Av Harachamim (The Father of Mercy)
Shoichen meroimim (Who dwells on high)
Berachamov ha’atzumim (In his great mercy)
Hu yifkoid berachamim (Will ‘remember’ with compassion)
Ha’chassidim ve’hayshorim (The Pious, The Upright)
Ve’hatmimim (And the Blameless)
Kehilos hakodesh (The Holy Communities)
Sh’mossru nafsham (Who laid down their lives)
Al kedushas Hashem (For Sanctification of G-d’s Name)
Yizkereim - Yizkereim (Remember them, Remember them)
Elokeinu le’tovah (May our G-d remember them for good)
Yizkereim - Yizkereim (Remember them, Remember them)
Im she’ar tzaddikei olam (Together with the other Righteous of the world)
The days between Pesach and Shavuot, the period of the counting of the Omer, are a time of conflicting emotions. We count the Omer joyously, expectantly leading up to the giving of the Torah, yet observe customs of mourning for the students of Rabbi Akiva who perished during this period.
A noteworthy custom fitting the mood of the Sefira period deals with the prayer Av Harachamim. Av Harachamim, recited on Shabbat after the Torah reading was written in response to the Crusades. In it we memorialize the righteous martyrs and pray for retribution for their spilled blood. Av Harachamim is generally not recited on Shabbatot which have an added celebratory nature - such as Shabbat Mevarchim (the Shabbat in which we bless the new month). In many congregations during the Shabbatot of Sefirat Haomer, Av Harachamim is recited even on the Shabbatot in which we bless Iyar and Sivan. The Mishna Brura (284,18) adds, that even if there is a Brit Milah that Shabbat, giving us a second reason why Av Harachamim should not be recited, Av Harachamim is still said, since this was the season of the tragedies.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, in a Sicha given in 5743, explains that the Av Harachamim prayer may be understood in two ways. The first is as a source of inspiration to repent. "When we see that the 'Father of Mercy' (G-d) is dealing harshly with His children, a Jew should realize it is for the purpose of cleansing His children of their sins -- which inspires repentance. However, although this indicates G-d's great love for His children, it is still not an evident good -- for while G-d deals harshly for a good purpose (to cleanse), the behavior itself is still harsh. The second, ultimate level in saying Av Harachamim is in transforming the undesirable events to good -- that there is only evident good, the superiority of light which comes (specifically) from previous darkness ."
This understanding of Av Harachamim can give us insight into the contemporary special days added to the Jewish calendar during this period. Many end the month of Nisan with Yom Hashoah - established by the government of the State of Israel to commemorate the Holocaust. In Iyar we have Yom Hazikaron - Remembrance day for the soldiers and victims of terror, followed by Yom Haatzmaut - Israel Independence Day. Finally on 28 Iyar we have Yom Yerushalayim, a day celebrating the liberation of Jerusalem during the Six Day War.
These days take us from tragedy to triumph, from mourning to joy. We mourn the fallen and exult in our victories. We do not see the tragedies and triumphs as separate entities, but rather, as all coming from Av Harachamim - The Father of Mercy. Decrees against the Jewish people, whether past or present, must bring us to teshuva - repentance. As we read in Devarim (30, 1- 5):
"And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon thee, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before thee, and thou shalt bethink thyself among all the nations, whither Hashem thy G-d hath driven thee, and shalt return unto Hashem thy G-d, and hearken to His voice according to all that I command thee this day, thou and thy children, with all thy heart, and with all thy soul; that then Hashem thy G-d will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the peoples, whither Hashem thy G-d hath scattered thee. If any of thine that are dispersed be in the uttermost parts of heaven, from thence will Hashem thy G-d gather thee, and from thence will He fetch thee. And Hashem thy G-d will bring thee into the land which thy fathers possessed, and thou shalt possess it; and He will do thee good, and multiply thee above thy fathers."
We pray for Hashem to "before our eyes exact retribution for the spilled blood of His servants" and hope for a time when the month of Iyar, called in Tanach the month of Ziv - Splendor, will be a time of joy and unity for all Am Yisrael.
Av Harachamim is a touching, poignant dirge which was written in the late 11th / early 12th Century, after the destruction of the Ashkenazi communities around the Rhine River (such as Mainz, Speyer and Worms) at the hands of the Crusaders. These were deeply religious communities which produced the Baalei Tosafot who were very much dedicated to religious observance and Torah learning. Many of the dirges that we recite on Tisha B'Av were written during this period - although Av Harachamim is the only one to have actually entered the regular Shabbat liturgy. Because of its mournful content, it is generally not read whenever it is a Shabbat of special joy, such as a Shabbat of a circumcision, a Shabbat for a groom or the Blessing of the New Moon.
The exception to this rule is the Shabbat between Rosh Chodesh Iyar and Shavuot, since these communities were actually destroyed during this period and the Ashkenazi custom of mourning during Sefira emanates from that destruction. Indeed, the Adat Yeshurun Breuer community *only* recites the Av Harachamim prayer during this period of Shabbatot.
Hence, despite the fact that there are some dissenting voices, I have ruled for Efrat that all Ashkenazi synagogues recite Av Harachamim during these Shabbatot even if it is the Shabbat of Rosh Chodesh Iyar. It is also important to note that Rav Yaakov Emden in his interpretation of the prayer book suggests that the fatal flaw of these communities was that although they were extremely pious in every respect, they did not think of making aliyah to Israel. It was an irony of history that the Crusaders destroyed them on their way to freeing the land of Israel from Saracen (Moslem) domination.
[The supernal attribute of Mercy of Atzilut is known as Av Harachaman ("the Merciful Father"), while the Thirteen Divine Attributes of Mercy are called Av Harachamim ("the Father and source of Mercy"). http://www.zalman.org/tanya/book-1/41-53/chap45.htm (It is for this reason that on especially propitious occasions, the term Av Harachamim is used in the prayers, rather than Av Harachaman.)