Why do we mourn during the Sefira? Are these days considered days of judgement? What shouldn’t be done as a result? Why do we say the Av Harachmim prayer even on Shabbos Mevarchim and when no tachanun is recited? And what do the mourning practices include? Which marriages are permitted in this period, and why? Can music be played? Is there a difference between dancing alone or in a group? And what about a hachnosas Sefer Torah? Can music be played at a bris, bar mitzva or siyum? Can a music teacher play or teach music? Can music be played to cheer up the ill? Can new clothing be purchased during this period? And what about new furniture or a new car? Are ladies permitted to take haircuts?
Reason for Mourning
The Gemara (Yevamos 62b) outlines the reason for mourning during the sefira: “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.” This tragic plague left the Torah world bereft and desolate – all the Torah scholars had passed away and there were no more disciples to transmit the Torah. But Hashem had mercy on Am Yisroel and Rabbi Akiva found five new students and taught them Torah. Those students ensured the Torah’s continued transmission: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda Bar Ilay, Rabbi Yosi, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and Rabbi Elazar Ben Shamoa. The Geonim write (Shut Hageonim Sha’arei Teshuva 288, HaOra L’Rashi, volume 1 chapter 92 and others) that the entire nation accepted the days as days of mourning in commemoration of this disaster.
Days of Judgement
The Shibolei Haleket (Chapter 238) offers another reason for refraining from marrying during these days. He writes that the time period is a dangerous one, opportune for disasters just as the one which struck Rabbi Akiva’s students. The Shevus Ya’akov notes (volume II, chapter 35) that once, when a rabbi permitted a marriage during these days, the marriage fell through. He encourages rabbonim to forbid marriages in these days because we are more scrupulous with danger than with other prohibitions. He adds (ibid) another reason for stringency (also noted in the Tanya, chapter 3): the judgment for the wicked takes place in Gehenom during his time, and these days are not days fit for rejoicing. Other sources add (Rabbenu Yerucham, netiv 5, 4; the Arizal chapter 78, sha’ar 24, 7) that these days are days of judgement. Therefore, people shouldn’t get married in this time nor should they cut their hair. The Aruch Hashulchan (OC chapter 493:1) proves it from history: the Crusades and other murderous killings in France and Germany all occurred during his time period. In modern times, the Hungarian Holocaust that wiped out nearly half of the Jewish population occurred during these few weeks.
Av Harachamim on Shabbos
The Av Harachmim prayer is not usually recited on a Shabbos Mevorchim (the Shabbos that precedes Rosh Chodesh). However, since this prayer was written in memory of the Jewish communities on the Rhine which were destroyed in the Crusades during these weeks, the Mishna Brura writes (284:18) that this prayer is recited every Shabbos during the Sefira, even on Shabbos Mevorchim or at any other occasion that would otherwise cancel tachanun (Bris Mila, Nissan, or Shabbos Rosh Chodesh).
The Shulchan Aruch (OC 493) mentions two activities prohibited during the Sefira: marrying and taking a haircut. The Mishna Brura clarifies (footnote 1) that the prohibition only pertains to marrying a new wife. Remarrying one’s own divorcee is permitted during the Sefira because there is less joy involved.
The Shulchan Aruch continues that while marriage is forbidden, signing an engagement contract is permitted. Even performing kiddushin (giving a ring and saying “Harei at…”) is permitted to prevent another from interceding in the match. While the prohibition to marry includes refraining from any rejoicing, since postponing finalizing a match can lead to a break in the relationship, it is permitted to get engaged and have a party to celebrate it. In the next section we will lay out the details of the various simcha functions and ways to celebrate them.
Engagement Parties and Other Celebrations
The Shulchan Aruch permits celebrating an engagement, and the Mishna Brura (footnote 3) adds that serving a meal in honor of the occasion is also permitted, albeit without dancing. While music is customarily forbidden (Hilchos Chag B’Chag, chapter 7:33), those who are lenient shouldn’t be reprimanded.
