An ongoing series…

In the past I defined halachics as “the study of the application of Halachic categories to contemporary behaviors and situations.” I believe that I may have to slightly amend that definition, but let’s not get caught up in semantics.

A.K.A. Pella, a Jewish music band, has released an album that is ‘kosher’ for listening to during the Omer. Many religious Jews refrain from listening to music, though that prohibition comes in a variety of flavors. Some people listen to no music at all, while others refrain from hearing live music. For many, the key distinction is between live and recorded music, but others claim that unaccompanied vocal music is permissible, but not music with instruments.

For years, a cappella music, which features only human voices, presented a halachic question during the Omer, and many rabbis, including Rabbi Henkin, allowed it. In fact, many Jewish a cappella groups find themselves in high demand during the Omer, when other musicians are precluded from performing at most religious Jewish events. Generally, though a cappella groups do mimic instruments with their voices, and use musical arrangements that help to create the illusion that instruments are being played, the illusion is largely superficial, and even with eyes closed it is easy to tell that humans are singing.

Not so the new album from A.K.A. Pella. The album features the voice of only one singer, who happens to mimic some instruments pretty well. After he recorded the various parts, the band augmented, modified, and otherwise played around with his recording to make it nearly indistinguishable from an instrumental album, and has traded on the verisimilitude by subtitling the album: “So good it should be assur!”

The issue does present some interesting halachic possibilities. Should a computer like the one used to modify the vocal tracks be considered an instrument for the purposes of prohibiting listening to the album? Alternatively, can we rest on an essentialist doctrine that claims that even though your ears can’t tell the difference between the voice and the instruments, your ears don’t decide the halacha, and the use of instruments affects the spiritual worlds in real ways that the voice simply cannot duplicate?

As usual, I think the above misses the point. The character of the Omer period itself is what is at stake. What began as an anxious but exciting time period on the agricultural calendar (anxious because though the barley crop was in, assuring feed for the animals, the wheat crop would have to wait seven more weeks, and the crop was at its most vulnerable to unseasonable weather) turned into a period of mourning some 1500 years into Jewish history, with the collapse of the Bar-Kochba uprising and the deaths of the students of Rabbi Akiva. Since that time, various other mournful moments were added to the omer, including mourning over the Jewish martyrs killed during the various pogroms that were so common during the time of the Crusades.

More recently though, the Omer has taken on a different tone. The corridor from Yom Hashoah through Yom Hazikaron, Yom Ha’atzmaut, and finally Yom Yerushalayim change the nature of the Omer in subtle and dramatic ways. Yom Hashoah commemorates the Holocaust, but I think it does more than that. I think that it manages to distill all the suffering, exile, destruction, and dehumanization that Jews have experienced since the destruction of the Second Temple in a way that the more religiously sanctioned fast days of Asara B’Tevet and Tisha Be’Av cannot.

After Yom Hashoah, we come to Yom Hazikaron, and the understanding that our suffering, our pain, our deaths and our sacrifices are no less painful for being meaningful, but they are preferable. In our hearts we believe that every Jew who died at the hands of the Nazis would have preferred to die, gun in hand, as a member of Tzahal. The devastation of the Holocaust did birth a new reality in which Jews could and would defend themselves. A small step perhaps, in acknowledging the humanity of the Jew, but a miraculous one nonetheless.

Finally, after the grieving and weeping of Yom Hazikaron come to a close, the siren wails, whether in the street or just in our hearts and minds, and Yom Haatzmaut begins. It is a celebration of salvation, independence, self-reliance, identity, and hope. We sing, dance, recite Hallel (some of use even make a bracha on it!) and spend time with family and friends. And soon after, we rejoice over the conquest of Jerusalem on Yom Yerushalayim, and yet another milestone in the return to Zion.

Whatever the Omer may have been, these holidays transform it, and they make the question of whether driving a truck through the halachic loophole of vocal performances is permitted almost obscene! The Omer is not a time of mourning anymore! It is extremely difficult to conjure up feelings fro Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students, or the countless victims of Europe’s Middle Ages. But we trudge along with our traditions because that’s what we do as Jews – we observe our faith, even as we find little meaning in the observation. So enough already! I try to reflect this in my life. I personally would avoid planning a simcha during the Omer, out of respect for our cultural traditions. I don’t shave during sefirah, but I do trim my beard on Rosh Chodesh, Yom Haatzmaut, Yom Yerushalayim, and Lag Ba’Omer. But I listen to music of all kinds (I’m a musician though, so my relationship to music may be somewhat different from that of a non-musician), even as I am meticulous about counting the Omer every night with a bracha.

Enough! Here we had a period of mourning that we observed for 2000 years. One day, God gave us our land back during this period, and a few years later, he restored the very heart of our religion to us, during that very same period. What more do we need? God has reversed our mourning, and turned our tears into laughter. At least, let’s compress the mourning of the Omer so that it lasts only until the final siren sound at the close of Yom Hazikaron fades, drowned out by the laughter and song of Yom Ha’atzmaut.

Hat tip: Avakesh