The days between Passover and Shavuot are known as the days of the Omer. These 49 days are counted as we anxiously await the 50th day – Shavuot – when we commemorate the giving of the Torah.
It is interesting to note that the Torah itself does not explicitly state that Shavuot is the day on which the Torah was given. Rather, the counting is directed towards a date of agricultural significance — new fruits would bebrought to Jerusalem on Shavuot. On the other hand, the understanding that this day is indeed the day of Revelation is based on simple mathematics, implicit in the narrative.1
The Torah successfully merges pedestrian, mundane activity with deep theological constructs.
The Torah successfully merges pedestrian, mundane activity with deep theological constructs. While from man’s perspective the harvest may be the impetus for joy, the Torah stresses that these first fruits must be brought within a religious context. Thus, the counting in Temple times between Passover and Shavuot had a dual component, sacred and mundane, each independently a reason to rejoice.
Be that as it may, in the contemporary religious collective experience, these are seen as days of mourning. No weddings or other public expressions of joy are celebrated.
DEATH OF RABBI AKIVA’S STUDENTS
The accepted explanation for this transformation of a joyful period into a time of mourning is the demise of the students of Rabbi Akiva:
The practice is not to get married between Passover and Shavuot – until Lag B’Omer, because during this time the students of Rabbi Akiva perished. (Shulchan Aruch section 493:1)
This reference in the “Shulchan Aruch” to a well-established custom makes the link with the tragic story of Rabbi Akiva’s students who died during this time of the year:
It was said that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbatha to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: “All of them died between Passover and Shavuot”.Rabbi Hama ben Abba or, it might be said, Rabbi Hiyya ben Abin said: “All of them died a cruel death.” What was it? Rabbi Nahman replied: “Croup.” (Yevamot 62b)2
The Talmud speaks of 12,000 “pairs” of students and not of 24,000, ostensibly in order to stress the lack of unity of which they were guilty. The Talmud does not mention that their deaths are commemorated with the yearly mourning period of the Omer. And so, while the authority of switching a biblically happy time into a time of mourning is said to be based on a passage in the Talmud, the Talmud tells a sad tale but does not draw this all-important conclusion.
The Jewish people left Egypt on Passover, and 50 days later (on the holiday of Shavuot) received the Torah at Mount Sinai. Today, in revisiting that Sinai experience, we observe a special mitzvah called “Counting the Omer,” where we actually count aloud each of these days, beginning on the second night of Passover. (The Omer was a special offering brought to the Holy Temple during this season.)
Counting in anticipation of an exciting event is quite understandable. At one time or another, we’ve all probably said something like, “Grandma’s coming to visit in a week and a half,” or “Only 17 more days til my birthday!” But there’s one subtle difference: The usual method is to count down toward the big day, whereas in the case of the Omer, we count up ― from one to 50. Why the difference?
To understand, we first need to answer a more basic question: Why did G-d wait 50 days after the Jews left Egypt before giving the Torah? Why didn’t He simply give it to them in Egypt, or immediately after their departure?
The answer is that the Jews were not yet spiritually equipped to receive the Torah. For over 200 years, they had been living in an Egyptian society known to be the world center for immorality and vice. Even without direct Jewish participation, these influences nonetheless permeated the air and seeped into their consciousness.