Sefirat Ha’omer Restrictions

It is well known that between Pesach and Shavuot, a time of year which is referred to as sefirat ha’omer, one is required to limit certain activities which bring joy.[1] The primary reason for this custom is in order to mourn the students of Rabbi Akiva who perished as a result of a plague which struck during this period.[2] There are a number of additional, lesser-known, reasons as well. We are taught that it is during the sefira period that judicial proceedings in Hell take place.[3] It is also the season in which God judges the world’s annual wheat supply, and hence, an atmosphere of reverence is in order.[4] The mourning customs during this period are also intended to recall the Crusades which wreaked havoc on the Jewish communities throughout Europe.[5] Common Ashkenazi custom is to observe the mourning-like practices from Pesach until Lag Ba’omer[6], though there are a number of other variations of when to observe them, as well.[7]

Leading the sefira restrictions is the ban on weddings, though music-free engagement parties are permitted.[8] Although a wedding performed during sefira in violation of the custom remains valid, doing so is said to be “dangerous” and will have a negative effect on one’s married life.[9] Nevertheless, one may re-marry one’s divorcee (“machzir gerushato”) any time during sefira.[10] One may attend and participate in a wedding between Pesach and Shavuot even if it conflicts with the period in which one normally observes the sefira restrictions.[11]

One should avoid moving into a new house during sefira.[12] If moving is absolutely essential during this time then one should at least arrange that it take place on Rosh Chodesh Iyar.[13] If one is truly faced with no choice then one may move into the new home any time during sefira without reservation.[14] It is permissible to renovate or decorate one’s home during Sefira.[15]

It has become a widespread custom to avoid necessitating the recitation of the “shehecheyanu” blessing during sefira, though it is completely permissible to do so if an occasion warrants.[16] The custom[17] to prohibit listening to music is a well known sefira period damper.[18] While all authorities agree that the ban applies to listening to live music, there are grounds to suggest that listening to a tape or CD is not included in the prohibition.[19] Although acapella music is quite popular during sefira, it is interesting to note that not all authorities permit listening to such music.[20] Some authorities permit one to listen to music in private if one requires it in order to avoid sadness.[21] Haircuts are not taken during this period and most authorities attach shaving to this, as well. A small number of halachic authorities allow one to shave during the sefira in honor of Shabbat.[22] Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik permitted those who normally shave every day to do so during Sefira, as well.[23]

It is interesting to note that none of the sefira restrictions are mentioned anywhere in the Talmud. It seems that the sefira restrictions first started in the times of the Gaonim (circa 600 C.E.)  at which time the only sefira restriction was the ban on weddings.[24] Also of interest, though no longer practiced, was a custom to minimize bathing during the sefira period.[25]

There also exists an obscure custom for women not to engage in any work from sunset onwards each night during the sefirat ha’omer period.[26] Some authorities maintain that it applies to men, as well.[27] Among the explanations offered for this custom is to recall that each day after sunset the students of Rabbi Akiva who had died that day were buried. As such, people were busy tending to the burial and not working.

Another reason offered for this custom relates to the Torah calling the sefira period “sheva shabbatot temimot – seven full weeks”. If one creatively translates the word “shabbat” to mean “shevut” (“to rest”), it can be suggested that one should avoid working during the time that the sefira is counted each night. According to this approach, the prohibition on working applies only until one has counted the sefirat ha’omer. As mentioned, however, this custom is not too widespread and one is not advised to begin observing it.[28]

[1] Mishna Berura 493:2

[2] Yevamot 62b. There are four views as to when the plague killed Rabbi Akiva’s students, and by extension, when to observe the Sefira restrictions: a) During the entire 49 days of the Omer, b) The plague ceased on the 34th day of the Omer, c) The plague ceased on the 33rd day of the Omer d) The students died on 33 (or 32) days during the Omer, excluding Pesach, Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh. See Biur Halacha 493:3

[3] Kaf Hachaim 493:6

[4] Kaf Hachaim 493:6

[5] Taz 493:2

[6] Rema 493:1

[7] Among the more widespread Sefira customs is to observe the restrictions for the entire Sefira period as per the view of the Arizal. Others observe the restrictions until the 34th day of the Omer. Others only begin observing them from Rosh Chodesh Iyar through the 3rd of Sivan. (O.C. 493:2)

[8] O.C. 493:1

[9] Kaf Hachaim 493:2

[10] Mishna Berura 493:1, Kaf Hachaim 493:3

[11] Igrot Moshe O.C. 1:159

[12] Piskei Teshuvot 493:1

[13] Piskei Teshuvot 493:1

[14] See Piskei Teshuvot 493, note 6

[15] Tzitz Eliezer 10:41, Igrot Moshe 3:80

[16] Mishna Berura 493:2

[17] Minhag Yisrael Torah 493:8

[18] Aruch Hashulchan 493:2, Igrot Moshe 1:166

[19] See for example Chelkat Yaakov 1:62 and Hilchot Chag B’chag p.62. See also http://www.bknw.org/library/articles/miscellaneous/Music%20during%20Sefirah.pdf for additional lenient considerations

[20] Shevet Halevi 8:127, Salmat Chaim 4:21

[21] Hilchot Chag B’chag p.63, Halichot Shlomo p. 361.

[22] http://www.vbm-torah.org/shavuot/20shavin.htm

[23] Nefesh Harav p.191

[24] Otzar Hagaonim 7:141 to Yevamot 62b

[25] Sefer Minhag Tov

[26] O.C. 493:4

[27] Mishna Berura 493:11

[28] Kaf Hachaim 493:53. See Rivevot Ephraim 1:326 for more on this custom