Lag BaOmer – The Haircut Holiday

Is there really a holiday that we celebrate with haircuts?Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayyim 493:1-2

(1) It is customary not to get married between Pesach and Shavuot, until Lag BaOmer (the 33rd day), because during that time, the students of Rabbi Akiva died. However, to do “erusin” and “kiddushin” (engagement and betrothal) is OK. And even for “nisuin” (marriage), if someone did so, we do not punish him. Rema: however, from Lag Ba’Omer onwards, all this is permitted (Abudraham, Beit Yosef & Minhagim).

(2) It is customary not to cut one’s hair until Lag BaOmer, since it is said that that is when they stopped dying.

Context: The Shulchan Aruch was published by Rabbi Joseph Caro in 1563 as a “Code of Jewish Law”, explaining what to do in every situation that it could think of. In general it gives Sephardic practice, so the Rema (Rabbi Moses Isserles) wrote a gloss giving the Ashkenazic practice when it was different. There are 4 sections to the Shulchan Aruch:

Orach Chayim – the laws about Jewish time (prayer time and holidays)

Yoreh De’ah – the laws about Jewish living (kashrut, conversion, mourning, Israel)

Even Ha’ezer – the laws about getting married and divorced

Choshen Mishpat – the laws about business, money, and courts

This is in the part of Orach Chayim about Pesach.

What questions does this raise for you?

So what happened with Rabbi Akiba’s students?Yevamot 62b:9-11

Rabbi Akiva says that the verse should be understood as follows: If one studied Torah in his youth he should study more Torah in his old age; if he had students in his youth he should have additional students in his old age, as it is stated: “In the morning sow your seed, etc.”

They said by way of example that Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students in an area of land that stretched from Gevat to Antipatris in Judea, and they all died in one period of time, because they did not treat each other with respect.

And the world was desolate of Torah until Rabbi Akiva came to our Rabbis in the South and taught his Torah to them. This second group of disciples consisted of Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yosei, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua. And these are the very ones who upheld the study of Torah at that time. Although Rabbi Akiva’s earlier students did not survive, his later disciples were able to transmit the Torah to future generations.

With regard to the twelve thousand pairs of Rabbi Akiva’s students, the Gemara adds: It is taught that all of them died in the period from Passover until Shavuot. Rav Ḥama bar Abba said, and some say it was Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Avin: They all died a bad death. The Gemara inquires: What is it that is called a bad death? Rav Naḥman said: Diphtheria.

Context: This is from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot, which is about the custom of “yibbum”, where a widow marries her brother-in-law in order to have a kid accorded to her husband’s name. This text is commenting on a mishnah that says you no longer have to fulfill the commandment of “be fruitful and multiply” if you already have a kid (or possibly a boy and a girl). In this sugya (section), it says that a baraita (text that didn’t make it into the Mishnah) says that according to Rabbi Joshua actually you need to keep having kids even after you’ve had some, and if your wife dies you should marry again and have more into your old age. He supports this with a verse about sowing seeds in the morning and in the evening because you don’t know how each of them will turn out. Rabbi Akiba doesn’t think that Rabbi Joshua is right (nor does the Gemara); since in the Gemara people have to deal with the evidence presented by those they disagree with, this text expounds Rabbi Akiba’s interpretation of the verse Rabbi Joshua cites.

What happens in this text?Jerusalem Talmud Ta’anit 24a:1

R’ Shimon bar Yochai taught: R’ Akiva explained the verse “a star (kochav) comes forth from Yaakov” as Kosiba comes forth from Yaakov. When R’ Akiva would see Bar Kosiba he would declare ‘this is the king messiah!’ R’ Yochanan ben Torta said to him: Akiva, grass will grow from your cheeks and still the son of David will not have come!

Context: This is from the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit, which is about fasting. The mishnah that it is commenting on (Ta’anit 4:6) is a classic Tisha B’Av and Seventeenth of Tammuz text about calamities on those days and therefore the reasons why we fast on those days. One of the things that happened on the 9th of Av is the fall of Beitar, which effectively ended the Bar-Kochba Revolt in 135 CE. This text is part of Rabbi Akiba’s thoughts on that subject. Incidentally, the “Seder” in B’nai Brak that we read about in the Haggadah was probably more revolutionary than it seems from a surface read.

Given how Rabbi Akiba felt about Bar-Kochba, and given that the Talmud sometimes speaks cryptically, how might his students have died?Epistle of Rav Sherira Gaon 1:9

R’ Akiva gave himself over to execution after R’ Yosi ben Kisma died. R’ Chanina ben Tradiyon was also killed and wisdom diminished after they passed. R’ Akiva raised up many students, but a religious persecution waged against his students…

Context: This is from a responsa written by Rav Sherira Gaon, the head of a Babylonian academy, to a query from a Tunisian community in 986. The question was about how the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud came to be. The response is the first use of a historical lens on the Talmud.

What does Rav Sherira Gaon’s explanation for the demise of Rabbi Akiba’s students support in our understanding of why they might have died?

Meiri, Tractate Yevamot 62b

There is a received tradition from the Geonim that on the 33rd day of the Omer, the deaths (of the students of R. Akivah) stopped...and we also have the custom not to get married from Pesach until this time

Context: The Meiri, Rabbi Menahem Meiri, was a Spanish rabbi who lived from 1249-1315. He wrote a commentary on the Talmud. The Geonim were the heads of the Babylonian academies from the 500s to the 1000s. They were the first ones to start interpreting the Babylonian Talmud. Apparently the Geonim had a tradition that the “plague” stopped at “Atzeret”, which they took to mean “16 days before Shavuot”.

Other possible explanations for why Lag BaOmer became a day of celebration include that there was a lull in the fighting during the Bar-Kochba rebellion, or that possibly they captured Jerusalem on this day in 132 CE, or that Rabbi Akiba “ordained” the 5 rabbis on Lag BaOmer, thus ensuring that Jewish tradition would continue to be taught. Additionally, the Byzantine Emperor Julian tried to rebuild the Third Temple, but an earthquake in 363 CE stopped him and that supposedly happened on this day.

Which explanation resonates with you the most?

For more about Lag BaOmer, including the connection to laser-eyed rabbis, bows and arrows, and bonfires, please visit the longer version of this sheet here:

With thanks to: Benjamin Adler, Dovid Birk, Rena Ableman, Eliana Willis, Rabbi Claude Vecht-Wolf, Rabbi Andrew Pepperstone, Sara Wolkenfeld, Joseph Ravitsky, David Schlusselberg, Shaul Wertheimer, Sefaria Education, Sarah