Rabbi Emanuel Cohn
Former Avrech in Montreal (2001-2003)
Founder of “Torah MiCinema” – Teaching Film and Judaism
After celebrating the Independence of the State of Israel, we fall back into the mourning period of the counting of the Omer (Sefirat Ha’Omer). We read its source in this week’s Parsha:
“You shall count for yourselves – from the morrow of the rest day, from the day you bring the Omer of the waving [2nd Day of Pesach] – seven weeks, they shall be complete. Until the morrow of the seventh week you shall count, fifty days; and you shall offer a new meal-offering to Hashem…” (Vayikra, 23, 15-16)
The fact that both Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim occur in this period, can be interpreted as very significant. Indeed the journey we take from Pesach to Shavuot is the one from physical freedom to spiritual freedom, from the Exodus to the Acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai. It is a meaningful coincidence that the Israeli Independence Day, which signifies our physical and political independence, falls in the BEGINNING of the Omer period (two weeks after Pesach), while we celebrate the liberation and reunification of Jerusalem – an event of more spiritual character, since it stands for another cornerstone in the future reestablishment of the Kingdom of David in the Land of Israel – towards the END of the Omer (one week before Shavuot).
It seems, however, that the greatness of the “timing” of these two new festivals can be understood at an even deeper level if we reflect on the historical background of the mourning period during Sefirat Ha’Omer. The Gemara in Yevamot states the following incident:
“Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples extending from Gevat until Antiparis [two border towns in ancient Judaean territory] and they all died during one period because they did not treat each other with respect. And the world was left barren of Torah until R’ Akiva came to our Rabbis in the south and taught the Torah to them. They were R’ Meir, R’ Yehudah, R’ Yose, R’ Shimon and R’ Elazar ben Shamua; and it was these later disciples who upheld the study of Torah at that time.” (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 62b, Transl. Schottenstein) The Gemara later states that R’ Akiva’s students died between Pesach and Shavuot. The impact that this disastrous event had on the Jewish people can not be grasped. Not only the loss of so many young Jews, but also the potential Torah which was lost as a result, are both part of this unbelievable tragedy. Indeed this event left its signs on the Jewish community, and soon thereafter mourning-customs arose, such as refraining from marrying and not cutting one’s hair between Pesach and Shavuot. Later on we find a tradition based in Spain and in the Provence to shorten the mourning period till the 33rd of the Omer (Lag ba’Omer).
However, as we know, there is another, Ashkenazi Minhag which starts with the Omer-mourning customs only on Rosh Chodesh Iyar till Shavuot. The Mishnah Berura tries to explain this Minhag as a “mutation” of the old custom with a different time frame, implying that the 33 days of mourning for R’Akiva’s students start according to this second Minhag on Rosh Chodesh Iyar. This view is not convincing. Instead it seems that the historical background of this second Minhag is not the tragedy of R’Akiva’s students, but rather a totally different incident!
In the year 1096 the first crusadesoaked with anti-Jewish slogans was spreading rapidly through Europe. Thanks to historical accounts we are able to track the rioting route of the crusaders: “On the 8th of Iyar (May 3, 1096), the crusaders surrounded the synagogue of Speyer; unable to break into it, they attacked any Jews they could find outside the synagogue, killing eleven of them. One of the victims, a woman, preferring death to conversion, the only choice left open by the crusaders, inaugurated the tradition of freely accepted martyrdom… On the 23rd of Iyar (May 18, 1096) Worms suffered a similar fate. The crusaders first massacred the Jews who had remained in their houses, then, eight days later, those who had sought an illusory refuge in the bishop’s castle. The victims numbered about 800; only a few accepted conversion and survived, the great majority choosing to be killed or suicide rather than apostasy… When the crusaders, led by Emicho, arrived outside the town of Mainz on the 3rd of Sivan (May 27, 1096), the burghers hastened to open the gates. The Jews took up arms under the leadership of Kalonymus ben Meshullam. Weakened through fasting, for they had hoped to avert the disaster through exemplary piety, the Jews had to retreat to the bishop’s castle; however the latter could do nothing for them, as he himself had to flee before the combined assault of crusaders and burghers. After a brief struggle, a wholesale massacre ensued. More than 1,000 Jews met their deaths, either at the enemy’s hands or their own. Those who managed to escape were overtaken; almost no one survived. A comparable disaster occurred in Cologne, where the community was attacked on the 6th of Sivan (May 30, 1096)… There had been more than 5,000 victims.” (Encyclopaedia Judaica)
This is the horrible account of the catastrophe of the first crusade. As can be seen, the major destruction of Jewish communities, especially in Germany, occurred between Rosh Chodesh Iyar and Shavuot. As a result of it, many Ashkenazi communities adopted the custom to mourn in this period, and not from Pesach till Lag ba’Omer, as the older Minhag dictates.
It seems as if Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim receive a deeper meaning in light of the above mentioned historical tragedies, the death of the students of R’Akiva and the pogroms of the first crusades. The physical-political independence achieved by the Jewish people on Yom Ha’atzmaut might have a healing quality for the destruction of the Jewish communities in Western Europe during the crusades. On the other hand, Yom Yerushalayim and its spiritual content might be a consoling reaction to the loss of the Torah Scholars of R’ Akiva.
In modern Israel the old circle of mourning has finally found a closure.