According to the generally accepted version, 24,000 of the original b’nei Akiva died during these weeks and their death is commemorated in the custom to refrain from occasions of celebration or entertainment during part of the Omer, with the exception of the 33rd day, Lag Ba’Omer, when the plague is said to have ceased.
One of the few major studies of the avoidance of marriages during the Omer was published by Dr Asher Asher in the London Jewish Chronicle in 1885 and subsequently in booklet form. Dr Asher is adamant in his judgment that “the usually received conclusion that marriages do not take place during the Omer on account of a plague which raged among the pupils of Rabbi Akiva is one I think which will hardly bear investigation”. He argues the plague is only incidentally mentioned in the Talmud and Midrash.
The number of victims varies widely in each source. In Y’vamot 62b it is 24,000, in B’reshit Rabba 61 and K’tuvot 63a it is 12,000, in Nedarim 50a it is 48,000, and in Midrash Tanchuma Chayyei Sarah it is reduced to a mere 300. Neither Talmud nor Midrash says anything about commemorating the students, whatever their number, by not allowing weddings.
Further, the disciples were not necessarily such great tzaddikim. They did not die the death of the innocent. The Talmud says that they died because they did not treat each other with respect; the Midrash says that they envied one another. In B’reshit Rabbah, Rabbi Akiva himself is highly critical of them. He tells a later generation of pupils not to follow in their ways and says, “be not like them”.
The manner of their death illustrates their lack of righteousness. Y’vamot 62b tells us that they died from eskera, a throat ailment like croup, and this is understood as being a punishment for the way they used their throats by reviling each other and even neglecting the study of the Torah. How, then, can it be said, asks Dr Asher, that we mark their death by refraining from marriages, “an honour not conceded to any patriarch or prophet”, especially when they “were anything but pious and righteous”?
Many historians trace the abstention from marriage to the Middle Ages when the Omer period saw some of the worst of the Crusader attacks on Jews. True, Judaism advises against marriages in time of famine and pestilence or in a beleaguered city. But there is no record of marriage being permanently forbidden in commemoration of such catastrophes and it always happened that when the troubles were over, weddings resumed. Even if, says Dr Asher, there really were a ban on weddings to mark the anniversary of a tragedy, we would never be able to have Jewish marriages at all because there is no day of the year when tragedy was unknown.
A further problem rests in the different views as to precisely which days should be avoided for marriages. It is agreed that the prohibition lasts for a month, but that month is variously calculated. Should it be, as some authorities hold, from Pesach until Lag Ba’Omer; as others believe, from after Rosh Chodesh lyar until just before Rosh Chodesh Sivan with the exception of Lag Ba’Omer; or should some other permutation be followed?
The fact remains, however, that whether the traditional explanations hold water or not, the avoidance of marriages is an accepted fact of Jewish life. Asher calls it “the persistence of popular custom”. But how the “popular custom” came into Jewish life, he believes, must be explained not from Jewish but from gentile sources. The view he advocates is that this is “the Jewish form of the common superstition not to marry during the month of May.”
This deeply rooted usage is reported already nearly 2000 years ago by the Latin writer Ovid who mentions a Roman aversion to marriages in May by reason of “the occurrence in that month of the funeral rites of the Lemuralia, or Parentalia, rites held in honour of the Manes, or Lemures of the dead”. Asher presumes that European Jews of the Middle Ages saw this custom around them, adopted it as their own and eventually gave it a Jewish connotation.
Whether Asher is right or not, the custom is well entrenched and expresses the age-old Jewish need to reflect the ups and downs of history in the changing patterns of the Jewish year, at least until the messianic age turns sorrow and sighing into unending joy and life becomes a constant source of celebration.