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We Remember - Chronicle Online/The WORD 04/25/2024

Weekly On-line Rabbi's D'var-Torah

April 25, 2024

17 Nisan 5784


Here we are on the 3rd day of Passover.  Spring is here.  We are looking forward to the Festival of Shavuot which celebrates the giving of the Torah and the summer harvest.  It is only seven weeks away. This ought to be a happy time on the Jewish calendar.

The seven weeks between the 2nd day of Passover and the Festival of Shavuot are called the Omer (sheaf) because our ancestors brought a sheaf of barley each day as they counted down from Passover to Shavuot.  It was a celebratory time of year in the agricultural cycle.  At some point, though, this joyous countdown became a period of mourning.  There are a number of theories as to why.  Here are two: 

According to an obscure passage in the Talmud (BT Yevamot 62b), some 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva's disciples were killed by a plague during this time period.  Some scholars have suggested that it was not, in fact, a plague which was responsible for these deaths.  Rather, these disciples died in the Bar Kochba revolt which took place in the year 135CE – the Jews’ last attempt to evict the Roman Empire from the Land of Israel.  Regardless of the actual cause of these deaths, this huge loss caused the entire Jewish people to plunge into a period of mourning.  The customs of mourning – no shaving, no haircuts, no weddings or other celebrations – have persisted until today.  The one exception is the 33rd day of the Omer, or Lag Ba’Omer – the one day out of 49 upon which Rabbi Akiva’s army seemed to have some success.  The Talmud itself, though, never legislates a period of mourning for these fallen men.  It’s just something that people did out of a profound sense of loss.

In addition to the loss of Rabbi Akiva’s students, some later sages suggested that the mourning was the result of the massacres of Ukrainian Jews in 1648.  Bohdan Chmielnicki the leader of the Cossacks, wanted to free the Ukraine from Poland’s control.  He and his followers used a violent uprising to make their case.  The main targets of their violence were Jews.  Perhaps as many as 100,000 Jewish people were killed, and nearly 300 Jewish communities were destroyed.  Ultimately, Ukraine was annexed by Russia, and the anti-Semitism in Ukraine grew even worse.  It was the worst violence against Eastern European Jewry until the 20th Century. The name “Cossack” became synonymous with “Antisemite.”

It's been nearly 1,900 years since Bar Kochba and Rabbi Akiva, but we still remember.  It’s been over 350 years since the Chmielnicki massacres, but we still remember.  Through the customs of the Omer, we still mourn.

It’s been 202 days since October 7th.  There are still 133 hostages.  There are still rockets flying into Israel.  There are still dead bodies that haven’t been recovered.  While the rest of the world may be ready to forget and to move on, that’s not the way we are wired.  We remember.



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