Aaron Finkelstein
Aaron Finkelstein
Rabbi, educator, amateur baker & lifelong learner

How do we remember a plague?

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Years ago, one of my rabbis bounded into yeshiva clean-shaven and carefree a week after Pesach. “The Omer is a time of joy,” he explained, needling us, his overzealous scruffy-faced students. “Historically, this was a time of agricultural bounty and prosperity. Forget Rabbi Akiva — this is a joyous time. Come on… you can shave already!” 

According to the Talmud (Yevamot 61b), twenty-four thousand students of Rabbi Akiva died from a plague in a single day during this period, initiating our communal mourning. Traditionally, the weeks in between Pesach and Lag B’Omer are a “no fly zone” for joyous occasions: no weddings, no live music or going to movie theaters for some. During this time period, it’s also common to engage in other forms of mourning, like refraining from haircuts or shaving.

While I have long wondered about the weight of these Omer mourning practices, the year of the pandemic has made this time of Jewish mourning resonate in new and profound ways. 

How do we commemorate a plague? Should its legacy be only one of mourning or is there also room for celebration? 

Clearly, it depends on whom you ask (and whom you follow). The tension between mourning and celebration appears throughout Halacha and Jewish practice, most famously when we break the glass at a wedding. For a moment our overwhelming joy is tinged with sadness. Less well-known is the custom to leave a small part of a home unfinished in memory of the Temple (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 560:1). 

These days, this is not just an intellectual question for us regarding the Omer. In the coming weeks and months, our communities and society will have to balance the joys of vaccination and the gradual return to normalcy with the manifold losses wrought by the pandemic. 

In his work “Peninei Halachah” [Pearls of Jewish Law], Rabbi Eliezer Melamed addresses this tension between mourning and celebration, specifically as it relates to Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, which always falls during the Omer. Regarding shaving on Yom HaAtzmaut, Rabbi Melamed writes:

הרגילים להתגלח, נכון שיתגלחו לקראת יום העצמאות, כפי שגם לובשים בגדי חג לקראת יום העצמאות. ולגבי תספורת, נראה כי רק מי שנראה לא מכובד בשערותיו, יכול להסתפר לקראת יום העצמאות. אבל מי שנראה בסדר, רשאי להסתפר ביום העצמאות בלבד….

For those who are accustomed to shaving, it is appropriate for them to shave to usher in Yom HaAtzmaut, just as some wear festive clothing to usher in Yom HaAtzmaut. And regarding haircuts, it seems that only one whose hair doesn’t look respectful, they can have a haircut leading up to Yom HaAtzmaut. However one whose hair looks respectful may only have a haircut on Yom HaAtzmaut itself….

Rabbi Melamed also references Rabbi Yitzchak Nisim, the former Sefardic Chief Rabbi, who wrote that all the mourning customs of the Omer are completely nullified on Yom HaAtzmaut. In other words, yes, there are joyous experiences and memories which can interrupt a tragedy or time of mourning. (Shabbat, which “pauses” shiva is another example of this halachic tendency.) 

However, elsewhere, Rabbi Melamed adds a detail that helps to explain the strength of the Omer mourning practices:

…שבעת מסעי הצלב ומאורעות ת״ח ות״ט נרצחו מאות אלפי יהודים מבני קהילות אשכנז, ורציחות אלו אירעו ברובם בסוף ספירת העומר, ועל כן נהגו בקהילות אשכנז להימנע באותם ימים משמחות גדולות….

…During the Crusades, hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed during these weeks of the Omer. Therefore, the custom in Ashkenazi communities is to avoid larger celebrations and to conduct mourning practices from Pesach until Lag B’Omer…. 

This is a critical insight from Jewish history, which I believe explains the staying power of the Omer’s mourning. Yes, twenty-four thousand students dying from a plague nearly two millennia ago is tragic. But hundreds of thousands killed in Europe a millennium later must have brought this legacy of mourning to the fore and with renewed force. It’s not hard to imagine the Jewish communities of Worms, Speyer and Mainz adopting these full mourning practices as they struggled to comprehend and commemorate such destruction and loss of life. 

The biblical Omer may have been a cause for celebration, but the oscillations of Jewish history have been imprinted on this time as well. The loss of Rabbi Akiva’s students and the persecutions of the Crusades loom large, affecting both our ritual practice and memory of these events. For many, Yom HaAtzmaut is a compromise of sorts, like Shabbat, which can interrupt mourning for a day. As my colleague Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunin likes to say, “Jewish history and practice is the greatest spiral curriculum: we go around and around, with many layers and experiences informing our practice.”

For the pandemic, I suspect we will need some kind of compromise that can hold this tension and these layers as well. In Israel, Yom HaZikaron (the Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terror) always leads right into the celebrations of Yom HaAtzmaut. We could do something similar for the Coronavirus pandemic and identify those events that must be commemorated and celebrated.  

For many families and individuals, like my dear friend and colleague Silvia who lost her husband Alberto during the winter surge, January and February will be dark months from now on. The first confirmed American death from Covid-19 occurred (at least according to some reports) on February 6th, 2020. Perhaps February 6th should be a day of remembrance moving forward, signifying at least two important moments in the pandemic. By the same token, we should also mark December 14th, 2020, as a joyous inflection point, when Sandra Lindsay became the first person (and healthcare worker) to be vaccinated in the US. 

Of course, there is an important caveat within this whole discussion: the pandemic is not over, neither in America nor internationally. There are still communities and countries experiencing their own surges at this very moment. For these healthcare workers and families, even considering how to memorialize would be premature and potentially insensitive as well. 

After so many months and such a trying stretch, it will be difficult to mark any one moment or date. Still, Jewish history and practice may offer instructive tools for us; not shaving my beard is a constant, daily reminder of the losses of the past. In recent years, Tu B’Shvat and even Yom HaShoah seders have become more popular as a formal ceremony that encapsulates a range of moments and experiences, both somber and joyful. 

Whatever our rituals may look like, I hope that we hold both sides of this tension and time. May we pause to commemorate the many losses of the pandemic — and may we celebrate the glimmers of hope that sustained us through this season. 

About the Author
Rabbi Aaron Finkelstein teaches Jewish Studies and serves as a rabbi at Milken Community School. He received semikha [rabbinic ordination] from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and was the founding rabbi of the Prospect Heights Shul. He has taught in Jewish day schools in Brooklyn and Nashville and was a fellow in Yeshiva University’s certificate program in Experiential Jewish Education. Rabbi Finkelstein is an avid cook and baker, loves basketball, puttering in the kitchen and playing with his daughter Yara.
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