Movies During Sefirah

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Every year, without fail, I am asked whether you can go to a movie during the sefirah period of semi-mourning between Pesach and Shavuos. These sad days, which vary according to custom, entail various mourning observances such as refraining from haircutting, marrying and listening to live music. I’ve discussed this in the past (I, II) but this year I took the question to a higher authority — R. Hershel Schachter. Here is what he told me, with a good deal of additional connective material.

This is a matter of debate between two venerable brothers — R. Ahron and R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (“the Rav”). The Magen Avraham (493:1) rules that we may not sing and dance during the mourning period of sefirah. This restriction evidently falls into the mourning practice of refraining from “simchas me-rei’us” (see Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 391:2; and see Nefesh Ha-Rav, pp. 191-192 that the restrictions of sefirah are patterned on those of mourning). R. Ahron Soloveichik explained this to mean any event of joyous friendship.

A sports game, he argued, is more enjoyable when the crowd is bigger. Therefore, it is a group activity where the friends add to the joy. Attending a movie, however, is different. Your experience is the same (or quite similar) whether you are on your own or with many others. Therefore, it is a solitary joyous event and not an event of joyous friendship. Interestingly, R. Maurice Lamm (The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, 2000 edition p. 299) quotes R. Ahron’s prohibition on a mourner attending a sports game but does not mention his leniency on going to a movie.

The Rav, R. Ahron’s older brother, disagreed. He felt that all entertainment is forbidden — for a mourner, during the Three Weeks and during the restricted period of sefirah. He even delivered a lecture to answer the question whether one may go to a movie on the evening of Shiva Asar Be-Tamuz, the first night of the Three Weeks. This lecture was published in Shi’urei Ha-Rav (Tisha Be-Av and Aveilus) (see here: link) but refers to a wedding on that night rather than a movie.

I asked R. Schachter which brother to follow and he said, unsurprisingly, his mentor, the Rav.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

44 comments

  1. Don’t Orthodox summer camps take their campers to sporting events during the Three Weeks?

  2. I’ve never heard of that.

  3. “Moshe on May 10, 2011 at 10:09 pm
    Don’t Orthodox summer camps take their campers to sporting events during the Three Weeks?”

    My impression is that some do.

    Anyone recall what Camp Emes-Maimonides Day Camp from Boston area did from circa half a century and more ago.

  4. Shalom Rosenfeld

    This is very “soft” and not “crisp” like some of your sources, but I’ve somewhat taken it for granted that the standard minhag developed among American Orthodox Jews not to go to the movie theater during Sefira; treat it as its own minhag.

  5. The question is not whether movie are permissible during Sefira; the question is whether movies are permissible during the entire year.

  6. The camps take kids to games, amusement parks, and, of course, swimming. I don’t understand how these are considered simchas m’reius when no exchange of pleasantries and meals occurs. Maybe they are not in the spirit of the law, but they are not in the letter of the law. On Avodah Zarah 18a, chazal forbid theaters and circuses for their links to bitul Torah and avodah zarah. That makes more sense than aveilus

  7. Would someone care to clarify this tangential question?

    Why is any form of mourning observed at all during this period? If observing a single day “Yom HaShoah” is prohibited because all national tragedies that have occurred since the Churban are subsumed under the umbrella of Tisha B’Av why than was this 33 day period treated any differently. It was a national tragedy and it took place after the churban. One or two kinnos about R. Akiva’s talmidim as we have for the six million should suffice.

  8. Baruch,

    1. One point of view holds that the death of R. Akiva’s talmidim is a reference to the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt. Hence, mourning the end of Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael for millennia is more understandable, at least to me.

    2. The addition of various mourning chumrot took place in the wake of the Crusades and their massacres. Also makes the extent of aveilut for an otherwise seemingly obscure (albeit tragic) episode more meaningful.

  9. From Tradition 41:4 in a letter by R. Nathaniel Helfgot

    “In that context, the Rav further noted that the prohibition of the
    twelve month period is not one of “engaging in joy”, or “listening to music” qua music, but rather it is formulated in the technical category of simhat me-re’iut—enjoyment of a joyous party or gathering. Activities, such as listening to music in a private setting like one’s home or car, or going to the movies with one’s spouse, do not fall under that rubric and thus are not forbidden per se. Conversely, activities that fall under the rubric of a gathering of people for a joyous occasion, even if devoid of music, would fall under the restrictive rubric. These positions were well-known to all who traveled in YU and Modern Orthodox circles in
    the 1950’s-1990’s and were confirmed to me by a number of prominent
    students of the Rav from over the various decades.”

