The “skinny” on our Sefira Minhag
This article is not being written based on research, but is being written to convey our minhag as espoused in Washington Heights, with some verbal tradition that I have picked up when learning among the community members in the Beis Hamedrash over the years.
Our sefira minhag forbids shaving or holding a wedding etc. between Rosh Chodesh Iyar and Rosh Chodesh Sivan- NOT INCLUDING THE DAYS OF ROSH CHODESH- or any day that has no tachanun – i.e. Lag Ba’omer.
This minhag is not certified by the Mishna Berurah, who clearly states that if one were to keep the “second Sefira”, i.e. the one that begins in Iyar, he must observe a full 33 days by including Rosh Chodesh of both Months in his days of not shaving, and observing this until the 3 days of hagbala which precede Shavuos. (O.C. 493)
When this was told to Rav Schwab ZT’L he confirmed the lack of support from the Mishna Berurah but assured the questioner saying, “This minhag is much older than the Mishna Berurah.” (Rav Schwab had the highest regard for the Mishna Berurah and gave a weekly shiur in it for decades. He clearly was responding to the challenged tone of the questioner.)
I was once told that Rav Breuer when asked about this minhag had a calculation with which to reach 33 days of sefira observance by including the three days of chol hamo’ed which has no shaving. This is a fair calculation since even the minhag of keeping the first 33 days is relying on Chol Hamoed as a part of its observance. The difference here is that our minhag seems only to observe the Sefira on days that are appropriate for mourning, and thus chol Hamoed is not relevant to our observance. The answer might have been said as a “dichuy”, a polemical diversion.
A member of the community once told Rav Schwab about a Rov in Brooklyn that told his congregants who needed to shave for their professions that since they are shaving all week, they must shave for Shabbos too, since otherwise they would be showing less honor to Shabbos than to the weekdays. Rav Schwab countered that the opposite is true. Shabbos has already been made secondary to the sefira with regards to shaving. Thus, a person who cannot observe the Sefira all week, should at least use Shabbos and Sunday as a time to keep this important mitzvah.
I heard that someone once asked Rav Breuer or Rav Schwab about keeping the shorter Sefira, and he allowed it only if the person also keeps the German Jewish “chumra” of saying the long selichos on Erev Yom Kippur. (Our minhag calls for a very long selichos on a day that minhag Polin has a very short service.)
A quick look at the Beis Yosef and the Darchei Moshe gives room to justify our Sefira minhag as follows.
The observance of Sefira is in memory of the death of the Students of Rabi Akiva, who, according to the Midrash, died in the days between Peasach and “Pros Hachag” – the run-up to Shavuos. The Gemara in Pesachim defines “P’ros” as 15 days before the Holiday (Passover in that instance). This would bring you- by subtraction- to the 34th day of the Omer- the day that the Beis Yosef rules that the observance finishes.
The Rema follows with the minhag to observe from the first of Iyar and onward after Lag BeOmer. The Rema remarks that this minhag observes an “Aveluth” a mourning period. This remark is confusing, since both customs are applying a mourning ritual to these days.
We might imply from this a new approach, namely, that the second minhag sees the observance as a type of mourning and therefore relegates its time to a period in the year that mourning is allowed- namely after the celebratory month of Nissan. Accordingly, the Rosh Chodesh is excluded too, as is the first six days of Sivan- as tachanun is not recited then. This minhag is therefore befitting our Kehilla which is unbending in observance of days which have no tachanun. Breuer’s does not allow an avel at the amud on any day that has no tachanun. Period. They are also known to forbid any eulogies on a day that has no tachanun (including the eulogy that begins “Even though we may not eulogize on such a day…. but”!)
The idea that the second minhag is treating sefira observance as a mourning period is echoed in the tune that is sung for Lecha Dodi in Washington Heights. It is a tune that was once used for the “Three Weeks” of mourning for the Temple in Jerusalem. The idea of these Sefira days as a period of mourning is echoed in the poskim that promote the second sefira in memory of the terrible pogroms that swept through Ashkenaz in the 11th century during late Iyar and the days before Shavuos. Breuer’s also alters the observance of Bahab to begin in late Iyar. Breuer’s also says the “Av Harachamim on the Shabbos before Shavuos – one of only two Shabbosos that we recite it- for this reason.)
It should be noted that the Biur Halacha (O.C. 493;3) also uses the term “Aveluth” With regards to the second minhag and not the first. He reiterates it three times.
The minhag of observing Sefira for the first 33 days of the Omer, according to this- might view the Sefira observance as a minhag to observe aspects of mourning as a remembrance of the mourning that prevailed in those years, but not that these are days of mourning per se. A practical ramification might be the permissibility to engage in Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations during this time…
All the Best!
p.s.- Not to be relied on for Halalkhic practice…this is a blog, people!