The Customs of Sefirah aren’t about Mourning. They are about Quarantine.

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Ben Greenfield

The protocols of quarantine, brought on by the Coronavirus, eerily align with the traditional customs of sefirah (the period between Pesach and Shavuot). The “Sefirah Beard” (see Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayim 493:2) finds its match in the rise of Quarantine Beard; the Jewish prohibition on haircuts (id.) finds surreal echo in the closing of salons (and in protest signs demanding “I Need a Haircut!”). There are few weddings (idem. 1), which for reasons of safety, logistics, and temperament, are almost universally postponed; and the mass shuttering of bars, music halls, and concert venues has temporarily terminated all live music (Magen Avraham 493:1).

Traditionally, sefirah customs have been understood as signs of mourning, through which we grieve Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students who died in a pandemic of the illness known as askara (often identified as diphtheria). The classic account of their death appears in Yevamot 62b, and the very first record of these customs, by an unnamed Gaon (Teshuvot Ha-Ge’onim: Sha’arei Teshuvah 278), interprets these prohibitions as acts of mourning for these deaths. Indeed, such customs of restraint — initially a ban against weddings, but eventually against parties, live music, haircuts, and shaving — do mirror classic aveilut observances after a family loss (see Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 380:1, 391). 

But, our current quarantine reality opens a new avenue for interpreting the character, spirit, and even details of the sefirah customs. Perhaps we aren’t mourning the deaths caused by that mass illness. Perhaps we are reliving the quarantine-like effects of that mass illness. 

As we know from common sense and from our own current reality, when tens of thousands are succumbing to a mysterious disease, who could possibly throw a big wedding bash? And who would even attend one? As the economy shutters and social life dwindles (and even yeshivas sit empty from their once boisterous students) there is less of a need for grooming and less of an opportunity to make exciting new purchases. Instinct alone would severely limit our public gatherings.

Indeed, Rabbinic teaching from the Talmudic period would itself respond to the R. Akiva plague by demanding quarantine conditions: “If there is plague in the city, gather in your feet (i.e. stay home), as it says (Exodus 12:2, about the Smiting of the First Born), ‘and none of you shall leave the door of your house until morning!’” (Bava Kamma 60b). Even for Hazal, the proper response to an epidemic is a pause on public celebration, gathering, and the conducting of business as usual. 

Each and every year, when spring arrives, our customs demand that we place ourselves back in that historical moment, and react accordingly. Ritualistically, a plague has arrived in the city, and we both react to and establish that fact through our various limits on weddings, gatherings, live music, new purchases, and grooming. We don’t mourn the effects of a plague that once happened; we relive the effects of a plague as it “again” happens. 

In either paradigm, sefirah practices commemorate the catastrophic loss of R. Akiva’s students. The question is how we commemorate it: through ritualized mourning (“it’s like they just died!”), or through ritualized quarantine (“it’s like they are still dying!”). Indeed, the latter framework offers several advantages and helps explain a number of otherwise difficult features of the practice.

  1. Relevance to the Talmudic Narrative 

The quarantine hypothesis explains some of the emphases and values that are present in the initial R. Akiva story, in a way that the mourning hypothesis does not. The Talmud reports, “R. Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students in an area of land that stretched from Gevat to Antipatris, and they all died in one period of time … around Pesach to Shavuot … because they did not treat each other with respect … They all died a bad death … From askara.” Note that the deaths are specifically from an illness; that the illness appears to be communicable, spreading across multiple towns (Gevat to Antipatris) via the threads of a particular social network (R. Akiva’s students), causing a glut of deaths in a few weeks, and that close-knit individuals are liable to infect each other (12,000 “pairs” of students). Also note that a specific vice — lack of interpersonal respect — is identified as the spiritual cause of the tragedy. 

