Editor’s note: The following article is adapted from a
chapter in Daniel Sperber’s “Minhagei Yisrael”.
For most, Lag Ba’Omer marks the end of the Minhagei Aveilut associated with the Omer, particularly in terms of getting haircuts. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 493:2) writes: “It is customary not to get haircuts until Lag Ba’Omer, since it is said that that is when they [the students of Rabi Akiva] stopped dying.” In the next Se’if, the Shulchan Aruch cites what he feels to be the mistaken Minhag of getting haircuts on Rosh Chodesh Iyar, and here the Rama comments: “However, in many places it is customary to get haircuts until Rosh Chodesh Iyar, and these people do not get haircuts from Lag Ba’Omer and onwards [until after Shavu'ot]...” What accounts for this divergence of Minhagim between Sefaradim (as cited by the Mechaber) and Ashkenazim (brought down by the Rama)?
The source for any Minhagei Aveilut during the period of Sefirat Ha’Omer is the Gemara in Yevamot (62b), which reports that Rabi Akiva’s 24,000 students died during the time between Pesach and Shavu'ot, because they did not respect one another. Mourning for this tragedy during the same seven-week period must have begun after the completion of the Talmud, since Ge’onim such as Rav Natruna’i Ga’on and Rav Hai Ga’on wrote that one should not marry from Pesach until Shavu'ot because of the death of Rabi Akiva’s students. Yet the significance of Lag Ba’Omer as the end of Minhagei Aveilut was not recorded until the turn of the 13th century. Rabi Avraham Ben Natan HaYareichi, in his work “Sefer HaManhig,” wrote, “Yet there is a Minhag in France and Provence to begin marrying from Lag Ba’Omer and onwards. And I heard in the name of Rabi Zerachia of Girona who found an old manuscript from Sefarad, [which said that the students of Rabi Akiva] ‘died from Pesach until Pros Ha’Atzeret.’ What is “Pros?” Half of a month, 15 days before Shavu'ot. And this is Lag Ba’Omer.” Evidently, there was a Sefaradi tradition that Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped dying on the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, and, over time, the Minhagei Aveilut were applied only to these first 33 days. When the prohibition against getting haircuts developed, it went into effect only until Lag Ba’Omer, as cited by the Shulchan Aruch.
And where does the Ashkenazi Minhag of practicing Minhagei Aveilut from Rosh Chodesh Iyar until Shavu'ot come from? Maharam MiRutenberg reports that starting from Rosh Chodesh Iyar, many Ashkenazi communities would say special Kinot every Shabbat. The Rama, in a similar vein, writes that all the communities in the Rhineland (area in Western Germany) would say “Av HaRachamim” on the last Shabbat before Shavu'ot in memory of the martyrs of the Rhineland massacres. Many Jewish communities were massacred as part of the People’s Crusade in the spring of 1096, and it is for these massacres that the Minhagim cited by the Maharam MiRutenberg and the Rama developed. Several Jewish communities of the Rhineland were attacked during the time period from Rosh Chodesh Iyar. The Jewish communities in Shapira, Vurmiza, and Magentza all came under attack during this five-week period. Since Minhagei Aveilut were already being practiced during this general timepan, the focus was shifted away from the first two weeks of the Omer, and instead the emphasis was placed on the much more recent tragedies in the Rhineland, and away from the death of Rabi Akiva’s students. Since the Sefaradi communities were not at all subject to these massacres, they did not institute any practices commemorating them.
While the reasons for many Minhagim might be unclear, it is important to realize that almost all of them have some basis. In this case, the divergence in Minhagei Aveilut during the Omer between Ashkenazi and Sefaradi communities resulted from a unique Sefaradi tradition and historical circumstances that applied only to Ashkenazi communities.