The Jewish holiday of love
Since it takes place in summer, Tu b’Av has become popular for open-air events. A local example is the JNF Future’s annual Summer Sail, for which guests are encouraged to follow the tradition of wearing white.
Picture this potentially risqué scene: “… the daughters of Jerusalem used to go out … and dance in the vineyards [and] whoever did not have a wife would go there.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, this description is in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Taanit, 31a. In the days before internet dating sites and apps, speed-dating or singles bars, this was how Jewish singles met up at least once a year, on Tu b’Av. Welcome to the Jewish day of romance, Temple-times style.
Maybe it didn’t go as far as the cliché “clothes make the [wo]man,” but even back then, it apparently mattered what you wore to the vineyard. The bachelorettes decked out in white. If a single woman didn’t have white clothes, she’d borrow from someone else. In fact, the tractate describes this nice touch – everyone borrowed, so that no one felt embarrassed if they didn’t have something.
Presumably, wearing white at night had its advantages, too, as it made the women stand out in the moonlit vineyard. Moreover, when we think “white,” most of us think purity and, associatively, virginity, which brings us to this: wearing white underscores the next step, the Jewish wedding. At this ceremony, both the bride and the groom traditionally wear white – the groom (chatan, in Hebrew) puts on a white robe (kittel) or a prayer shawl (tallit) and the bride wears a white dress.
The writings of medieval Jewish scholars like Rabbi Aaron ben Jacob ha-Kohen and Rabbi ben Solomon ibn Abi Zimra (the Radbaz) suggest that wearing white at Jewish wedding ceremonies is a very old custom. They write that one’s wedding day is like a personal Yom Kippur, when the bride and groom’s sins are forgiven. Thus, the wearing of white becomes a proof-text for the line from Isaiah 1:18: “If your sins prove to be like crimson, they will become white as snow.”
Jewish scholars actually connect Yom Kippur and Tu b’Av. Unexpectedly, the Talmud claims that Tu b’av is as important as Yom Kippur in at least one way: “Rabbi Shimon b. Gavriel said: There were no days as joyous in Israel like the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur.” (Taanit 26b)
Chag Haahava, the Holiday of Love, or Tu b’Av (the 15th day of the Jewish month of Av), falls just six days after we mournfully recall that, on Tisha b’Av (Ninth of Av), both the First and Second Temples were destroyed, and numerous other Jewish catastrophes occurred. Here again, we link Tu b’Av to another Jewish wedding custom – the breaking of the glass, recalling the Temples’ destruction.
According to Tractate Taanit (30b-31a), the 15th of Av also joyously commemorates a number of other events in early Jewish history:
(1) This day marked the end of the “wilderness” generation; that is, the end of G-d’s punishing with death the Hebrews who had been the contemporaries of the spies who lacked the requisite faith for conquering the land (Numbers 14: 29-35). The 40 years of desert wandering ceased at this point and the children of the exiles entered Canaan.
(2) On 15 Av, G-d lifted the restriction on intermarriage between members of the 12 tribes.
(3) G-d reinstated the tribe of Benjamin, which He had banned for the tribesmen’s gang rape in Gibeah of a visiting concubine, who subsequently died.
(4) During the Temple period, the task of providing firewood for sacrifices ended on 15 Av, when the woodcutters would ceremoniously break their axes.
(5) Hosea, son of Elah, the last king of the Northern Kingdom, permitted travel to Jerusalem’s Holy Temple for the pilgrimage holidays.
(6) This day also marks when permission was given to bury those killed by the Romans at the Betar fortress.
While the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) doesn’t specify any particular customs for Tu b’Av, it does indicate that, as with other joyous days in the Jewish year, Jews should skip reciting tachanun (confession of sins) on this day.
Given the injunction to “be fruitful and multiply,” it is not hard to understand why this ancient holiday was judged to be so important. Indeed, one could make the claim that the holiday’s timing is hardly coincidental. It comes when the moon is full, reminding us that its cycle parallels women’s 28-day reproductive cycle.
Moreover, on a spiritual level, the sun’s illumination of the full moon suggests a cosmic union of the masculine and feminine – a kesher (Hebrew for connection) between G-d and His Divine Presence (Shekhinah). Rabbi Dr. Jill Hammer writes: “In the Zohar, the full moon signals the time when the
Divine womb creates pure and blessed souls. It is the time when the moon and sun, which, in kabbalist thought, represent the feminine and masculine faces of G-d, are most in contact. The Zohar [notes] that, at the full moon, the Shekhinah is called a field of apples, while at the dark moon, she is called field of anatot [poverty].”
It is somewhat ironic that this great holiday was not celebrated in Israel until recently. But Israelis seem to be making up for lost time. As Tu b’Av approaches, articles on the true meaning of love appear on a variety of websites, in ultra-Orthodox through to humanistic Judaism posts. Moreover, the day has evolved into a favorite Jewish Israeli wedding date – to get married on this day, couples must make their wedding arrangements far in advance.
As Tu b’Av falls in the summertime – this year, it starts the evening of Aug. 18 – it is ideal for outdoor events. Hence, the holiday has become popular for open-air evening concerts and all-day festivals.
As we become more of a global community, it is not surprising that modern Tu b’Av rituals have been influenced by Valentine’s Day accoutrements. Indeed, Tu b’Av art often mimics Valentine’s Day graphics, Israeli magazines guide people to romantic getaways, Israeli newspapers recommend places to feast on heart-shaped ravioli or splurge on rich chocolate mousse desserts or get tipsy on Pink Monica cocktails.
Anyone interested in learning more about Jewish rituals for celebrating Tu b’Av, however, can start their research at ritualwell.org.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.