In light of the above, Rav Elyashiv (Hilchos Chag B’CHag, chapter 7:10 and others) rules that dancing at a hachnosas Sefer Torah is permitted, as well as playing music at a bris, for those who would do so all year round. Apparently, dancing and playing music at a siyum which is also a seudas mitzva, is permitted if one is used to doing so all year round.
For a bar mitzva, however, which is a seudas mitzva of lower stature — more like an engagement party — dancing isn’t permitted (Halichos Shlomo, Nissan chapter 11). Some halachic authorities, though, do permit playing music (Siddur Pesach Kehilchaso chapter 12:14). Where music is necessary to heighten the bar mitzva boy’s appreciation of Torah and mitzvos it is certainly permitted.
Dancing and music at an event or dinner to benefit tzedakah or a Torah institute is forbidden (Igros Moshe, OC 1:161; Minchas Yitzchok 1:111). Dancing, both alone and in a group, is prohibited.
While dancing for reasons other than those mentioned above is certainly forbidden during these days, playing music remains a question.
The Aruch Hashulchan (OC 493:2) opines that wherever dancing is forbidden, music is forbidden as well. The Minchas Yitzchok provides two explanations for this: 1) In his opinion playing music is even more prohibited than dancing without music. Therefore, wherever dancing is forbidden, music is certainly forbidden. And secondly, 2) even if dancing could be more prohibited than playing music and the Rishonim only forbade dancing, not music, since today it is accepted to refrain from music, since a custom has the same halachic status as a neder (a vow or oath) music is forbidden.
The Igros Moshe (OC 1:161; YD 2:137) rules that listening to music is forbidden during the Sefira even for a private person alone in his house because listening to music is excessive simcha which is forbidden during these days.
As to playing music for children, the Igros Moshe writes (OC 4, 21:4) that from the age of chinuch (children of the age who can understand the meaning of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples’ death and consecutive mourning) children should not listen to music.
Playing music is permitted in the following cases:
1) For pay: the Mishna Brura (Biur Halacha 551:2) permits playing music for a living between the 17th of Tamuz and Rosh Chodesh Av. The Sefira is no more severe.
2) For the infirm: Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halichos Shlomo, Pesach 11:54) and Rabbi Nissim Karelitz (33:18) write that playing music for a sick person to lift up his spirits is permitted. Rav Chayim Kanievsky rules (Hilchos Chag B’chag, Sfiras Haomer 7:10) that music can be played for a psychiatric patient who needs music to calm down, without dancing.
3) Using song for teaching a musar lesson is permitted since is not for the purpose of rejoicing (Chut Shani, Shabbos IV, Kovetz Inyanim p.79).
The Igros Moshe qualifies the music (I, 161) prohibition: a singer without a band singing over the radio is considered singing, and permitted. But a song that has musical accompaniment is considered music, and forbidden.
The Ma’amar Mordechai (OC 493:2) writes that while many people customarily refrain from reciting Shehecheyanu during these days, there is no source forbidding it. However, the Pachad Yitzchok (Omer) quotes the Be’er Esek and Sifrei Drashos who forbid wearing new clothing so as not to recite a Shehecheyanu during a period of mourning, despite it being permitted. Others, though, disagree and write there is no need for this custom (Divrei Malkiel III, chapter 13; Kaf Hachayim OC 493:4).
The Mishna Brura rules (493:2) that practically, if the opportunity to recite the blessing presents itself, reciting Shehecheyanu is permitted. The Chut Hashani explains (Shabbos IV, Kovetz Inyanim p.379) that if one has various possibilities when to recite Shehecheyanu, he should not choose to recite it during these times. For example, one who plans on buying a new sofa or suit should not purposely leave the purchase for these days. However, if one’s sofa happens to be delivered during the Sefira, there is no obligation to postpone the delivery or refrain from using it and reciting Shehecheyanu.
