-live communal loss and mourning.
The continuing Jewish experience of communal suffering and tragedy during the Spring and Summer months gave the Sefirah period a particularly logical quality as a time for communal mourning. Tur records this continually evolving meaning of the Sefirah mourning practice as practical halakhah:
There is what to say that, while the primary custom is to stop mourning after Lag Ba-Omer, as that is when the students of R. Akiva stopped dying, nonetheless we continue to practice partial mourning, because of the German Crusades of 1096 that took place between Pesach and Shavuot, as is explicated in the liturgy.
Similarly, later generations continued to add their own tragedies to the list of reasons to mourn during Sefirah, as tragedies from the Spanish Inquisition, to the Chmelnitsky Massacres, to the Holocaust, continued to befall the Jewish people.
Yet, while all of this may explain the contemporary popularity and resonance of the death of R. Akiva’s students as a reason to mourn, it continues to leave unaddressed the historical origin of these practices. As we noted from the unusual question posed to R. Natronai, it seems that the practice existed for longer than the Jewish community had a settled reason for doing so. But how could that be? How could we lose the reason for a practice within the tradition? And what was the original tradition?
The Original Tradition: Hol Ha-Mo’eid
Throughout this article, we have been careful to distinguish between the custom to refrain from getting married and cutting one’s hair, and the generalized collection of customs implied by Jewish mourning practices. As we noted, the earliest source of communal restriction during Sefirah – the letter of R. Natronai – merely asks why we refrain from getting married during this period, but does not mention a prevailing custom of mourning or sadness. Similarly, Shulhan Arukh codifies the core, and seemingly earliest, practices of Sefirah as being a restriction against getting married and getting a haircut, but not as being a generalized custom to mourn.
This distinction becomes even clearer when one looks at Shulhan Arukh. There, in addition to refraining from marriage and haircuts, Shulhan Arukh adds one more element as part of the core Sefirah tradition, when he writes that “women have the custom not to do work from Pesach until Shavuot, from sunset onwards.” While Shulhan Arukh limits this custom of curtailing work during Sefirah to women, the earlier source he is drawing from is actually more broad. In the early 14th century, Rabbeinu Yeruham writes that there is a general custom to not work after sunset, without specifying that this custom is limited to women. Whether it applies only to women or everyone, this element of the Sefirah practice seems out of sync with the idea of mourning. We don’t prohibit a mourner from doing work once the initial shivah period is over. And it is hard to argue that our mourning during Sefirah should be modeled after shivah, given the many other differences between the intensity of shivah practices and the generally accepted Sefirah practices. So why should Sefirah necessitate a reduction of any sort of work?
Rabbeinu Yeruham tries to address that oddity, and explains:
There’s a minhag not to do work after sunset during Sefirah. And this custom is because the students of R. Akiva died of diptheria between Pesach and Shavuot because they did not respect each other; they buried [the deceased] after sunset, and the nation did not work.
While this explanation is certainly creative – and illustrates Rabbeinu Yeruham’s attempt to fit all of these practices into the box of “mourning” – it hardly seems the most intuitive or compelling, and it is far from widely sourced or cited as an explanation for the custom.
But what if, instead of trying to force this custom of limiting our work into the halakhic box of “mourning practices,” its lack of conformity forces us to rethink the model of mourning itself. While a prohibition against work seems surprisingly out of place for the halakhot of mourning, there is in fact another area of halakhah where it is much more common: the laws of holidays.
Ramban, commenting on the Torah’s description of the Sefirat Ha-omer period, writes:
And on Pesach, it is commanded to have seven days with a holy day before and after it… and you count from it 49 days, seven weeks, as per the way of the world, and the 50th day is holy like the eighth day of a festival. And those 49 days in between are like Hol Ha-mo’eid between the first and last days of the holiday… Therefore, our rabbis called Shavuot “Atzeret,” for it is like an eighth -day festival which the Torah calls Atzeret.
According to Ramban, far from establishing the days of Sefirah as tragic days of national mourning, Sefirah was originally considered a joyous period for the Jewish people. As we mentioned above, the grain harvest was bookended by the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot. Based on this, Ramban suggests that this entire season was one of celebration of the harvest, beginning with Pesach and ending with Shavuot, with the days of Sefirah in between being like days of Hol Ha-mo’eid for the extended harvest holiday.
