Originally, the period of the sefirah was far from being a time of mourning. As the build up to Shavuos, it is considered by the Ramban as an extended Chol Hamo’ed (joining the festivals of Pesach and Shavuos)—a time of joy rather than of sadness.
Yet, because the death of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples occurred during the time period between Pesach and Atzeret, the joy of the time is marred, and the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 493) rules that a number of activities are customarily prohibited during this period. Specifically, two prohibitions are mentioned: weddings are not made during the sefirah, and haircuts are not taken.
Is there also a prohibition on listening to music?
Dancing and Music
The Magen Avraham (551:10) rules that one may not engage in dancing during the sefirah, without mentioning music or singing.
Yet, many authorities extend the prohibition to listening to music, and the Aruch Hashulchan (Orach Chaim 493:2) writes that if dancing is prohibited, music is certainly forbidden. This position is upheld by Rav Yitzchak Yaakov Weiss (Minchas Yitzchak 1:111), who mentions a number of proofs to the effect that music involves greater joy and a more intense means of celebration than dancing.
The Force of the Custom
The main source for this prohibition is custom. As Rav Shmuel Wozner writes (teshuvah published in Eleh Hem Moadai, Vol. 4, no. 96), the widespread custom is to avoid all music in the sefirah time, adding in no uncertain terms that one may not be lenient in this matter.
Before we move on to possible leniencies concerning music in the Omer period, it is worth noting that the halachic force of a ‘custom’ should not be snubbed at. Indeed, all poskim, spanning the entire spectrum of halachic Judaism, concur that one may not listen to music during the Omer period (for instance, see: Yecheveh Daas Vol. 3, no. 30, Vol. 6, no. 34; Mishnah Halachos Vol. 8, no. 188; Hilchos Chagim of Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, Chap. 20, no. 47).
Rav Yitzchak Yaakov Weiss suggests that on account of the custom, it is possible that listening to music would even be a Torah prohibition. This is because the force of custom might form a neder, a binding vow. He proves further that this type of prohibition can even be passed on from one generation to the next, deriving his contention by citing a responsum of the Chasam Sofer (Yoreh De’ah 107) concerning chalav akum.
Furthermore, although following Lag Ba’Omer (according to the common custom) it is permitted to take haircuts, the Eliyah Rabba (493:1) expresses a safek over whether dancing—and by the same token, music—is permitted during this time.
Indeed, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach stated that the custom is to be stringent (quoted in Bein Pesach Le-Shavuos, Chap. 15), and it is therefore forbidden to listen to music throughout the Omer period (with the exception of Lag Ba’Omer), even on days when haircuts may be taken. A number of calamities that befell the Jewish people during this time are also quoted as being further sources for the customary mourning practices.
It is thus clear that the lack of ancient sources that discuss the matter did not prevent modern authorities from issuing a forceful prohibition on music in the Omer. Having said this, there are a number of leniencies that should be taken into account.
Possible Leniencies: Vocals and Classical Music
The approach taken by Rav Moshe Feinstein (Vol. 1, no. 166) is particularly interesting. After discussing the general prohibition on music, he writes that there are little grounds for permitting instrument music throughout the year. He continues by stating that even if one is lenient during the year, he should at least observe the halachah properly during the sefirah period.
Based on this approach, there is room to suggest leniency concerning listening to vocal singing, without musical accompaniment, during the Omer period.
As discussed, even the stringent opinion of the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch concedes that during the year one may listen to vocal singing, if unaccompanied by music. It stands to reason that one may hear and sing this type of music during the sefirah period. Indeed, this argument is reflected in the words of Rav Feinstein, who concludes: “In days of the sefirah it is prohibited, even according to lenient opinions, to listen to instrumental music.”
Along similar lines, further leniencies are mentioned by Rav Eliyahu Schlesinger, in his Shoalin Vedorshin (Vol. 4, Chapter 37). Based on the assumption that music in the Omer period is no more stringent than the year-long prohibition of music, he explains that the prohibition does not apply to recordings of soothing or emotional music.
