34 versus 33
Why did my Sephardic male neighbors wait until the 34th day in the omer to have their hair cut? It is because Rav Yosef Karo, or Maran, specifically rules (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 493:2) that haircuts are permitted only on the 34th day of the Omer. Rama (op. cit.), on the other hand, permits taking a haircut on Lag B’Omer as is well known. Rav Ovadia Yosef insists that Sephardic Jews adhere to the ruling of Maran and refrain from weddings and haircutting until the 34th of the Omer (Teshuvot Yabia Omer 3:26 and Teshuvot Yechave Da’at 4:32).
The Mishnah Berurah (493:8, citing the Vilna Gaon) explains that the dispute hinges upon a debate as to the date of the last death of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 talmidim. Shaarei Orah congregant Shalom Shushan noted that it is highly unusual for us to harbor a doubt as to the specific date of when a Jewish historic event occurred.
I responded that the variety in customs is rooted in the “Sefer HaManhig.” This classic 12-century compilation of the halachic practices of France, Provence and Spain records, “Yet there is a minhag in France and Provence to begin marrying from Lag B’Omer and onward.” This is the basis of the Ashkenazic practice.
The Manhig continues “And I heard in the name of Rav Zerachia of Gerona who found an old manuscript from Sefarad [which notes that the students of Rabbi Akiva] ‘died from Pesach until pros ha’Atzeret.’ What is ‘pros’? Half of a month, 15 days before Shavuot—this is Lag B’Omer.” Since 15 days before Shavuot is actually the 34th day of the Omer, Maran rules that one should continue practicing minhagei aveilut through the morning of the 34th.
The Shaarei Teshuvah (493:8) cites Arizal who advanced a much different approach, viewing the entire Omer period as a period of judgment and as a type of “Chol Hamoed” between the festivals of Pesach and Shavuot. He therefore held that one may not cut his hair or shave throughout the entire Omer period, until Erev Shavuot. Yalkut Yosef (493:16) rules that only those special individuals who always follow Kabbalistic practices adopt this practice. Otherwise, the overwhelming majority of Sephardic Jews take haircuts beginning from the 34th of the Omer until Shavuot.
Rav Mordechai Lebhar (Magen Avot Orach Chaim 493) records that many Jews from North Africa take haircuts on Lag B’Omer despite it being contrary to the ruling of Maran. Rav Lebhar defends this practice in part on the comment of one of the great Sephardic poskim, the Peri Chadash (Orach Chaim 493:2). The Peri Chadash notes the incongruity of refraining from tachanun and celebrating on Lag B’Omer on the one hand, and continuing to mourn the loss of Rabbi Akiva’s students until the 34th of the Omer.
One may add that only Rama and not Maran records that tachanun is omitted and celebration 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. This would be one of a number of Kabbalistic practices that Sephardic Jews have embraced despite its being contrary to the ruling of Maran. Sephardic enthusiastic observance of the kaparot custom of Erev Yom Kippur is another primary example.
Rav Ovadia Yosef could simply respond that the two matters are not intertwined. The mourning for Rabbi Akiva’s talmidim continues to the 34th of the Omer, while the celebration of the great contributions of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai occurs on the 33rd day of the Omer.
As usual, the practices regarding the date on which haircutting is permitted are diverse and rich. At Shaarei Orah, I advise men to wait until the 34th to take a haircut except if they originate from North Africa. I advise Shaarei Orah men whose family stems from North Africa to consult their parents as to their family custom.
By Rabbi Haim Jachter
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.