Question: I know that during the counting of the Omer observant Jews don’t get haircuts, but I was wondering if it’s okay to shave your legs, or, um, your bikini line?
–Davida, New York
Answer: I’m glad you asked this, Davida, because I have secretly been wondering about this exact issue for years, and your question gave me an excuse to do some real research.
Let’s begin with the laws pertaining to the Omer period, specifically those having to do with tisporet, or hair cutting. The weeks between Passover and Shavuot are considered a mourning period because it was during these weeks that 24,000 of Rabbi Akiba‘s students died. The Talmud records that they were struck with a serious affliction because they did not respect one another (Yevamot 62b).
In the geonic period, some Ashkenazic communities decided to commemorate the death of Rabbi Akiba’s students by not allowing couples to get married during the Omer period, and by prohibiting live music during this time as well. This mimics two of the prohibitions that apply during the year of mourning after a person’s parent dies. Later, after the Crusades, other Ashkenazic communities took on the custom of not getting haircuts during the Omer. This is also drawn from the prohibitions for the year of mourning, or avelut (Arukh haShulhan, Orah Haim 493:1-3).
Maimonides, in his digest of the laws of mourning, ruled that a man was prohibited from cutting the hair on top of his head during the year of mourning, and wrote that shaving any hair on the body was a valid extension of that prohibition (Hilkhot Avel 5:2).
However, Maimonides recognized that in some cases beards and long hair could be construed as inappropriate or disrespectful. Therefore, he included a provision, noting that if a man’s friends begin to scold him and tell him his hair is too long, then he is permitted to get it cut, because he is not doing it as a vanity or a luxury, but in order to appear respectable to his friends (Hilkhot Avel 6:3). Some mourners and people not shaving or getting haircuts during the Omer do still wait to be admonished by their friends before they get haircuts or shave, but many will just tend to the issue when they think they are beginning to look unruly.
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