Counting to 50: The Omer, Shavuot and the liberation of Jerusalem

A Jewish hero named Bar-Kochba led a band of valiant soldiers in an attempt to regain what had been lost.

Rabbi Akiva (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Rabbi Akiva
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
For many Jews, the Omer period is time of sadness that dates back 2,000 years. Soon after the fall of Jerusalem, there was one last attempt to regain independence.
A Jewish hero named Bar-Kochba led a band of valiant soldiers in an attempt to regain what had been lost: political and religious autonomy. The rebellion was violently put down; more blood was spilled in the failed revolt than had been spilled during the destruction of the Temple itself.
During this same period of time, the Talmud reports, 24,000 students of the great Rabbi Akiva, who was known to have been an enthusiastic supporter of Bar-Kochba, perished. Historians have conflated these two events, and assume that Rabbi Akiva’s students and the followers and soldiers of Bar Kochba were one and the same. The talmudic narrative is specific regarding the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students: they died between Passover and Shavuot, during the Omer.
More than 1,000 years later they were still not forgotten, and the Ashkenazi Jewish community in the Middle Ages observed various customs of mourning. The most well-known of these customs is the postponement of weddings until after the Omer, until after Shavuot (although many communities were more lenient in the two weeks preceding the festival).
These customs are well documented in medieval literature, some early sources referring to the Omer as a period of mourning, while others speak of these days as being cursed, or as “bad luck.” There were numerous events that strengthened these feelings, and gave traction to the customs of mourning. The Crusades, for example, in which countless Jews were martyred, took place in the spring. Yearly blood libels, which burst into murderous bloom every spring after Passover, fanned the flames of European antisemitism. Tens of thousands of Jews were murdered, Jewish communities across the Old World were decimated, leaving behind thousands of widows and orphans. So many orphans who were still children, who could not lead the prayers, as was the custom for mourners, were encouraged to say one short prayer – the Kaddish – which was now given as a perverse afikoman gift to the young mourners The fear that gripped the heart of every Jew at this time of year, coupled with the actual mourning for those who were killed, merged with the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students generations earlier, and what was once a time of joy was transformed into a time of sadness.
As divine will would have it, the rebirth of the State of Israel was declared precisely during this emotionally fraught time of year. The independence of the modern State of Israel was declared on the 20th day of the Omer, 5 Iyar, 1948, and 19 years later, following the Six Day War that was nothing short of a miracle of biblical proportions, Israel doubled its size. On the 42nd and 43rd days of the Omer, 27 and 28 Iyar, Jerusalem was liberated – and all at once, the true nature of these ancient days was restored: After 2,000 years, they once again became days of happiness.
On the morning of 6 Sivan, 5727 – Shavuot morning, 1967, one week after the ancient capital of Israel was liberated, the entire city of Jerusalem was opened for the first time. Tens of thousands of Jews streamed through the holy streets and alleys and gathered in prayer at the Western Wall.
Religious and secular Jews, shoulder to shoulder, celebrated the ancient holiday of Shavuot in their newly united and eternal capital in a moment of unity that was equaled only by their experience at Mount Sinai itself. They stood before the ancient stones with a profound sense of history and destiny, knowing that they had truly come home at last – after so much blood, so many tears, so much suffering and so many years of exile.
This time, the tears streaming down their faces were tears of joy.
Hag sameah.