The Talmud says the period between Passover and Lag Ba’Omer is one of semi-mourning for the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva killed in a plague. As with many Jewish customs, it is unclear whether this is the initial reason, or a rabbinic framing of an existing practice.
The Romans observed a period called Lemuralia during May and, as in Jewish custom, marriages and other festivities were not conducted. Rabbis have also taught that we mourn because the crops are judged between Passover and Shavuot.
The custom of this period of mourning means that in more recent times, the memorial days of Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikkaron have been set to fall within the Omer.
Whatever the original reason for the practice, the reason given by the Talmud for the death of Akiva’s students is food for thought. It teaches (Yevamot 62b) that they died ‘because they did not treat each other with respect’. In the wake of Passover, where we emerge from a time of suffering into joy, from slavery into freedom, it is important not to lose sight of how easy it is to breach the delicate social covenants that bind us together as a people.
As we journey towards Shavuot, where we commemorate the receiving of Torah and our shared obligation, the time of the Omer calls us to remain conscious of our fragility.
Our tradition teaches that we were all at Sinai, and yet in order to journey there together we must learn to do what Akiva’s students didn’t – to treat each other with respect. A time of reflection, of solemnity, and of cheshbon hanefesh – soul searching – is perhaps exactly what is needed to help us take the next steps on our journey. Together.
- Deborah Blausten is a third-year rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College