Thursday, May 3, 2018

Shomer Omer Lag-In; or, the Min-Hug

It’s been said in certain quarters that frum women particularly hate Pesach; one unnamed rabbinic eminence has asked—not exclusively rhetorically—why G-d would give a holiday that inspired such loathing.

It remains uncertain how pervasive this loathing is, or even if said loathing is that gender specific, or even if it should be; recent medical literature even points to an intestinal malady that is uniquely characteristic to matzo consumption, which might serve to reframe exactly what it is that makes people invest the initial consumption of chametz after Pesach with a “redemptive” quality.  (It makes more sense then that Krias Yam Suf occurred on the last, as opposed to the first, day.)

Beyond Passover misia is the enigma that is the Omer, specifically the minhagei avelus that pervade the period.  It has been attributed to the Kotzker Rebbe that “If Torah was a minhag, everyone would keep it”; the Omer, because of its length and universal application, provides those who wear their minhagim on their sleeves the opportunity to, for lack of a better term, flaunt it: “which Omer do you keep” and “what do you do/not do during the Omer” keeps the discussion circulating.

For those who relish the opportunity to keep another minhag, and do so publicly—almost akin to the Rebbe who led his disciples in a dance after the reading of Eicha to “celebrate” the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of mourning the churbanos—the restrictive nature of the Omer and the concomitant inconveniences don’t present a problem, the actual nature of what is actually being mourned during the Omer notwithstanding.  [Hence: the “min-hug”: this is one mintage that gets more PDA, for lack of a better analog.]

For those who might be Omer-skeptical, the questions and apparent self-contradictions surrounding the period likely amplify the annoyance with the inconveniences to the point that it might conjure up a loathing for the Omer minhagim that rivals the Passover misia.

To understand this phenomenon, one needs to reexamine the ostensible proximate cause of the avelus: the sudden deaths of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s most prominent disciples, punished by the plague for not according each other with sufficient respect.  Not everyone is in accord as to the nature of the deaths; there are some who maintain that they were all martyred by the Romans, but the most salient theory is that they all died of “askara”, a rather painful illness. Rabbi Akiva eventually retransmitted all of this lost knowledge to a grand total of five disciples.  

The classic reasons given for the mourning are the near-loss of a critical mass of Torah knowledge and the concomitant admonitions regarding forging better relations between fellows.  (Battles over minahgim that descend to adhominy might portend an ironic violation of the entire premise of the Omer (“No fighting in the War Room!!!”); fortunately, people have (usually) found better things to fight about.)  

A closer examination of the narrative and its context might provide an ironic counter to the min-Hug, both in the scope of the avelus and the actual ultimate message surrounding the cause.

First, consider the options for observance: Pesach-33; Rosh Chodesh-46; the stoppage in some circles for Yom Haatzma’ut; and the machlokes re whether the plague stopped on lag but started again the next day.  No matter which regimen is chosen, the existence of a choice indicates that the avelus has an attenuation built right into it.

Second, reconsider the message of the plague: an Divine near-erasure of his own Torah as a signal that some things can subvert the message from within.  Consider that the 24,000 students were “not according each other the proper honor”: with such a critical mass of elite disciples, this could not have gone unnoticed among the less elite; furthermore, as this ostensibly public display of dissension occurred on the heels of the second Churban, which was attributed primarily to sinas chinam, the spectre of disunity and its post-

Therefore, if the primary vehicles of tradition are broken down, k’vayachol it was time to start again from scratch even with only 5 as opposed to 24,000.  The 24,000 would have ostensibly been sending the wrong message about what Torah was supposed to be about, and the transmission was stopped by the plague that affected the transmitters.

Tangentially, one should consider the Tanna usually associated with Lag b’Omer: Rav Shimon Bar Yochai.  As Rabbi Norman Lamm has noted in a few essays about RSBY, there was a difference between the Tanna who emerged from a twelve year sojourn in the cave  burning everyone he saw whom he deemed to be lacking in Torah just by looking at them, and the Tanna who emerged a year later when ordered by G-d to immediately return to the cave for “destroy[ing] My world” and was considerably more conciliatory.  Consider the possibility that the 24,000 students might have had power on a level of RSBY and instead as it were destroyed each other; in fact, later on in the Talmudic narrative RSBY again gazes to death a colleague who seems to be falling into the habit of disrespect and noncooperation that might have been characteristic of R Akiva's departed disciples, and also the disciple who was the original cause of the report that consigned him to the cave.

In a certain sense, one should almost celebrate Lag Ba’omer—if not the entire Omer itself—as a renewal: a Divine recalibration of the tradition transmission that was supposed to more faithfully represent what that tradition was/is ultimately supposed to be about.

So: don’t get a haircut.  Don’t shave.  Don’t get married.  Don’t concertize.  Just don’t make a big deal of it.  Especially when others legitimately might do some of the don’ts.  And one might be advised to not use more comprehensive performance of the minhag as an excuse to be disrespectful to those who might have a shorter Shomer Omer checklist—unless one thinks the best way to learn history is to repeat it.

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