The period between Passover and Shavuot is called Sefirat HaOmer, the counting of the Omer offering, which was a particular sacrifice offered when the Beit HaMikdash (the Holy Temple) stood centuries ago. To this day, each night, commencing from the second night of Passover until the night prior to Shavuot, we recite a bracha and count the Omer.
There is a prevalent custom to refrain from listening to live music and also to not shave or take haircuts for 30 three days of this 49-day period (see Orach Chaim 493:1-2).
This practice was instituted to recall the tragic death of 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva, one of the outstanding Torah scholars whose teachings appear throughout the gamut of the Gemara. The students passed away over 30 three days during Sefirat HaOmer. Precisely which days is a subject of debate, and hence there are different customs on which dates to refrain from music and haircuts/shaving.
This practice raises an interesting observation. Those customs are practices associated with mourning, and certainly it was a tragedy to lose such a large number of students of Torah. However, the period of sefirah falls during the period between Passover and Shavuot. We celebrate the anniversary of the giving of the Torah on Shavuot, which of course is the culmination of being freed from slavery in Egypt and the event that gives us our ultimate connection with Hashem as the Jewish people. As we look forward to reliving and renewing our initial acceptance of the Torah, this is a period of joyous, positive anticipation. True, the passing of Rabbi Akiva’s students was a tragedy, but taking on such public practices that clearly are associated with mourning seems to be a contradiction to what this period represents.
Certainly I am not the first to raise this question and there are many answers given, but I would like to offer a possible insight that came to me. There are several reasons offered as to why these students passed away, but according to the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot 62b, they passed away of askera, which Tractate Berachot 8a identifies as the worst of hundreds of forms of death. Why such a horrible punishment? “Mipnei shelo nahagu kavod zeh lazeh,” because they did not treat each other with respect.
There is a fundamental maxim in Hebrew of “derech eretz kadmah laTorah,” meaning having manners is a prerequisite to having Torah. Prior to learning about and incorporating the laws of the Torah into our daily lives, we need to have derech eretz, that is, manners, courtesy, decency and the like; we must treat one another with respect! That makes perfect sense: Think about either area of Torah, be it the area of our relationship with Hashem (bein adam laMakom) or the domain of our relationship with fellow human beings (bein adam lechavero). Both areas include thinking not only of oneself. If one does not know how to properly behave, with abiding concern for others, then the consequences can be disastrous. And perhaps this is why it is so crucial to recall the death of the students of Rabbi Akiva.
Apparently they definitely were learned, and they had one of the most outstanding Torah teachers to guide them, but somehow it did not manifest itself in how they treated each other. Maybe the lesson is that we all need to be vigilant in how sensitive we are to the needs of others. That needs to be incorporated into our lives as a prerequisite for incorporating the specifics of the myriad of mitzvos.
So as we continue this practice of not listening to live music or getting a haircut, let us also take ample time to think about how we can improve our relationship with our fellow human beings.
As a parent, let me suggest one specific area where our attention to the feelings of others is most imperative: preventing bullying in our schools and shuls. Those who are the victims of this behavior can bear the pain and scars for a lifetime, and if no one sets the perpetrators straight they will simply continue such behavior into their adulthood. If we see something going on, we need to offer help to the victims, and those who are doing the bullying need to be called to task.
To make an understatement, they are certainly repeating the sin of “shelo nahagu kavod zeh lazeh,” for which others are paying a painful price.
Rabbi David Blum provides pastoral care throughout New Jersey as part of the Rabbi Chaim Yosef Furst Chaplaincy Program, which is conducted via Congregation Ohav Emeth of Highland Park, and the chaplaincy program of the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest. He resides with his family in Highland Park and may be contacted at [email protected]