Simon M. Jackson
Legal Advisor to Torah MiTzion
From Shaving During Sefirat Ha’Omer
to Recognizing the Centrality of Medinat Yisrael in Our Times
Why Should We Mourn?
The days between Pesach and Shavuot are undoubtedly marked by pain. During this period, 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students died, “because they did not treat each other with respect” (Yevamot 62b). Another source informs us that after this tragedy Rabbi Akiva raised up additional students, and he said to them, “All of my former students died because they looked jealously upon one another. Make sure not to do as they did…” Interestingly, R. Akiva’s response to the tragedy that befell his students was not to introduce any mourning practices, but to rectify the situation by starting afresh – this time, through unity!
Yet, already in the Geonic period, we find Rabbis writing that since the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students, Jews have refrained from marrying during the days between Pesach and Shavuot. As is well known, with the onset of the Crusades, Christians killed tens of thousands of Jews. These tragedies also took place for the most part during the Omer period (April, May, June – after the cold, repressive winter season). And again, some 500 years later, an additional slaughter of Jews took place at this time, in Eastern Europe; the Chmielnicki pogroms, which claimed the lives of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of innocent Jews. For this reason, Ashkenazi Jews have customarily been more stringent about mourning during this period.
The prohibition of a haircut during the time of the Omer appears in the work of Rabbi Yitzchak Ibn Giat (at the end of the laws of Pesach), which is quoted in the Beit Yosef (Orach Chaim 493) in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua Ibn Shoib. Rav Yosef Karo details various customs of (aveilut) mourning observances during the days of Sefirat HaOmer (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 493). Weddings and dancing are forbidden, and specifically mentioned (493:2) is the prohibition of hair cutting (tisporet).
Is Shaving Prohibited?
Many authorities maintain that shaving is included in the prohibition of taking haircuts and thus whenever it is forbidden to cut one’s hair, it is also forbidden to shave. Most Yeshiva students follow this practice, to the point that refraining from shaving has become the most prominent and discernible sign of mourning during the Omer period.
Some modern-day poskim, however, hold that there is a fundamental difference between taking a haircut and shaving. Haircuts are celebratory; it is therefore accepted that people get their hair cut before holidays and festive occasions. Shaving, on the other hand, has become an ordinary task nowadays, performed every day, or every few days, in order to remove the stubble that mars the faces of those who are accustomed to shaving frequently. Therefore, the custom to refrain from cutting hair does not apply to shaving. According to this opinion, it is especially appropriate (and possibly even mandatory) to shave on Fridays, to avoid bringing in the Shabbat unfittingly.
Rav J.B. Soloveitchik argued that the days of mourning during Sefira and the days preceding Tisha B’Av parallel the Halakhic pattern of a personal Aveilut when mourning for a parent. If Tisha B’Av parallels the Shiva period and the 9 Days from Rosh Chodesh Av parallel the Sheloshim mourning-restrictions, then the period between the 17th of Tammuz and Rosh Chodesh Av, as well as the days of Sefira, parallel the far less restrictive 12-month mourning restrictions for a parent. During this period, the laws of hair cutting and shaving are relaxed when friends reprimand him for his unkempt appearance (Moed Katan 22a; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah, 390:4).
Rav Soloveitchik therefore felt that if one ordinarily shaves every single day, and misses shaving even one day, he is immediately in the Halakhic category of one who “looks unkempt in his appearance.” It follows, then, that during the Sefira period, shaving of the face as opposed to hair cutting) would not be prohibited. And, indeed, the Rav’s custom was to shave daily during the Omer period, and many of his students acted accordingly (R. David Brofsky, Hilkhot Mo’adim, p. 552).
On the Other Hand…
And yet, even if, according to the letter of the law, one can rely on the reasoning of those who rule leniently – can we ignore the fact that the custom to abstain from shaving during Sefira has become an indelible expression of willingness to sacrifice for the sake of mitzvah observance? Is there not room for concern that nullifying this custom will compromise one’s dedication to upholding customs in general?
For example, in the time of the Talmud not everybody wore a head covering, but today this has become a symbol and has taken on the status of an obligation. In some ways, then, “not to shave” during the Omer has become the symbol of a person who observes the mitzvot. When a person is seen to shave, some others might begin to feel that it is possible to be lenient in other matters of halacha.
So What Should I Do?!
One of the minor Talmudic tractates, Derekh Eretz Rabba, Ch. 7, cautions against “standing among those who are seated and remaining seated among those who are standing.” This is the rule: “One should not have different manners from those of his friends and of people in general among whom he is.”
Therefore, R. Nachum Rabinowitz suggests the following: “Due to the loaded emotions involved, I instruct anyone who asks, to do as his father does so as not to disgrace his father, God forbid; and even if his father doesn’t mind, anyone who sees a son walking with his father, where one is totally clean-shaven and the other’s face is black with stubble – such a situation is in danger of putting the father in a poor light…”
R. Eliezer Melamed rules similarly: “Perhaps it is appropriate for everyone to do as his father does, or as his rabbi instructs him to do, because the issues of tradition and how one’s actions influence others are more important here than the specific question of whether or not shaving is included in the customs of mourning.”
Some Concluding Thoughts
The Ramban on our parsha (23:36) speaks of the Omer period in the following striking terms –
“Beginning with the second day of Pesach we count 49 days of the Omer, which are 7 weeks comparable to the 7 days of the world, and then to sanctify the “eight day” (i.e. the Festival of Shavuot), just as the eighth day of Sukkot is holy; and the 49 days between them are akin to the “intermediate days” (Chol Ha’Moed) between the first and eighth days of the festival… and that is why our Rabbis refer to Shavuot as Atzeret (a day of cessation), as it is similar to the eighth day of Sukkot, which is called Atzeret.”
The Sefira period has an element of tension and suspense, but the added Adrenalin is meant to encourage us to better ourselves during the “Chol Ha’Moed” period in the run up to the pinnacle of receiving the Torah. In the words of Rav Melamed: “Failure to better ourselves in a gradual manner results in crises and punishment, as evidenced by Jewish history, which is why we retain semi-mourning practices during this time. However, their inherent holiness remains and these days are especially conducive to improvement and self-purification.” Fundamentally, then, these days are meant to be a time of excitement, anticipation and happiness leading up to the giving of the Torah on Shavuot!
Interestingly, leading Kibbutz Ha-Dati thinker, Tsuriel Admanit z”l, reached the same conclusion as Rav Solveitchik, but for very different reasons. In an opinion written by Admanit, criticizing a Kibbutz decision not to show a serious movie during Sefira, he wrote:
“There is no halakhic prohibition against having a good time during Sefirat Ha’Omer, and certainly none against saying the Shehecheyanu beracha, and the comparison with the Three Weeks period only degrades the value of the Destruction of our Holy Temple. As is often the case, adding only detracts…
Religious Zionism invests the events in our own time with value and religious significance. We cannot accept the approach which regards the destruction of European Jewry as similar to the Expulsion from Spain (only on greater dimensions) and the establishment of the State of Israel as an event of minimal importance or as an organization akin to the self-governing units in Eastern Europe or the medieval Jewish kingdom of the Khazars…
It is our deep understanding and consciousness that our generation has merited to continue the chain which was discontinued 880 years ago. All of the events that have occurred in the period between then and now lose much of their historical significance, just as the festive days chronicled by Megillat Ta’anit (which commemorated joyful events that occurred to the Jewish people during the Second Temple period) are no longer observed.
We should not be stringent in the laws of mourning during the Sefira period”.
Feedback is welcome!