How a Set of Springtime Mourning Rites May Have Originated as Celebratory Customs

In the mid-9th century, Natronai Ben Hilai Gaon—one of the leading rabbis of Babylonia—answered a query about the origins of the custom of not holding weddings or betrothals in the seven weeks between Passover and the holiday of Shavuot. Natronai explained that this period—known as s’firat ha-omer because of the ritual of counting (s’firah) of the nights between the holidays—is a period of mourning for the students of Rabbi Akiva, who died in a plague during this time of year. Leead Staller explores the development of this custom over the centuries, and discusses an alternate theory of its origins:

According to Moses Naḥmanides (1194–1270), . . . s’firah was originally considered a joyous period for the Jewish people. [In ancient Israel], the grain harvest was bookended by the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. Based on this, Naḥmanides suggests that this entire season was one of celebration of the harvest, beginning with Passover and ending with Shavuot, with the days of s’firah in between being like ḥol ha-mo’ed [the intermediate days of the Passover and Sukkot festivals, during which activities prohibited on the first and last days are permitted] for the extended harvest holiday.

[T]he earliest and most consistent practice of s’firah is that of refraining from hosting weddings during this period. In fact, a restriction against weddings is also characteristic of the celebration of ḥol ha-mo’ed.

The custom was [originally] a natural outgrowth of the joy felt around the harvest season and the associated Temple rituals. But as the Jewish people were exiled, and they lost both their farmland and their Temple, the natural feeling of excitement for the harvest stopped being relevant, and the original cause for celebration was lost. By the time of [Natronai], people were left wondering why we even had these practices in the first place.

Thus . . . without the Temple, the practice of observing s’firat ha-omer as a minor holiday—a ḥol ha-mo’ed for the joy the Jewish people felt during the harvest—was flipped into a custom of mourning for a period of loss.

Read more at Lehrhaus

More about: Jewish calendar, Nahmanides, Passover, Shavuot


When It Comes to Peace with Israel, Many Saudis Have Religious Concerns

Sept. 22 2023

While roughly a third of Saudis are willing to cooperate with the Jewish state in matters of technology and commerce, far fewer are willing to allow Israeli teams to compete within the kingdom—let alone support diplomatic normalization. These are just a few results of a recent, detailed, and professional opinion survey—a rarity in Saudi Arabia—that has much bearing on current negotiations involving Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh. David Pollock notes some others:

When asked about possible factors “in considering whether or not Saudi Arabia should establish official relations with Israel,” the Saudi public opts first for an Islamic—rather than a specifically Saudi—agenda: almost half (46 percent) say it would be “important” to obtain “new Israeli guarantees of Muslim rights at al-Aqsa Mosque and al-Haram al-Sharif [i.e., the Temple Mount] in Jerusalem.” Prioritizing this issue is significantly more popular than any other option offered. . . .

This popular focus on religion is in line with responses to other controversial questions in the survey. Exactly the same percentage, for example, feel “strongly” that “our country should cut off all relations with any other country where anybody hurts the Quran.”

By comparison, Palestinian aspirations come in second place in Saudi popular perceptions of a deal with Israel. Thirty-six percent of the Saudi public say it would be “important” to obtain “new steps toward political rights and better economic opportunities for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” Far behind these drivers in popular attitudes, surprisingly, are hypothetical American contributions to a Saudi-Israel deal—even though these have reportedly been under heavy discussion at the official level in recent months.

Therefore, based on this analysis of these new survey findings, all three governments involved in a possible trilateral U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal would be well advised to pay at least as much attention to its religious dimension as to its political, security, and economic ones.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Islam, Israel-Arab relations, Saudi Arabia, Temple Mount