It was said that Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, from Gabbatha to Antipatis, and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our rabbis in the south and taught them the Torah. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Judah, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time.
A Tanna taught: All of them died between Pesach and Shavuot (Yevamot 62b).
The death of the students of Rabbi Akiva transformed the period of the counting of the Omer (sefirat ha’omer), which connects the Holiday of Freedom with the Holiday of the Giving of the Torah, from a joyous period to a mournful one. Additionally, much of the destruction of the French and German Jewish communities during the first Crusade (1096) took place during this time – between Rosh Chodesh Iyar and Shavuot.
The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 496) records three customary prohibitions during this period: weddings, haircuts, and working after sunset (because that was the time to deal with the students’ burial). Additionally, there is a custom to forbid dancing during these days.
On which days exactly do these prohibitions apply?
1. The position of the Spanish Sages: The students of Rabbi Akiva died from Pesach until halfway between Pesach and Shavuot. This was fifteen days before Shavuot, on Lag BaOmer (the thirty-third day of the Omer). According to this, the prohibitions of the Omer still apply on Lag BaOmer, and it is only from the thirty-fourth day and onward that haircuts are permitted.
2. The position of the Maharil: The prohibitions apply from Rosh Chodesh Iyar until Shavuot, excluding Lag BaOmer.
3. The position of the Ba’alei HaTosafot: The students of Rabbi Akiva died only on weekdays between Pesach and Shavuot (a total of thirty-three days). They did not die on Pesach, on the six Shabbatot, on the two days of Rosh Chodesh Iyar, or on Rosh Chodesh Sivan (a total of sixteen days). The prohibitions apply only on the days when the students died.
The Shulchan Arukh follows the first opinion, stating, “One should not get a haircut until the morning of the thirtyfourth day.” The prohibited period includes the day of Lag BaOmer.
The Rema brings the Ashkenazic custom (which follows the second opinion). He writes: “In many places the custom is to get haircuts until Rosh Chodesh Iyar, but from then on to prohibit them, excluding Lag BaOmer itself when they are permitted.”
The Magen Avraham adds, “But in this country [17th century Poland], the custom allows marrying and getting haircuts during the three days leading up to Shavuot (shloshet yemei hagbalah).” Following this practice, the prohibitions of the Omer extend from the thirtieth of Nissan until the second of Sivan, once again excluding Lag BaOmer.
Thanks to God’s kindness, we have merited the celebrations of Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day) and Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day), when the prohibitions of the Omer do not apply.
A person who is invited to a wedding which will take place during the time period when he is accustomed to follow the Omer prohibitions is nevertheless allowed to attend the wedding. Since it is permitted for the bride and groom to get married then in accordance with their custom, so too it is permitted for all who are invited to take part in their celebration (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim 1:159).