Tu B’Av: The Jewish Valentine’s Day?

Dear Josep,

A while ago I described Lag B’Omer as “pretty much the most obscure holiday we have.” Well, I lied.

A well-informed Jew who skims over my summary of the Jewish Year might notice that there is a little something missing. I believe when I first posted it, someone did ask me: “What about Tu B’Av?” I probably scoffed and said, “Tu B’Av is not really a thing.”

Well… that isn’t entirely true. Tu B’Av is a thing. Back in the days of the Temple, in fact, it was a major thing. It’s just that it’s not really celebrated by religious Jews in any meaningful way anymore, and more annoyingly, in Israel, it’s been commercialized and turned into the Jewish Valentine’s Day—or, as it were, the Jewish St. Jordi’s Day. 😉

So what is this Tu B’Av and why has it been hijacked by candy hearts and ads for diamond earrings?

The answer, as with everything in this crazy religion, is complicated.

Tu B’Av (the 15th of Av–it falls tonight and tomorrow) is first mentioned in the Talmud as a day of “great celebration” on par with Yom Kippur. The only allusion to it as a holiday within the Bible is in the book of Judges (19-21)–part of an EXTREMELY disturbing, gruesome, and profoundly unromantic story that starts with a horrific gang rape and murder and continues with a bloody civil war between the tribe of Benjamin and the rest of Israel. After the war, there were only 600 Benjaminite men left, and there was a concern that the tribe would be wiped out, because the Israelites had vowed not to give their daughters to Benjaminites in marriage.

The festival of Tu B’Av was used as a solution to the problem, because it involved a kind of bizarre ancient dating game: young women would go into the vineyards near Shiloh wearing white dresses (more on this in a minute), and they would dance. Young men would hide among the vines, and if they spotted one they fancied, they’d snatch her up and marry her.

That way, the Israelites reasoned, we get around the problem because we’re not willingly giving our daughters to the Benjaminites.

The earliest event associated with Tu B’Av, however–according to the Sages–is one that happened many years before. According to the Sages, the Sin of the Spies (Numbers 13-14) occurred on the Ninth of Av, marking it forever as a day of great calamity for the Jewish people. This is when the Israelites sent spies to scout out the land of Israel before entering its borders. When the Spies returned, the opinions were split ten to two: the majority reported that there was no way the Israelites could conquer the land. The remaining two, Joshua and Caleb, said the land was wonderful and that we would conquer it with God’s help. The Israelites believed the pessimistic spies, and cried all night that God had led them to their deaths. They started rebelling and planned to appoint a new leader to return them to Egypt. God was thoroughly exasperated with their lack of faith and gratitude and condemned them to wander in the desert for forty years, until a new generation arose with greater faith in God.

The Sages tell us that every Tisha B’Av for the next thirty nine years, fifteen thousand men of the “desert generation” would die. And in the fortieth year, the last fifteen thousand dug their own graves, and lay down in them, waiting to die, but God granted them reprieve and did not kill them. They say that the fifteenth of Av is when they realized that they were not going to die, and it became a day of celebration–on par with Yom Kippur, as a celebration of God’s forgiveness.

Well, that’s… all very well and good, but I literally had not heard this story at all until a few years ago. It’s just a rabbinic story, a parable, not something we are supposed to accept as historical fact. All other holidays are rooted in the Bible or in documented Jewish history. There are another number of events that are said to have occurred on Tu B’Av that are more well documented, but they occurred well after the festival was already established.

The Talmud describes the rituals observed on Tu B’Av in the days of the Temple. It says that all the girls of Jerusalem would borrow white dresses from one another: a rich girl would borrow from a poor girl, a poor girl from a rich girl, the daughter of a priest from the daughter of a beggar, etc., because on this day they were to be seen as having an equal station: all daughters of God.

The girls would then go out to the vineyards and dance there, as described above.

The unique thing about this ritual is that it erased the lines of class and station, creating an environment where men and women could select their partners based on their wishes and not on the expectations of society.

If  there is common thread among all these stories and ideas, it is a sense of love, brotherhood, and equality among the Jewish people, usually following some kind of conflict. After all, Tisha B’Av is the day the Temple was destroyed, and it is said that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred among Jews. The vineyard ritual, in contrast, blurred the lines that separated us and brought us together as one big family.

…Hey, at least it’s a more logical connection to love than a saint slaying a dragon and handing a flower to a princess, okay?!

After the Temple was destroyed, this day was no longer celebrated. For a very long time the only way it was observed was the omission of certain prayers. Nowadays, religious communities take advantage of the theme to organize singles’ events. To be fair, it’s probably on par with Tu B’Shvat in that it doesn’t really have much practical significance anymore, and its meaning has been channeled towards a more general theme.

Well, call me a spoilsport, but I’d rather pretend this holiday doesn’t exist than acknowledge it as a “Jewish Valentine’s Day.” If Jewish women need a day on the calendar to guilt their husbands into buying them chocolate and make their single friends depressed and miserable about being single, I guess it’s better that it be Tu B’Av than Valentine’s Day. But… yeah. How about no.

Now, if we took a leaf out of your proverbial book and exchanged books on this day, that would be another matter entirely. 😛

But seriously–I’d rather continue to ignore it until someone comes up with a way to celebrate love and brotherhood among Jews in a genuine way that does not focus only on romantic love.

Love,

Daniella

2 thoughts on “Tu B’Av: The Jewish Valentine’s Day?

  1. The Tu’Bav story makes no sense to me at all. Before Reform Judaism came along in the 1800s, there was only what we now call Orthodox Judaism. In Orthodox Judaism, women do not dance before men — not on any day, let alone on some “special” day. One Jewish website’s take on the story is that the dancing occasion offered young men the opportunity to seek out character in the young women. Really? While dancing? There are more sensible, more mutual ways to discern character. The story also bothers me because it has the men hiding behind trees, unseen, while they unilaterally pick out the woman they want. I hear nothing in that which allows the woman any choice of her own. Where’s the Jewish values in that? I’m sorry, but it all sounds bogus to me.

    1. Well, it is recorded in the Talmud, the same Talmud from which we derive the laws of modesty. In The Book of Our Heritage the author strongly emphasizes that when this ritual was done it was done from a place of great spiritual purity, and it was only in that state that it could take place. But like you… I’m not buyin’ it. I think standards of modesty have changed a lot over the years, in both directions. Perhaps they decided that under the circumstances–seeing as the purpose of the exercise was to find a spouse–it would be appropriate.

      But… yeah. The lack of consent here is disturbing, and I agree with you 100% that there are much better ways to discern character!

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