Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig
e-mail yosil@MNSi.net

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Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:1 - 20:27
Haftorah - Ezekial 44:15-31

This coming Tuesday, May 4th, we will celebrate Lag B'Omer (the 33 day of the Omer - a period of counting 49 days from the 2nd night of Pesach [Passover] through the eve of the Shavu'ot festival [Pentecost]), a minor holiday that is full of joy, charm and mystery.

In this week's Parsha we find the commandment of both the Omer offering (Vayikra 23:9-14) and the Omer counting: "You shall count for yourselves - from the morrow of the rest day [Pesach], from the day that you bring the Omer of the waving - they shall be seven complete weeks..."
(Vayikra 23:15)

Therefore we count each day and each week until the seven weeks are completed which leads directly into the festival of Shavu'ot.

There is another aspect to the counting that is essential to the process of our counting. The Zohar Chadash teaches:
"When the B'nai Yisrael were in Egypt, they became defiled by all manner of impurity until they sank to the 49th level of spiritual impurity. The Holy One Blessed Be He, delivered them out of slavery and invested them with 49 degrees of purity."
Thus, on each of the 49 days between Pesach and Shavu'ot, the Children of Israel ascended a level until they stood before Mt Sinai spiritually cleansed of the impurities of their Egyptian existence.

So too, we count and we simulate this experience into our own lives, striving to elevate ourselves each day of each week, for 49 days, in order to elevate ourselves to be worthy of accepting the Torah from a position of increased purity. In many Siddurim (prayer books) within the prayers of the Omer counting, we find mention of 7 Kabbalistic Sefirot (qualities or powers), that in turn have 7 related elements, and that together (7 X 7) equal the 49 levels of purification. Every evening at the counting, we mention a particular part of these 49 elements and we strive to acknowledge and perfect that aspect of our personalities.

One of the main features of the Omer period is also a 33 day mourning period associated with this time. The Talmud relates a perplexing story: "Rebbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students [throughout Eretz Yisrael], and they all passed away [in a plague] because they did not show each other respect ['Kavod'].... They all passed away [during 33 days] between Pesach and Shavu'ot, and the world was barren until Rebbi Akiva approached [a new set of 5 students] and taught them Torah...." (Gemara Yevamot 62b)

A 33 day mourning period was rabbinically imposed forbidding certain forms of rejoicing, shaving, getting haircuts, listening to music and by association - getting married. But which 33 days are considered the days of mourning?

Some Jews (mostly Sefaradim [Jews from Spanish and Middle-Eastern descent]) hold that the first 33 days of the Omer is the mourning period. Other's (mostly Ashkenazim [Jews from German and European descent] hold from the new month of Iyar until the 3rd day of Sivan (3 days before Shavu'ot). I personally accept the theory of the MaHaRYL (acronym for Moraynu HaRav Yehoshua Leib [our teacher, the Rabbi Joshua Leib Diskin], Brisk, Lithuania and Jerusalem - 1818-1898) who claims:
..."none died during the holiest 17 of the 50 days-- the 7 Sabbaths, the 6 days of Pesach, Isru Chag [the day after Pesach], and the 3 days of Rosh Chodesh [the new moons]! So only 33 days were set for mourning."

One mystery that we still have is in the Talmud's statement: "they all passed away because they did not show each other respect." We must acknowledge that Rebbi Akiva's 12,000 pairs of students were not just university students who were just searching for themselves in his Yeshiva. Rebbi Akiva's students were Tanaim (rabbis of the Mishnaic period) and we must assume that they were not subject to whims of impropriety. These were men of great culture and refinement. So what does it mean when it says that "they did not show each other respect?"

Most answers that I have heard have not satisfied me. I went to a study session in Cleveland, Ohio during Pesach and heard a Rabbi Margereten deliver a talk on the subject. He said (I think in the name of Rav Aharon Kutler ZT"L [dean of the famous Lakewood, New Jersey Yeshiva [1892-1962]) that the 12,000 pairs of students actually loved each very much but at times allowed that love to become too familiar. If they were agitated or excited, they would take out their frustrations on their study partner, similar to what we do to our spouses and children. They disrespected each other in the name of love, which made their Torah worthless.

At this time in our history, the Roman occupation of Israel had all but destroyed our Jewish heritage. Rebbi Akiva, through clandestine means and great sacrifice continued to teach Torah with a death penalty looming overhead. Yet, because of their lack of respect (what ever that means), their Torah was considered unworthy of transmission to future generations and they died of a plague that was Divinely rooted (If you consider this incomprehensible, review that Parshiot of TAZRIYA-METZORAH which discusses a disease similar to leprosy that was caused by Lashon Harah - gossip).

After they died Rebbi Akiva chose 5 students: R' Meir; R' Yehuda bar Ila'i; R' Shimon bar Yochai (who died on Lag B'Omer and who is buried in Meron the site of the great Lag B'Omer celebration in Israel); R' Yosi ben Chalafta; and R' Elazar ben Shamu'a.

Practically all of the Torah that has been transmitted to us today (Mishna, Zohar, Midrash, Sifri, Sifra, etc.), are the products of these five students of Rebbi Akiva. Can you imagine what knowledge we would have if the 12,000 pairs of students lived?

I find it strange that during the time of the writing of the Talmud, when all kinds of information is being transmitted, that the question of which 33 days of mourning is left without a clearly defined answer.

Going back to the issue of the 33 days, problems could arise when there is a conflict between Jews of differing Minhagim (customs). Let's say that I held that the latter 33 days were the days of mourning and I was marrying off a child during the first few days of the Omer. Among my guests to the wedding are Jews who held that the first 33 days are the days of mourning. Are they allowed to attend the wedding?

I heard from one Rabbi (I can't remember who) that Halachikally (legally) a Jew IS allowed to attend another's wedding during this time period, because, respect for others is a Tikkun (repair) of the shortcomings of Rebbi Akiva's students.

Torah Is Torah and Halacha is Halacha but we must always show respect for one another which makes our Torah and our Halacha worthy of continuing for generations to come.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig

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