Sefirah as mourning is oblivious to these details. The Talmud could have described any form of death, amongst any group of nationally significant figures, composed of pairs or of stand alone individuals, in any geographic range, over any length of time, due to any moralistically relevant spiritual reason — and traditions of mourning would be an apt response. (For a contrived counterexample: “24,000 heads of separate yeshivas in Jerusalem died in the spring, over two hundred years, from Roman persecution, because they failed to protect the sanctity of Shabbat.” Generic customs of mourning would fit this counter-narrative just as well.) Sefirah as quarantine, however, reckons with the details. For a narrative that highlights the communicable and pandemic elements of this disaster, a tradition of quarantining is a bespoke fit. For a moral epidemic of people who can’t interact respectfully, we find a potently appropriate midah k-neged midah (measure for measure) response in enforced social distancing.

  1. Prohibiting “Mitzvah” Weddings

When mourning a deceased relative, one is permitted to marry if additional mitzvot are thereby fulfilled. The classic case is that of a groom who has yet to produce children. The Torah mitzvah of peru u-revu (be fruitful and multiply) compels a wedding and overrides the mourning practices which it would otherwise prohibit (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 392:2). Mysteriously, no such distinction exists in regard to sefirah practices, such that we are more restrictive during sefirah than during an actual situation of family loss! Indeed, Bah (Orah Hayim 493:1), Arukh ha-Shulhan (493:2), and Mishnah Berurah (493:1) all acknowledge this discrepancy without offering a resolution. However, it is only a discrepancy within the sefirah as mourning paradigm. Quarantine conditions make no such distinction, as we know all too well from current experience. The closing of venues, collapse of safe travel, logistical headaches, and medical concerns mean that no wedding of any kind can be fully celebrated — even if the groom has yet to fulfill peru u-revu.

  1. Lag ba-Omer & Celebration

The precise origins of Lag ba-Omer as a mini-holiday remains unknown. The earliest written accounts identify the date as when the R. Akiva plague and its associated deaths finally ceased. (See Sefer Ha-Manhig, Erusin ve-Nissuin 106; indeed, Meiri to Yevamot 62a considers this fact a tradition from the Geonim.) More than just the end of a sad period, the plague’s pause was soon understood as demanding active joy and celebration, and thus a minor festival (see Darkhei Moshe 493:1,3 and 131:7). 

In the sefirah as mourning paradigm, the Lag ba-Omer construct is an awkward fit. First, mourning commences and persists after death. The fact that the students ceased to pass away on Lag ba-Omer should trigger some continuation, if not the start, of mourning — and certainly not the pause, or end, or mourning. More broadly, as a joyful holiday with its own customs of festive gathering and live music, Lag ba-Omer represents a kind of slap in the face to the mourning process. It is unprecedented and imprudent to conclude a period of mourning with joyful celebration. Yet again, sefirah as quarantine resolves this tension, as the appropriate (and expected!) reaction to the end of lengthy quarantine is celebration and gathering. The illness is over! The restaurants and theaters again open! I can see my friends! If a day comes (please God soon) when we have absolute indication that Corona quarantine is no longer necessary, festivity would immediately ensue. Ritualistically, we relive this moment on the holiday of Lag ba-Omer. 

  1. Who Observes? 

Mourning customs are limited to close relatives of the deceased. The entire halakhic framework is rooted in family relationship and obligation. The broader community has a role, (most fundamentally, providing comfort) which is limited and distinct. That 24,000 students suddenly passed is certainly worthy of commemoration, but the family-centric framework of mourning is a clunky choice. If one were to recreate the conditions of the R. Akiva plague, many families would be immersed in shivah rites — but many would not be. Yet there is no indication that sefirah customs are reserved for particular groups, nor is a distinction created between direct mourners and less-affected comforters. Additionally, children do not mourn after a family death, even if they are of educable age (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 396:3), yet minors are implicated in sefirah observance (see Peninei Halakhah, Zemanim 3:6; Eliyahu Goldberg, Piskei Shemuot p. 62). 