Nevertheless, many poskim (Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Yitzchok Yikra 493:1; Rabbi Ben Tzion Aba Shaul, Ohr Letzion III, 17:2; Rabbi Chaim Kaniyevsky, Bein Pesach L’shavuos 16:1) maintain that the Mishna Brura means that even planning a Shehecheyanu during these days is permitted. Therefore, one is permitted to buy new clothing or fruit and recite a Shehecheyanu on them.
Purchasing and using small items and clothing for which no Shehecheyanu is recited is certainly permitted because the only reason to refrain from them is because of the blessing (Pachad Yitzchak, Omer; Divrei Malkiel III:13).
Additionally, a new house or piece of furniture that will be used by multiple people, for which the blessing HaTov V’Hameitiv is recited as opposed to Shehecheyanu can certainly be purchased and used (Siddur Haya’avetz Bein Hameitzarim; Sha’arei Teshuva 591:18; Chut Shani, ibid) even between the 17th of Tammuz and Rosh Chodesh Av. The prohibition is not connected to the joy of using a new item or reciting a blessing but to the inappropriateness of saying “Shehecheyanu v’kiyemanu — who has granted us life and sustained us and allowed/let us [to] arrive at this Time” during mourning. The prohibition to rejoice with a new purchase only applies to The Nine Days between Rosh Chodesh Av and Tisha B’Av.
For those who customarily refrain from purchasing new clothing during these days, where there is a simcha such as for the Shabbos before a wedding on Lag B’Omer, Bris, Pidyon Haben, or Bar Mitzva when people buy and wear their new clothing, Rabbi Nissim Karelitz writes (Chut Hashani, Yad B’sfrias H’Omer 34:6-7) that doing so is permitted.
The Shevet Halevi ( 10: 135:3) discusses the appropriate time for moving into a new house. He writes that if possible, it is preferable to wait until Lag B’Omer or after Rosh Chodesh Sivan. Where necessary, one can be lenient and move in any day after Lag B’Omer or before Rosh Chodesh Iyar depending on his minhag. He adds, that if one has to move in the first three weeks of Iyar he should recite several chapters of Tehilim that discuss Hashem’s mercy when he moves in and dedicate his abode to serve as a Torah home for performing mitzvos and living a life of Yiras Shomayim. As for purchasing a home he writes that if it is necessary to do so during the Sefira it is permitted, especially in Eretz Yisroel where there is a mitzva to buy property.
However, Rav Elyashiv (Hilchos Chag B’chag, chapter 7:26) opines there is no reason to refrain from moving during the Sefira, and Rabbi Chaim Kaniyevsky (ibid) cites his father, the Steipler, that people mistakenly confuse the mourning on the Churban with that of the Sefira.
The Igros Moshe writes (YD II 137) that for ladies there is room for leniency, however practically, where there is no great need, one should be scrupulous. And the Ohr Letzion (III, 17:3) writes that there is no prohibition whatsoever for ladies to have a haircut during these days.
The Mishna Brura writes that while there is a prohibition to take a haircut during these days, there are several reasons to permit it (Biur Halacha 193:2): a freshly freed prison inmate, even if he had permission to take a haircut in jail; one who was excommuned by rabbonim and forbidden to take a haircut and was just released from it; one who took a vow (neder) not to take a haircut and just had his neder revoked.
Other mourning customs are not relevant to this time period. Therefore, washing for pleasure, nail cutting, laundry, etc, while forbidden during The Nine Days, is permitted during the Sefira. Even those who are scrupulous not to move into a new apartment during this time are permitted to paint their house (Chut Shani Shabbos, IV; Kovetz M’beis Levi, Piskei Chodesh Nissan p. 88).
Dancing, Music and Haircuts
There are various customs regarding to the period in the Sefira to refrain from marrying, take a haircut, listen to music, or dance. The Mishna Brura (Sha’ar Hatzion footnote 4) is undecided if dancing is permitted at the same time when marrying and haircutting is permitted. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halichos Shlomo, Nissan 11:15) writes that one should be scrupulous not to dance during the entire Sefira, but Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Karp (Hilchos Chag b’Chag, Sefiras Ha’omer 7:10) differentiates maintains that while dancing is forbidden, listening to music is permitted.