  10. ““In that context, the Rav further noted that the prohibition of the
    twelve month period is not one of “engaging in joy”, or “listening to music” qua music, but rather it is formulated in the technical category of simhat me-re’iut—enjoyment of a joyous party or gathering. Activities, such as listening to music in a private setting like one’s home or car, or going to the movies with one’s spouse, do not fall under that rubric and thus are not forbidden per se. Conversely, activities that fall under the rubric of a gathering of people for a joyous occasion, even if devoid of music, would fall under the restrictive rubric. These positions were well-known to all who traveled in YU and Modern Orthodox circles in
    the 1950’s-1990’s”

    Certainly is word for word my impression. BTW I am amazed that Rabbi M Bleich seemed surprised to learn of this in his exchange with R Helfgott.

  11. movies aren’t a joyous event per se. you can’t mean to say that rav soloveichik zatzal would say it’s forbidden to see “shoah” or the like in a big theater. during the three weeks last year I saw “restrepo” which is a documentary about US soldiers in afghanistan and alternates between terrifying scenes of fighting and sad scenes of soldiers remembering their fallen comrades. not a joyous event. it has to depend in part on the movie. I would think that most of the movies that are ‘joyous’ (other than little kids’ movies) are forbidden year round for other reasons.

  12. “One point of view holds that the death of R. Akiva’s talmidim is a reference to the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt. Hence, mourning the end of Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael for millennia is more understandable, at least to me.”

    Like many, this is what I was taught. But, I do not find it satisfying historically or religiously.

    Historically, the end of any pretensions of Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael ended with the destruction of Bayit Sheni (arguably E”Y had been a vassal state of the Romans for years prior).

    Religiously, the Talmud itself is ambivalent about the Bar Kochba rebellion — and particularly its false messinism.

    How & why this biblical period of celebration was inverted into a period of symbolic mourning remains a mystery to me.

    Perhaps the diversity of readership will yield some interesting essays or articles that shed further light on this mystery.

  13. I heard an explanation that, as the RAMBAN writes in his commentary on Chumash, the days between Pesach and Shavuos are “Chol HaMoed” between these two yomim tovim, and so just like we restrict our activities on Chol HaMoed, so we do so during Sefiras HaOmer as well.

  14. R’ Student,

    Please see the end of Igros Moshe OC Chelek 2 Siman 95 which also speaks to the premise of your discussion.

  15. “Every year, without fail, I am asked whether you can go to a movie during the sefirah period of semi-mourning between Pesach and Shavuos.”

    People actually ask you shaylos? Don’t they have anyone better to ask?

  16. I did not find it surprising that someone would ask Gil a sha’aila, but rather that he would answer. I thought he had the right approach in his “caution” statement in the disclaimers section of the blog.

  17. Are you saying that if Gil’s wife asked him, he ought to send her to a posek?

    I disagree. You don’t have to be R. Moshe Feinstein to answer someone’s query regarding a way to practice a minhag. Being learned is really quite sufficient.

  18. Don’t Orthodox summer camps take their campers to sporting events during the Three Weeks?

    _____

    I don’t remember what the camps do, but obviously, it’s a chiddush to say that one can’t go to a baseball game during sefirah. Of note, this area is one where the Modern Orthodox have introduced chumras.

  19. Did the Gra commentate/ rule on this or a related theme/ concept. What Jerusalem Talmud passage (if any) did he base his commentary/ opinion on.

  20. Most Agudah type families I know do go to ball games during sfira and the 3 weeks Maybe one can be mechalek between if your team has a decent chance to win it may lead to simcha . Yet, R Aharon opposed going to games even though he was from Chicago 🙂

  21. Does movies mean only in a theater? What about a home video, or a short clip?

  22. MiMedinat HaYam

    “Does movies mean only in a theater? What about a home video, or a short clip?”

    there’s no “simhat me-re’iut” (or rather me-re’iut) there.

    semms the rav’s chumra would lead to a heter. wont fly, today.

    2. a “proffessional camper” in camp i attended used to say that he remembers they only forbade swimming during week of 9av. then it became all 9days. he exoected it to include all three weeks soon.

    3. conversly, is swimmming allowed during sfirah?