Ramban suggests an understanding of Sefirat Ha-omer that is rooted in the Jewish people’s agrarian roots and Temple-based service, and, as such, may seem foreign or counterintuitive to us today. Materially, the harvest season was one of the most important of the year, as we noted above in Abudraham’s explanation of the high-stress nature of this time period. While it may have been true that it was stressful, Ramban suggests that it was also celebratory and joyous, as people finally were able to enjoy the fruits of their work.
This perspective on Sefirah as a period of celebration and joy over the harvest – like days of Hol Ha-mo’eid – fits better as a model to explain the prevailing Sefirah customs codified in halakhah. We mentioned that the earliest and most consistent practice of Sefirah is that of refraining from hosting weddings during this period. In fact, a restriction against weddings is also characteristic of the celebration of Hol Ha-mo’eid. The Mishnah (Mo’eid Katan 8a) records, “One may not marry a woman on the intermediate days of a festival.” While the exact reason for the restriction is debated in the Gemara, everyone agrees that it is inappropriate to get married on Hol Ha-mo’eid. Similarly, Mo’eid Katan 13b tells us that one should not get a haircut on Hol Ha-mo’eid – another one of the Sefirah restrictions mentioned early on and codified by Shulhan Arukh.
Finally, and perhaps most obviously, Sefirah being a period akin to Hol Ha-mo’eid serves as a much better explanation for the practice first mentioned by Rabbeinu Yeruham, and codified by Shulhan Arukh, of reducing our work during this period. It goes without saying that there are various restrictions on one’s ability to do work on Hol Ha-mo’eid, as much of Mo’eid Katan is dedicated to said restrictions, and Hagigah 18a seems to indicate a possibility that work might even be forbidden mi-de’oraita during Hol Ha-mo’eid. In fact, this explanation is so compelling that Rav Yaakov Emden explains Shulhan Arukh’s prohibition of work as being based on the original roots of Sefirah as a Hol Ha-mo’eid, even while he still sees the rest of the Sefirah practices as being about mourning.
Thus, instead of struggling to understand how these customs can be a part of mourning R. Akiva’s students, we can perfectly explain this set of practices as a natural extension of an ancient custom of observing Sefirah as a joyous period of Hol Ha-mo’eid, as indicated by Ramban.
That being the case, we can also perhaps address our initial observation about the peculiarity of the question posed to R. Natronai Ga’on. While it seems strange for a practice to persist without a reason, and for a traditional explanation of communal custom to be lost, we can now begin to understand it better. The custom was a natural outgrowth of the joy felt around the harvest season and the associated Temple rituals. But as the Jewish people were exiled, and they lost both their farmland and their Temple, the natural feeling of excitement for the harvest stopped being relevant, and the original cause for celebration was lost. By the time of the Ge’onim, people were left wondering why we even had these practices in the first place.
Thus, both ironically and fittingly, without the Temple, the practice of observing Sefirat Ha-omer as a minor holiday – a Hol Ha-mo’eid for the joy the Jewish people felt during the harvest – was flipped into a custom of mourning for a period of loss. The original joy no longer resonated or made sense, and while it may not have been intentional, the tragedy of that loss organically produced a sense of mourning that was all too fitting for the experience of Jews across history.
If what I’m suggesting is true, it may not be surprising that the Talmud Bavli, a product of the Jewish people’s exile, would not be familiar with this celebratory harvest custom, and thus, left out this tradition altogether. That said, while the Bavli is silent on the topic, the Yerushalmi – with its closer connection to the agrarian traditions surrounding the land of Israel – may, indeed, have a glimpse of this original ancient custom preserved in it.
In the fourth chapter of Pesahim, the Mishnah records that some places had a custom not to do work on Erev Pesach. Commenting on that custom, the Yerushalmi explains that the reason for it was that, in the time of the Temple, when the Pesach sacrifice was still offered, there was a prohibition against doing work on that day. And not only the one bringing the offering, but all involved in the process were prohibited from doing work, as an agent and partner in the sacrifice. The Gemara then goes on to explain that not only did that apply to the korban Pesach, but it applied to anyone involved in bringing any offering to the Temple. As proof, it quotes a statement that even someone donating wood to be burnt on the mizbei’ah is prohibited from fasting and working, as it is a holiday for them.
Immediately after establishing this principle that days on which one is involved in Temple offerings are considered personal minor holidays with a prohibition of work, the Gemara continues:
Rabbi Jonah said, “These daily sacrifices are the offerings of all of Israel. Could all of Israel ascend to Jerusalem? Is it not written, ‘Three times a year all your males shall be seen?’ If all of Israel would sit there and do nothing, is it not written, ‘You shall harvest your grain?’ Who would harvest their grain? But the early prophets instituted 24 watches; from each watch there were [Kohanim, Levites, and Israelites] present in Jerusalem… – the Kohanim for service, the Levites for the podium, and the Israelites as proof that they were the agents for all of Israel.
