Jewish Valentine’s Day

August 14, 2022 by Jeremy Rosen
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I would hazard a guess that some fifty per cent of people who call themselves Jews had no idea that last Sunday was the Tisha B’Av, Ninth of Av, much less fast.

Jeremy Rosen

And I would go further and say that seventy per cent have no idea that Friday is the festival of Tu B’Av, the Fifteenth of Av. A date in the Jewish calendar that is virtually ignored. It is mentioned in the Mishnah as being one of the two happiest days in the year alongside the Day of Atonement. It is such a happy day, how come most Jews have never heard about it? What is it for? And even stranger, since when is the Day of Atonement supposed to be a happy day?

The Mishnah (Taanit Chapter 4) quotes Rabban Gamliel

There were no days as joyful in Israel other than Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur, when the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in white clothes so as not to embarrass those who did not have any of their own… and they would go out and dance in the vineyards. And what would they say? Young man, please lift up your eyes and see what wife you choose for yourself. Do not set your eyes on beauty, but consider a good family,  “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is vain, but a good woman who fears the Lord, shall be praised” (Proverbs 31:30).

The Gemara ( Taanit 30b) goes on to explain that initially, from the time of Moses, the tribes were not allowed to intermarry to preserve the property rights of each tribe.  And later, during a civil war, there was a ban on intermarrying with the tribe of Benjamin for its corruption. Both bans were lifted on this day, which explains why it was set aside to encourage young people to get married and they arranged for the young people to go dancing in the vineyards to find a partner. This was, in fact, a huge national singles event. Although I wonder how the very pious allowed mixed dancing!

In a way, Yom Kippur was a singles event, too, because that was the day when most young people came to the Temple. And many years later, to synagogues and hung around outside checking each other out! The happy atmosphere was explained by the rabbis because when they filed out of the Temple after the service of atonement, they were delighted that they had been forgiven, and they celebrated. This is probably where the old Anglo-American tradition of having a post-Yom Kippur ball came from. I should point out that in the Sephardi world, they treat Yom Kippur much less somberly than the Ashkenazim do and their songs are much livelier, precisely for the reason just given!

The Talmud explains that the girls all wore borrowed white dresses to level the field and focus on qualities other than physical ones, such as family, personality, kindness, and modesty. Something that most young Jewish men and women nowadays focus much less on. It is mainly about externals and finance. But the Talmud goes on to say that no matter why or who you marry, you must treat your wife with dignity and respect. So that these dates of the year, were the great dating occasion in Jewish history. And yet for hundreds, even thousands of years it was all but ignored.

As with many post-Biblical occasions, the rabbis liked to add on as many other reasons as possible. Some historical, some religious. The fifteenth of Av was the day on which the deaths of the generation of Jews who were condemned to die in the wilderness ceased.  Or the day on which the guards posted by Jeroboam, the king of the North, were stood down. They were to prevent Israelites from coming to the Temple which was in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, and divided the tribes. And the date commemorated that in the aftermath of the disastrous failed Bar Cochba revolution of 134 CE, the corpses were left in the fields, and on this day, the Romans allowed them to be buried.

Another reason was linked to remembering the Temple service. There was a rota for cutting wood for daily sacrifices. And this was the day in the year when they stopped chopping down trees because there would not be enough time for the wood to dry to be used for the High Holy Days.  Or because, for agricultural reasons, one stopped pruning the trees because the sap stopped rising. And finally, as study replaced sacrifices, this was the beginning of the annual summer public study gatherings initiated in Babylon, and people were reminded of the importance of daily Torah study. So here you have a typical hotch-potch of reasons for celebrating a day that most of us nowadays treat as any other.

Underlying it all are the important themes of remembering the tragedies of the past but also celebrating the importance of marriage, freedom, choice, continuity, and the future. This is why the Mishnah ends with a payer for rebuilding the Temple.

Having gone into the historical background, I should point out that in Israeli secular society, this date has now made a great comeback as the Jewish version of  Valentine’s Day. Even to the point where girls can propose to boys and singles events go wild (and not only to find a partner for life)! All this might look like cultural appropriation, and I do not doubt that if any anti-Zionists found out about this, they would accuse us of pinkwashing.

Increasingly within the Orthodox world, as finding suitable marriage partners or Shiduchim becomes a huge problem, this day has become an important one in arranging to get singles together and arrange marriages.

The revived interest in Tu B’Av  is just another example of how despite some of us try to keep our cultural and religious identity hermetically sealed, the outside world always finds a way to encroach. Is this an example of cultural cross-fertilisation? Or just another way of encouraging us to get (and hopefully stay) married?


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