    4. r gil’s wife wont ask him that as a sha’ailah, but as: what is the family minhag?

    5. i once mentioned to a friend that his father is quoted in IGM asking RMF which nite of lag ba’omer are weddings held on? (nite before or nite after) my friend said thats funny. his sister got married on the other date RMF mentions.

  23. I don’t understand the reference to Shloshim. I thought Sefira Minhagim=Yud Beis Chodesh

    PS. IH: Bar Chochba was not false Messianism.

  24. I quote from Prof. Schiffman again, as Gil considers him kosher:

    “The sobriquet Bar Kohkba, “Son of a Star,” was given to him in accord with Num. 24:17 (“A star shall go forth from Jacob”), taken to refer to the messiah. The tannaim were divided, some supporting his rebellion, others not. Those who supported him saw him as a messianic figure.”

    From Text to Tradition, p. 173

  25. IH, that quote does not support false messianism, unless Bar Kohkba himself said he was the mashiach. A “messianic figure” is far from a “false messiah”. I am sure many today would without hesitation say about Rav Kook, that “those who supported him saw him as a messianic figure”

    If mourning during the Omer is done because of the bar Kochva rebellion, why wasn’t it canceled when the state of Israel was created?

    I was taught that mourning during the Omer is because of a loss of Mesorah. Perhaps it was only during the time of the crusades where this loss was actually first truly felt? Ironically, the purpose of the mourning is also lost, and with no reason given, we can fully see the pain of a lost messorah. To movie, or not movie.. to go to baseball games or not, too listen to recorded music or not…

  26. I was taught that mourning during the Omer is because of a loss of Mesorah. Perhaps it was only during the time of the crusades where this loss was actually first truly felt?
    ===================================
    or perhaps the human cost of the crusades (which i was taught was greatest as the weather improved in spring) was too much to bear (a number of kaddish/yizkor issues are tied by many to the crusades) and needed an outlet and the mesorah issue was added on as an additional or philosophical support,
    KT

  27. “or perhaps the human cost of the crusades (which i was taught was greatest as the weather improved in spring) was too much to bear (a number of kaddish/yizkor issues are tied by many to the crusades) and needed an outlet and the mesorah issue was added on as an additional or philosophical support,”

    I’ve heard this before, but I don’t quite buy it. “The Crusades” lasted some 200 years, so the “story” to me, requires more details and more theology to sound compelling to me.

    It just so happens that the crusades also coincide with the decline of the Geonim, it seems a complicated time with a lot of overlapping factors. There is no question that at some point, Rabbi Akiva was left with only 4 students to rebuild the mesorah with. Why this event wasn’t memorialized until the time of the Rishonim is a tough question. “The Crusades” really doesn’t answer it. Just as “the pogroms” doesn’t answer the emergence of Chasidism.

    However, the explanation I gave earlier is also hallow, because why isn’t a similar memoralization done with Ezra’s rebuilding?

  28. Not sure of your point layman. Please read my original comment (IH on May 11, 2011 at 8:53 am) instead of just the reply to Issac Balbin’s response and come back if we have a disagreement.

  29. If you want to know the actual history of mournig customs during sefirah (as opposed to speculation and theorizing), see Sperber, Minhagei Yisrael, Vol. 1, Chs. 12 and 13.

  30. Scott, do the chapters you cite include all the relevant Jerusalem Talmud excerpts and or the traditions of GRA and the underlying premise thereof.

  31. Apropos: an amusing take on Rabbi Akiva and Bar Kochba from a kosher non-academic source: http://www.jewishanswers.org/ask-the-rabbi-category/the-basics-of-judaism/the-messiah/who-is-the-messiah/?p=1560

  32. m.l., Dr. Sperber’s essays cite many interesting sources that I suspect you are unaware of; I certainly was.

  33. I heard an explanation that, as the RAMBAN writes in his commentary on Chumash, the days between Pesach and Shavuos are “Chol HaMoed” between these two yomim tovim, and so just like we restrict our activities on Chol HaMoed, so we do so during Sefiras HaOmer as well.

    1) Chol hamoed is not a period of mourning.
    2) The details of the omer and chol hamoed prohibitions are completely different.
    3) By your logic, there can be no basis for suspending prohibitions during part of the omer period, i.e. on or after Lag Beomer.

    It just so happens that the crusades also coincide with the decline of the Geonim, it seems a complicated time with a lot of overlapping factors.

