Excerpted from Rabbi Haim Jachter’s Bridging Traditions: Demystifying Differences Between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books
For many Jews, Lag B’Omer is the day we’ve all been waiting for! Finally, men can shave and take a haircut! Why, then, do my Sephardic male neighbors wait until the next day, the thirty-fourth day in the omer to have their hair cut?1
Day 33 vs. Day 34
The difference in practice is due to differing rulings of Maran Rav Yosef Karo and the Rama. Rav Karo rules (Shulĥan Aruch, Oraĥ Ĥayim 493:2) that haircuts are permitted only on the thirty-fourth day of the omer, whereas the Rama permits taking a haircut on Lag B’Omer itself. Rav Ovadia Yosef insists that Sephardic Jews adhere to the ruling of Maran and refrain from weddings and haircutting until the thirty-fourth of the omer (Teshuvot Yabia Omer 3: Oraĥ Ĥayim 26; Teshuvot Yeĥaveh Da’at 4:32), and Rav Ovadia Hadaya (Teshuvot Yaskil Avdi 6: Oraĥ Ĥayim 6) arrives at the same conclusion.
The Mishna Berura (493:8, citing the Vilna Gaon) explains that the dispute hinges upon a debate as to the date of the last death among Rabbi Akiva’s twenty-four thousand talmidim.
The variety in customs is presented in the Sefer HaManhig, a classic twelfth century compilation of the halachic practices of France, Provence, and Spain, which records: “There is a minhag in France and Provence to begin marrying from Lag B’Omer and onwards.” This is the basis of the Ashkenazic practice. The Manhig continues:
And I heard in the name of Rav Zeraĥia of Gerona, who found an old manuscript from Sepharad [that notes that the students of Rabbi Akiva] died “from Pesaĥ until P’ros HaAtzeret.”What is P’ros? Half of a month – fifteen days before Shavuot.2 This is Lag Ba’Omer.
Since fifteen days before Shavuot is the thirty-fourth day of the omer, Maran Rav Yosef Karo rules that one should continue practicing minhagei avelut through the morning of the thirty-fourth day.
The Practice of the Ari Z”l
The Sha’arei Teshuva (493:8) cites the Ari z”l, who advances a much different approach. The Ari z”l views the entire omer period as a period of judgment and as a type of “Ĥol HaMo’ed” between the festivals of Pesaĥ and Shavuot.3 He therefore holds that one may not cut his hair or shave throughout the entire omer period, until Erev Shavuot. The Yalkut Yosef (493:16), however, rules that only those special individuals who always follow kabbalistic practices adopt this practice. Most Sephardic Jews take haircuts beginning from the thirty-fourth day of the omer.4
Rav Mordechai Lebhar (Magen Avot, Oraĥ Ĥayim 493) records that many Jews from North Africa take haircuts on Lag B’Omer, despite this being contrary to the ruling of the Shulĥan Aruch. Rav Lebhar defends this practice in part based on a comment of the great Sephardic posek the Peri Ĥadash (Oraĥ Ĥayim 493:2). The Peri Ĥadash notes the incongruity of refraining from Taĥanun and celebrating on Lag B’Omer on the one hand and continuing to mourn the loss of Rabbi Akiva’s students until the thirty-fourth day of the omer on the other.
It is notable that only the Rama, and not Maran Rav Yosef Karo, records that Taĥanun is omitted due to the celebration that occurs on Lag B’Omer. One could argue that once Sephardic Jews adopted the kabbalistic practice to celebrate Lag B’Omer, they terminate the mourning for Rabbi Akiva’s talmidim on that date as well.5 This would be one of a number of kabbalistic practices that Sephardic Jews have embraced despite their being contrary to the ruling of the Shulĥan Auch.6
Rav Ovadia Yosef might respond that the two matters are not related to one another. The mourning for Rabbi Akiva’s talmidim continues until the thirty-fourth of the omer, while the celebration of the great contributions of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yoĥai occurs on the thirty-third day of the omer.7
As usual, the practices regarding the date on which haircutting is permitted are diverse. At Shaarei Orah, I advise men to wait until the thirty-fourth day of the omer to take a haircut, except if they originate from North Africa. I advise men whose family stems from North Africa to consult their parents as to their family custom.
1. Sephardic women are permitted to cut their hair during the omer (Yalkut Yosef, Oraĥ Ĥayim 493:18). They are permitted to do so even during sheloshim after the death of a relative (Shulĥan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 390:5).
2. The phrase “P’ros HaAtzeret” appears in the mishna (Shekalim 3:1; Bechorot 9:5) and means fifteen days before Shavuot.
3. A similar idea is expressed by the Ramban in his commentary to the Torah (Vayikra 23:36).
4. The practice of some Ashkenazic Jews (especially German Jews) to refrain from haircutting from Rosh Ĥodesh Iyar until three days before Shavuot is recorded by the Rama but is not practiced by Sephardic Jews. This practice stems from combining mourning for the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students with mourning for the Jews slaughtered in Germany during the Crusades. This practice did not reach Sephardic Jewry, since this tragic event did not transpire in Sephardic lands.
The historical circumstances also explain why Ashkenazic Jews recite Av HaRaĥamim before Musaf, while Sephardic Jews do not; this prayer mourns the tragic losses experienced by French and German Jewry during the Crusades. Similarly, on Tisha B’Av, Sephardic Jews do not recite Kinot relating to the Crusades. In turn, there are Kinot in the Sephardic liturgy that mourn the Spanish Inquisition, which, not surprisingly, are not recited by Ashkenazic Jews.
5. Similarly, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe, Oraĥ Ĥayim 1:159) presumes that Sephardic Jews cut their hair on Lag B’Omer based on the celebrations in which Sephardic engage on Lag B’Omer.
6. Another example is Sephardic enthusiastic embrace of the kaparot custom of Erev Yom Kippur. Compare the Shulĥan Aruch’s rejection of kaparot (Oraĥ Ĥayim 605:1) with the embrace of this practice by the Ari z”l (cited in Ba’er Hetev 605:1). The Yalkut Yosef (Oraĥ Ĥayim 605) devotes a full discussion of the halachot surrounding kaparot, fully endorsing the practice.
7. Not coincidentally, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai was one of the five students taught by Rabbi Akiva after the last of his original 24,000 talmidim perished (Yevamot 62b).