The Yerushalmi immediately transitions into a statement by R. Yonah about all of the Jewish people participating in the harvesting of the grain that was brought as part of the omer process. The Gemara emphasizes that there were twenty-four watches and 24,000 people, and that all of the Jewish people, Kohanim, Levi’im, and Yisraelim, were represented and participatory in the process of harvesting and preparing the grain for the omer offering. In other words, immediately after establishing the rule that anyone involved in a Temple offering is considered to have a personal holiday and is prohibited from doing work on that day, the Yerushalmi teaches that all of the Jewish people were considered to be involved in the preparation of the grain offerings, and emphasizes that they all had a role in its harvest.
Interestingly, the Gemara emphasizes that this body of harvesters that represented the Jewish people was made up of 24,000 Jews – an auspicious number when one remembers that the Gemara in Yevamot tells us that R. Akiva lost 24,000 students during the period of Sefirah. One is left wondering if maybe the original gemara about R. Akiva’s students is itself referencing the loss of the omer-harvesting process.
Either way, though, we are left with not just a historical explanation for the shift in Sefirah observance from holidays to days of mourning, but a halakhic one. The initial sense of celebration and Hol Ha-mo’eid, as Ramban spells out historically, and as the Yerushalmi in Pesahim describes halakhically, stemmed from the Jewish people’s participation in the harvest and the associated harvest sacrifices. Without the Temple and a harvest rite, the original celebration of the harvest was no longer relevant, and the Hol Ha-mo’eid status of Sefirah as a minor holiday had fallen away to the sands of time.
What we are left with is a complicated Sefirah tradition, giving us reason to both celebrate and mourn, as we remember the breadth of experience and day-to-day life the tradition is designed to encapsulate, and as we additionally mourn the pieces of tradition that we have lost to the tragedies of Jewish history. But while the original Temple service surrounding the harvest, and the halakhic justification for the initial customs of Sefirah, may no longer be relevant, and the associated celebration and excitement surrounding the harvest and its sacrifices may no longer be a part of our lived Jewish experience, we would be remiss if we were to wholly give up this original tradition.
The religious experience that Ramban describes surrounding the harvest was an opportunity for the Jewish people to directly tie the most materially important parts of their year, and the most personally accomplished feats of their labor, to gratitude to God. Requiring the joy of the harvest to be translated into a harvest ritual would be like requiring every paycheck and tax filing to begin with a recognition of God’s role in our lives. While the material circumstances have left us Temple-less, and while working corporatized office jobs may be out of our hands, all of us should capitalize on the opportunity with which Sefirat Ha-omer presents us, to reflect upon our financial fortunes, and the role God plays, even in our feelings of accomplishment and pride over our own material successes.
 Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 493:1-2.
 See Taanit 29b.
 Translation courtesy of Sefaria.
 Otzar HaGe’onim, Yevamot, 141. Trans. by David Golinkin. I owe much credit to Rabbi Golinkin and his article for laying out many of the sources in this article so clearly. My analysis of these sources and novel conclusion would have been impossible without first reading his article.
 Leviticus 23:15-16
 Abudraham, Tefillot Ha-Pesah (Jerusalem, 1959), p. 241.
 Rosh Ha-Shanah 1:2. Trans. courtesy of Sefaria.
 Shibolei Ha-Leket, Seder Pesah 235. Trans. courtesy of Golinkin, ibid.
 Golinkin, ibid.
 Tur, Orah Hayyim 493.
 Throughout this article, we will use “work” to refer to the halakhic concept of melakhah, skilled labor that is prohibited on Shabbat and Yom Tov.
 Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 493:4. Trans. by Sefaria.
 Rabbeinu Yeruham, Toldot Adam Ve-Havah 5:4.
 Ramban Al Ha-Torah, Leviticus 23:35-36. Trans. my own.
 Trans. courtesy of Sefaria.
 Mor U-Ketzi’a, Orah Hayyim 493:4. R. Emden also offers an explanation as to why this original prohibition of work – one which should have included even work done during the day – would be limited to either nighttime or to a prohibition exclusively for women. R. Emden posits that since the very celebratory nature of the season was due to the harvest, it would have been particularly self-defeating to limit people’s ability to do work and harvest their crops, so instead, the prohibition against work was limited to the night, when people were not harvesting their crops.
 Yerushalmi Pesahim 4:1, trans. Sefaria.