I acknowledge two possible resolutions to these problems, one more plausible than the other. First, there is a halakhic notion of mourning exceptional Torah sages, which could be operating in regard to R. Akiva’s learned students. But this is quite limited (e.g. one’s direct and primary Rabbi or the Nasi; see Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 374:10,11) and we know neither the names nor the greatness of R. Akiva’s students. If anything, the plague narrative explicitly condemns and disqualifies them from this already rare category of mourning. Second, perhaps sefirah’s universal observance finds precedent in the mourning customs of Tishah be-Av, the Three Weeks, and the Nine Days, which likewise make no distinction between direct and in-direct mourners and also includes educable minors. However, this expansive mourning is for the preeminent national catastrophe: the Beit ha-Mikdash’s destruction. It is possible — though still somewhat ungainly — that sefirah triggers a mourning similarly intense as that for Judaism’s sui generis disaster. 

Sefirah as quarantine requires no such investigation. Quarantine affects all members of the community, regardless of kin-relationship or age. In times of pandemic, close family are mourning, but all are quarantining. (Indeed, perhaps the Three Weeks structure is itself best understood not as mourning, but as recreating the quarantine-like social effects of Jerusalem under siege. I leave this for further study, and point readers to Birkei Yosef 551:15.)

  1. Calendar Diversity

When are sefirah practices observed? Oddly, there is little consensus on this fundamental question. Some observe for the entire Omer period; others until Lag ba-Omer; others until Lad ba-Omer (the 34th day); others state that any stretch of 33 days suffices; some observe from the end of Nissan until the 3rd of Sivan; others start in Iyar and end right before Shavuot; some persist through the entire period, taking numerous quick breaks along the way (see Magen Avraham 493:5, and in general Peninei Halakhah, Zemanim 3:2). Certainly, this diversity is due in part to the decentralized and relatively late spread of these customs across Diaspora communities, and to the dark influence of the Crusades, which led various Ashkenazi communities to focus on the latter half of spring. Nonetheless, the effect is extraordinary: there is no seasonal or holiday practice with nearly this scale of calendar diversity. Indeed, this phenomenon contrasts starkly with the classic mourning framework (e.g. shivah, shloshim) and its clearly defined calendar of milestones. However, within the sefirah as quarantine model, this apparent “bug” sublimates into a feature. Contemporary experience attests that quarantines rarely have one clear start or end date. Different communities, facing different challenges and under different leadership styles, will enter and leave quarantine at different dates within the same rough season. 

So, why do we customarily ban weddings, parties, music, haircuts, and shaving during the sefirah? Traditionally, these practices have been understood as ritualistic mourning for R. Akiva’s 24,000 students who died in a plague. But the Corona experience shows that each of these bans can be understood as reliving the social effects of said plague. Loosely speaking, we aren’t enacting mourning, we are enacting quarantine. Indeed, the quarantine model offers five advantages: it more directly relates to the details of the R. Akiva narrative and the sin of social disharmony; it explains the severity of the wedding ban, it pairs more seamlessly with the Lag ba-Omer holiday, it makes sense of why everyone (non-family, minors) observes, and it accounts for the wide range of views as to when in the calendar these bans maintain. 

One of the few silver linings in this difficult time is a renewed appreciation for Jewish community. Quarantine has stripped us of synagogues, simhahs, and neighborly Shabbat meals, and I for one now realize with extra fondness the gift that is my vibrant sacred community. Every year, we undergo a ritualized, small-scale version of this social distancing. We relive the pandemic that struck a school of students who could not live together in peace, so as to best prepare ourselves for appreciating our covenantal community. Together, we count again towards that day on which all Israel stood at Sinai “as one person, with one heart” (Rashi, Exodus 19:2). 

Ben Greenfield is the Rabbi of the Greenpoint Shul, in waterfront Brooklyn, and he serves on the Talmud faculty at the Ramaz Upper School.