Of 'Sefira' Beards and Beacons Gone Bad

June 24, 2009

6 min read


Emor (Leviticus 21-24 )

If you take a look at Jewish men post-Passover, you'll probably notice many of them with stubble on their faces, the beginnings of beards. Why the sudden wish to join the bearded men of the world? It's only a temporary beard grown as a sign of mourning during the period between Passover and Shavuot called Sefirat HaOmer, Counting the Omer.

In reality, a 'sefira' beard should be a contradiction in terms. We are excited that Shavuot is coming and we will be receiving and re-committing ourselves to the Torah once again. That's why we count the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, anxiously awaiting the day. It is a great time of happiness. How then could Jewish history have developed in such a way that this season became one of mourning? Since when does passion and joy turn to sadness?

Let us explain this seeming dichotomy and study in-depth the contradictory roles played by the 'Sefirat (Counting of) HaOmer' time period, which is discussed in our Parsha, Emor:

"You should count for yourselves, beginning with the day after the day of rest (Passover), when you bring the (measurement of barley) Omer waving offering. Seven weeks shall be (counted and) completed until the day after the seventh week - fifty days." (VaYikra 23:15-16)

The Book of Education (Sefer HaChinuch, circa 1300) elucidates the purpose of this counting (loose partial translation):

"The entire basis of the Jewish people's existence is only for Torah. And all of existence was created for Torah. This was the reason for the redemption and exodus from Egypt - so that we would receive the Torah at Sinai. Therefore we were commanded to count from Passover until Shavuot to display our excitement and anticipation towards the Day of the Giving of the Torah. We long for that day like a slave longs and counts the days until he will be free."

We understand clearly from the Sefer HaChinuch that the 49 days counted between Passover and Shavuot were designed for a passionate expression of our dedication to Torah.

In addition, we find an amazing insight from Nachmanides (Ramban) in our Torah portion, Vayikra 23:36. Ramban compares the 49-day counting period to Chol HaMoed, the Intermediate Festival Days. Just like Sukkot and Passover have holidays on their first and last days, with quasi-festival intermediate days in between, so too, the entire Sefirat HaOmer, from Passover until Shavuot, is a quasi-festival - a Chol HaMoed.

It should be a time of great joy and happiness. Yet, it is the opposite.

Talmud Yevamos 62b describes the Sefira period as a season of mourning and sadness because 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died during this time.

How could this national seasonal transformation have occurred? How could even these tragic deaths change the nature of our joyous counting and preparation for the Giving of the Torah?

Another question. When we let our facial hair grow, refrain from listening to music, and avoid making weddings during this time, what exactly are we mourning?

It seems obvious - the Talmud Yevamos told us that we are mourning Rabbi Akiva's students. But it is not so simple.

Much to our great chagrin, Jewish History is replete with tragedies as horrible if not more horrible than the one that befell the 24,000 students. Yet, we don't find a commemoration nearly as long as 49 days (or at the very least 33 days leading up to Lag B'Omer - see Shulchan Aruch 493). We can't be mourning the fact that a large number - 24,000 - died, because we have tragedies with numbers even more horrific.

We can't even be mourning the fact that 24,000 rabbis died since there have been many tragedies where just as many, if not more, perished. What then are we mourning? And why does it warrant such a long mourning period?

The answer is that we are mourning the Torah itself that was lost with the deaths of Rabbi Akiva's 24,000 students. Rabbi Akiva was the leading Torah Sage of the Talmudic Age. The future of Torah tradition lay in the hands of Rabbi Akiva's students. That future was lost with them. Had Rabbi Akiva not salvaged five students, as the Talmud continues to relate, we would have been bereft from Torah tradition forever. Thank God the Torah survived, but we lost the additional Torah insights and perspectives of 24,000, never to be regained.

Why did the students die specifically during the time period between Passover and Shavuot? Commentaries explain that since this is the time of Sefira, we are obligated particularly to count and show our respect and appreciation for the Torah. As the Talmud in Yevamos comments, Rabbi Akiva's students died because they lacked respect for one another. (This passage itself requires great explanation and is certainly not to be taken at face value but that is beyond the scope of this essay.) If they failed to show respect for each other as Torah scholars, they apparently lacked a proper appreciation for the Torah itself. This occurred at a time when God expects a heightened awareness of the respect that Torah is owed. Hence, the 24,000 students died specifically between Passover and Shavuot.

Originally, we were to have expressed our respect and honor for the Torah in a positive vein, by counting excitedly to Shavuot. Now, we still express our appreciation and tribute for the Torah - but in mourning. We grow our beards and refrain from music and weddings as mourners do because we show our respect for Torah in feeling the pain of the Torah lost in the deaths of the 24,000.

In a certain sense, we mourn the fact that we, as a nation, could not suffice in showing our connection to Torah through joyous counting. God's Providence deemed it necessary for us to mourn during this time and express reverence for Torah in a sad, depressing fashion. Our glorious, magnificent Sefira - counting - period has become a long 49-day season of mourning.

So, is a 'sefira beard' really such a contradiction in terms? Yes. It is almost like saying 'joyous mourning'. But the term reminds us of the catastrophic metamorphosis of the Sefirat HaOmer counting period which changed from immense joy to sorrowful grief. We went from sefira - a passionate counting - to a mourner's beard.

The Sefirat HaOmer period is a time for us to prepare for the Giving of the Torah. Whereas Rabbi Akiva's students failed (in some subtle regard) in their preparations, we must not. God is looking down upon us, searching for our show of excitement for Torah. We can expose our joy for Torah by trying to become better people, worthy of accepting a Torah.

Many attempt to work on their character during this time and use the 48 Ways to Wisdom from Pirkei Avot - one for each day and the last day for review - as their guide. It is clear though that these 49 days are days of judgment. We must respond accordingly and get ready for Shavuot.

It is a repetitive theme in Judaism, which we cannot escape: We must be continually growing.

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