    The period of the geonim had ended decades before the first crusade.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geonim
    Furthermore, it is not clear that the end of this period should be understood as the loss of geonim, as opposed to the growing self-sufficiency and independence of Jewish communities in the Western Mediterranean region.

  34. I heard an explanation that, as the RAMBAN writes in his commentary on Chumash, the days between Pesach and Shavuos are “Chol HaMoed” between these two yomim tovim, and so just like we restrict our activities on Chol HaMoed, so we do so during Sefiras HaOmer as well.

    This is found in R. Ya’akov Emden’s Mor U’ketzia, as an explanation of the prohibition on work, not the mourning:

    http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=7921&st=&pgnum=102

  35. MiMedinat HaYam

    regarding movies during sefirah, and what sha’ailot rebbetzin gil is asking her husband, it seems seeing movies with your wife (and / or with children) is not “simchat me’reim”, (but maybe a private simcha) and should be permissible. (how many of us still go to movies with friends anymore?)

  36. IH: It is clear in the Rambam that those that followed Bar Kochba held he was a potential Messiah. That is not the same as a false Messiah unless you have a new definition for such.

  37. Isaac — there is a difference between someone declaring themselves the Messiah (e.g. Shabtai Zvi) versus when others declare someone the Messiah (e.g. Bar Kochba or the Lubavitcher Rebbe). The former is a False Messiah, the latter is what I called false Messianism.

    The comment to which you objected was “Religiously, the Talmud itself is ambivalent about the Bar Kochba rebellion — and particularly its false messianism.”

  38. There is a difference between a failed messiah and a false messiah
    Take Chizkiyah as an example

  39. Agreed. So, is there an explicit Talmudic reference to Bar Kochba as a failed (rather than false) messiah in the same way that we learn (Sanhedrin 94a) that Chizkiyah
    חזקיה שעשית לו כל הנסים הללו ולא אמר שירה לפניך תעשהו משיח

  40. Regarding R. Akiva and Bar Kochba, there is a machlokes between Rav Kook and the Lubavitcher Rebbe whether R. Akiva was wrong about Bar Kochba. See footnote 5 here: http://moshiachtalk.tripod.com/bikores/bikores02.htm

  41. In regard to the Chizkiyah reference, it is worth pointing out that the sugya starts with the prooftext of the unique mem-sofit (or satum) in the middle of the 1st word of Isaiah 9:6:

    דרש בר קפרא בציפורי מפני מה כל מ”ם שבאמצע תיבה פתוח וזה סתום וכו

    the Qumran Isaiah has the mem patuach: http://mordochai.tripod.com/qumran_isaiah.html#top (column 8, end of line 24).

    Bar Kappara was active in E”Y starting about 50 years after the Bar Kochba rebellion was crushed; so perhaps one reading is that this sugya is a silent condemnation of Bar Kochba specifically as a false messiah, in contradistinction to a failed one.

  42. Taka: thanks to Isaac Balbin and Anonymous together with my recent learning of Perek Chelek, the penny just dropped for me. The explanations for how & why this biblical period of celebration was inverted into a period of symbolic mourning — of: a) the martyrdom of R. Akiva’s talmidim; b) the Crusades; and, c) loss of mesorah – are corruptions of the broader original reason.

    Simply put, I conclude the Omer (which was no longer relevant from its original biblical purpose) was re-interpreted as a period of mourning to commemorate the cataclysmic disaster that befell the Jewish people in following the first false messiah – Bar Kochba.

    As a codicil: some 30 to 35 years ago, at a Bnei Akiva event, a madrich gave a talk in which he asked the question I posed earlier. The question has gnawed at me ever since, but I could not remember his conclusion. Now that I reached it on my own, I am pretty confident that was his answer too; but, I did not have the historical awareness to grasp it then. And with that, his name came to mind as well. So, thank you MR wherever you are!

  43. Isaac Balbin: “It is clear in the Rambam that those that followed Bar Kochba held he was a potential Messiah. That is not the same as a false Messiah unless you have a new definition for such.”

    Oh dear. I forgot about the following until I just came across it looking for something else just now:

    בר כוזיבא מלך תרתין שנין ופלגא אמר להו לרבנן אנא משיח אמרו ליה במשיח כתיב דמורח ודאין נחזי אנן אי מורח ודאין כיון דחזיוהו דלא מורח ודאין קטלוהו

    Sanhedrin 93b

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