Out of the 613 mitzvot and innumerable customs and traditions that shape the daily life of the traditional or more observant Jew, a number of them have to do with how we must look (i.e. dress, head wear, hair, etc.). Wearing a kippa, for example, is supposed to mean that you stand for something greater than yourself, and a recognition that God is above. You wear a symbol on your head that tells everyone around you that you are of a certain set of beliefs and that you are choosing to be different in this world. I choose to wear it proudly, and with conviction. In what it stands for I have no doubts. There is, however, another symbol and custom that I do wrestle with, one minhag (custom) in particular that pushes me to seriously evaluate on a yearly basis why I choose to follow it (or in some years not to), and what my true motivations are for doing it (or not doing it). And unfortunately, that debate, which I have internally, plays out in a very public, external way, because it’s literally growing on my face – it’s the Omer beard.
In order to understand the issue more fully and why I struggle with the custom, some background on Sefirat Ha’Omer, the Counting of the Omer, is in order.
To begin with, there is a Torah obligation to count the days of the Omer stated in the verse (Vaikrah 23:15-16) as follows:
“And you shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest day from the day you bring the omer as a wave offering seven weeks; they shall be complete. You shall count until the day after the seventh week, [namely,] the fiftieth day, [on which] you shall bring a new meal offering to the Lord.”
The Mitzvah is to count 49 days (counting the days and the weeks) from the second day of Pesach (the morrow of the rest day) until the holiday of Shavuot (the fiftieth day). The mitzvah to count is still in effect nowadays, even if we no longer have the Beit Hamikdash to bring offerings of grain to. This explanation of the counting of the Omer is a happy, positive one – the offering of the bounty of a good harvest in Temple times.
A second, deeper understanding of the Omer is a mystical one. Given that the Jews left Egypt on the 15th of Nissan (the first day of Pesach), and on the 6th of Sivan, celebrated ever since as the festival of Shavuot, they gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai and received the Torah from God, the 49 days between the two holidays have special significance. Each of the 49 days allows us to refine ourselves, and prepare ourselves to receive the Torah all over again. This explanation of the reasons behind the counting of the Omer is also one with positive connotations.
And yet, these two positive, biblical understandings of the Omer are overshadowed by a later calamity in Jewish history, which is marked to this day by several rabbinic-mandated mourning practices during the 49-day Omer period. These mourning customs are that weddings are not performed, new clothes are not bought, music is not listened to, and finally, the minhag not to cut one’s hair or shave during the Omer.
And what was this calamity? The Talmud (Yevamot 62b) states that “Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples (i.e. 24,000 students) from Gabbatha to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect… A Tanna taught: ‘All of them died between Passover and Shavuot'” The greatest rabbi who ever lived, Rabbi Akiva had built up an academy of Torah learning with thousands upon thousands of righteous students. And on account of their failure to treat each other respectfully, Hashem wiped them out with a plague.
Alternately, medieval rabbinic scholars argued that his students perished on account of religious persecution during the Bar Kochva revolt (approximately 132–136 CE), at the hands of the Roman Empire. Rabbi Akiva and his students had been supporters of Bar Kochva and were subsequently crushed when the Roman Empire put down the rebellion. These medieval scholars further thematically linked the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students to the crusades, pogroms and blood libels that occurred a thousand years later in our history. These attacks, connected as they often were with the days after Pesach (Christian blood in the matzah, etc.) became a time of incredible danger for Jews in the Middle Ages. And given this uncomfortable reality that endures in some way to this day, it’s no small wonder that these mourning customs exist as strongly as they do, to the extent that the Omer is considered a sad time, as opposed to the more joyous version from the Torah.
Which brings me back to my Omer beard. Setting aside the memories of the social “trauma” of having to grow out your beard in your early, formative teenage years, with your oh-so-macho tufts of hair or patches of beard that never quite connect with each other, I have always found it such a heavy burden to ask of boys and men – our faces have to be a physical billboard for our people’s history of suffering. It’s asking a lot for us to show our coreligionists and the world that on account of how Rabbi Akiva’s students treated each other, and perished as a result, 2,000 years later, we are still carrying out these customs of mourning. If it’s really about the suffering and the tragedies, and we are steeped in both historically, then why not just grow the beard year-round? Lord knows we have enough experience with tragedy to never shave again, for the rest of our lives.
It also bothers me that what should have been a joyous time for us as a people (offerings of thanks, the Temple and the Torah as key themes) has been really overshadowed on a practical level by these mourning customs. And I struggle to have to use my face as an expression of this pretty radical shift away from what the Omer was meant to be, at least in biblical times.
And above all, I struggle with who I grow my Omer beard for. Am I doing it for myself? Am I doing it out of respect for Hashem and a true appreciation of the very real suffering of our people? Do I do it to keep up with the Shwartzes (i.e. religious communal pressure)? Or do I do it for the sake of my own kids and my students?
I think this year, I have begun to make my peace with it in that I am choosing to view my Omer beard as a symbol to my children and my students. My beard is a bit grayer, and I am starting to look like my father when I see myself in the mirror. True, I may not always feel that connection to our historical suffering through the mourning customs of the Omer period. I may not always believe that this is what God wants from us. I may not always feel like I am worthy of being a vehicle for this tradition. But when you are a parent, or an educator (or both), there is a broader objective afoot. Like it or not, we are living, breathing symbols of so much more than ourselves. Our children and our students look to us for consistency in our actions, words and thoughts. And yet, I want my own children and my students to know that it is OK to struggle with tradition, to work through the issues, and to try and come by religious practice and tradition honestly. I think the days of saying to our kids and students “we do what we do Jewishly because that is the way it has always been done” are gone – it’s a free world and tradition and religious practice are often the first victims of that freedom. If we are going to continue and thrive as a people, then we need to do it with openness, and thoughtfulness, and with joy.
If growing an uncomfortable beard for a few weeks allows my kids to ask why I’m doing it, and be able to learn together about the highs and the lows behind it all, from the glory of receiving the Torah, and celebration of giving thanks in Temple times, to the periods of destruction and persecution and near annihilation, then I think it’s a worthwhile use of advertising space – my face.
P.S. Tonight, Friday night, May 1, 2015, we count twenty-eight days, which is four weeks of the Omer… and 6 more days until Lag Ba’Omer (33rd day of the Omer) when I can shave! 🙂