As mentioned, poskim derive the prohibition on music in the from the Magen Avraham’s ruling concerning dancing. It stands to reason that this derivation applies specifically to joy- or dance-inducing music, and not to classical/slow music. Furthermore, the Maharam Schick (Yoreh De’ah 368) ruled that in principle it would be permitted to listen to sad music during a personal aveilus period. It is reasonable to apply this distinction to the Omer period, and thereby permit ‘sad’/slow music.
For these reasons, and also based on a verbal ruling of Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Schlesinger ruled that a religious radio station may play such music during the Omer period.
Additional Leniencies for Music
Poskim mention a number of additional leniencies with regard to playing and listening to music:
- It is permitted for somebody whose livelihood depends on playing musical instruments to play music (to practice or for goyim) during the Omer period. As Rav Moshe Feinstein writes (Iggros Moshe, Orach Chaim Vol. 3, no. 87), it is permitted to study music, or to teach music, when one does so for reasons related to one’s livelihood, and not for pleasure (see also Seder Pesach Kehilchaso, Chap. 12, no. 16; Tzitz Eliezer Vol. 16, no. 19).
- Many poskim write that it is permitted to play music at the celebratory feast of a mitzvah, such as the occasion of a bris, the inauguration of a Sefer Torah, a pidyon ha-ben, a siyum maseches, and so on (Sheyarei Kenesses Hagedolah, Orach Chaim 551, Glosses to Beis Yosef no. 33; Shut Chaim Shaal Vol. 1, no. 21; Iggros Moshe, Orach Chaim vol. 2, no. 95 and Even Ha-Ezer 1:97; Yecheveh Daas Vol. 6, no. 34). See also Teshuvos Vehanhagos (Vol. 5, no. 338), who makes a distinction in this regard (concerning music at a sheva berachos) between the Omer period and the mourning period of the Three Weeks.
Note that the leniency only applies to a true seudas mitzvah, and music may not be played at an engagement party, even though there is something of a mitzvah involved in bringing the parties together (based on Magen Avraham 493:2 and Mishnah Berurah 493:3 concerning dancing).
However, some poskim are stringent concerning this matter (see Minchas Yitzchak Vol. 1, no. 111, quoting from Daas Kedoshim).
- It is likewise permitted to play music for the purpose of calming a young child (who has not reached the age of chinuch), or for calming and soothing the sick (Shut Devar Shalom, Vol. 4, no. 80; Nitei Gavriel, Pesach Vol. 3, Chap. 53, no. 5, 7). It is likewise permitted to listen to music while driving, if the purpose of the music is to keep the driver alert to his environment. One should preferably play slow (classical or other) music, and not dance music.
Listening to Recorded Music
According to many authorities, there is no distinction between recorded and live music. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggros Moshe, ibid) thus writes (concerning the issue of music for the year round) that a recording has the same status as the original: Recorded voice has the status of vocals, whereas recorded music has the status of music. This is also the ruling of Rav Shmuel Wozner (Shevet Halevi 2:57; 6:69).
Some, however, treat recordings with greater stringency than live singing, and write that because electronic device is also considered an instrument. Based on this assumption, even recorded vocals are considered ‘listening to music,’ and would be prohibited (see Tzitz Eliezer 15:33; Shevet Halevi 8:127).
A more lenient possibility is suggested by Rav Yaakov Breisch (Chelkas Yaakov 1:62), who makes an interesting distinction between recorded music and music on the radio. He suggests that while recorded music may be prohibited on the grounds that the music player is considered an instrument, a radio cannot be called an instrument, and is therefore not included in the general (year round) prohibition on music. The general custom does not follow this leniency.
In last week’s article, we saw a number of opinions concerning whether one may listen to instrumental music during the year. The Shulchan Aruch follows the opinion of the Rambam, and prohibits listening to instrumental music. The Rema adopts a more lenient approach, and permits listening to music on an occasional basis, with the exception of a party where wine if offered. In practice, many have adopted the Rema’s lenient approach.
In a similar sense as the general custom ‘permits’ music during the year, it likewise prohibits music during the Omer period. As Iggros Moshe writes, for several weeks a year we return to the original prohibition on music, and the prohibition of listening to music in the Omer period is mentioned by virtually all modern-day poskim.
This does not mean that exceptions for soothing and calming music, for purposes of a mitzvah, and for earning a living, cannot be made.