Full moon, love and other stories: a fascinating rabbinic journey into what is behind the celebration of the “Jewish Valentine”
The three weeks that lead from the 17th Tammuz (breaching of the walls of Jerusalem) to the 9th of Av (Tisha b’Av) are traditionally a period of mourning, known as bein hametzarim – in the narrow straits. So it is all the more surprising that just one week after Tisha b’Av comes an especially joyful festival – the full moon of Av brings us Tu b’Av.
A joyful festival: why?
Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel said: “Never were there any more joyous festivals in Israel than the 15th of Av and the Day of Atonement, for on them the maidens of Jerusalem used to go out dressed in white garments – borrowed ones, however, in order not to cause shame to those who had none of their own. These clothes were also to be previously immersed, and thus the maidens went out and danced in the vineyards, saying: Young men, look and observe well whom you are about to choose”. (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8)
The rabbis of the Gemara are perplexed – “On the 15th of Av and on the Day of Atonement,” etc. It is right that the Day of Atonement should be a day of rejoicing, because that is a day of forgiveness, and on that day the 2nd tablets of the Law were given to Moses; but why should the 15th of Av be a day of rejoicing?” And so begins a fascinating rabbinic journey into what is behind the celebration of the fifteenth (Tu) of’Av.
Said R. Yehudah in the name of Samuel: “On that day it was permitted to the members of the different tribes to intermarry.” Whence is this deduced? Because it is written [Num 36: 6]: “This is the thing which the Eternal has commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophehad,” they claim that “this is the thing” implies the decree was only for that generation, but for later generations the decree doesn’t apply.
Joseph in the name of R. Nachman said: On that day the members of the tribe of Benjamin were permitted to intermarry with the other tribes, as it is written [Judges 21. 1]: “Now the men of Israel had sworn in Mizpah, saying: Not any one of us shall give his daughter unto Benjamin for wife.”
Rabba bar bar Hana said in the name of R. Johanan: On that day the last of those who were destined to die in the desert died, and the destiny was thus fulfilled;
Ulla said: “On that day the guards appointed by Jeroboam to prevent the Israelites from coming to Jerusalem were abolished by Hosea the son of Elah, and he said: ‘Let them go wherever they choose.'”
Matnah said: “On that day permission was given to bury the dead who were killed in battle at the city of Beitar.”
Rabba and R. Joseph both said: On that day they ceased to cut wood for the altar, as we have learned in a Baraita: R. Eliezer the Great said: “From the fifteenth day of Av the heat of the sun was lessened and the timber was no longer dry, so they ceased to cut wood for the altar.”
There is a golden rule in rabbinic exposition – the more explanations given for something, the less likely it is that anyone knows what the explanation actually is. Clearly a celebration on the 15th of Av, which coincided with the beginning of the grape harvest, is part of the custom and practise of the Jews by the time of the Talmud, but its origin is already lost in the mists of time.
Let’s look briefly at the Talmudic explanations before looking at the festival itself.
Five explanations, and one more
The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is told in the book of Numbers– a rare piece of case law in that book and a powerful piece of text about women confronting Moses in order to attain fairness under the law. Zelophehad is dead, he had 5 daughters and no sons, and according to the rules of inheritance at that time, the girls would be left without anything. They approach Moses and argue their case, including the fact that their father will be forgotten in his tribe. Moses has to ask God about the merits of the case, and God tells him that the case of these daughters is valid; they should indeed inherit from their father. Later a problem arises, the leaders of the tribe of Manasseh – which the family of Zelophehad belong to – also bring a petition to Moses. Should daughters inherit when there is no son, and then marry into another tribe, the inheritance and land that would normally stay within the tribe will be given to the tribe that the woman marries into. So the law is amended – such women who inherit land from their fathers must marry only within their own tribe – a limiting phenomenon that itself causes problems. So Rabbi Yehuda quotes Samuel by saying that tribes may now intermarry freely – and the date of this decision was the fifteenth of Av on the last year before the Israelites entered the Land of Israel.
The second explanation in the gemara is from a much darker story found at the end of the book of Judges, where a woman staying overnight in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, was gang raped until she died. The other tribes went to war against the Benjaminites who would not give up the criminals for justice, and a ban was proclaimed which meant no one could marry into that tribe. This ban was eventually lifted on the fifteenth of Av. One assumes that this idea comes from the commonality of Tu b’Av to the statement in the Book of Judges: “And see, and, behold, if the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in dances, then come out of the vineyards, and let every man catch his wife of the daughters of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin.” (21:21)
The third explanation – This comes from a midrash found in the Jerusalem Talmud amongst other texts, which say that the generation who were to die in the desert because of their connection to the sin of the Golden Calf expected to die on Tisha b’Av. This would cause a problem – if there were to be so many deaths on one day, then who would be able to dig the graves and bury the people? So Moses sent out a decree: On Tisha b’Av everyone must dig their own grave and sleep in it. Those who would die would die, and the survivors would simply have to fill in the graves with the bodies already in them. But many did not die who felt that they too were destined for this fate, and so they continued to sleep in the graves they had dug for themselves until they saw the full moon of Av and realised that Tisha b’Av was well and truly behind them. They would live!
The fourth explanation: King Jeroboam (c900BCE) had challenged Rehoboam the son of Solomon, because of his authoritarian rule, and took the ten Northern tribes with him to his capital Shechem. He built two temples as rivals to the one in Jerusalem (Bethel and Dan) and banned his people from going to worship in Jerusalem. Fifty years later, the last King of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, rescinded the ban – on Tu b’Av – and the joy that ensued is encoded in the festival.
The fifth explanation also involves graves, in this case the ones slaughtered in the rebellion against Rome led by the false messiah Shimon bar Kochba in 135. The massacre of the Jews by the Romans was estimated by one Roman historian as being at least 580 thousand dead and many more taken captive into slavery in other parts of the empire. The majority of the Jewish population was exiled from the land and the land given a new name by the Romans – Syria Palestina – to try to sever the connection between the land and the Jews. Tisha b’Av saw the final destruction of Temple and hopes, and the fortress of Beitar was breached and its inhabitants murdered and left unburied. So Rav Matnah’s explanation for Tu b’Av is that 6 days after the tragedy (some stories say a year and six days), the Romans finally permitted the burial of the slaughtered Jews – on Tu b’Av.
After such dramatic explanations the final one in the list is more prosaic, but also most likely to be the case. Simply that the full moon of Av is around the summer equinox, the days are beginning to shorten and one might be less sure of enough dry weather for the wood cut down for the Temple sacrifices to be sufficiently prepared for its use, and any wood cut down later would be liable to smoke unpleasantly. This explanation is bolstered by the fact that we know of customs in the near East whereby the end of the season for cutting wood is marked by celebration including dancing and music.
Reclaiming Tu b’Av, a celebration of life and sensuality
So having established that Tu b’Av was being celebrated in Mishnaic times, that the young women would go out into the vines wearing white dresses they had borrowed so as not to be identified by their clothing, that they danced and sang and that clearly a shidduch market was in full swing on that date – the young men would chase them and choose their brides – the rabbinic tradition tried to explain the event using stories of rape, graves, massacre, orphaned women claiming economic rights and hence losing the right to marry outside of their tribe, civil war and rebellion against both internally among the Jewish people and also against an oppressive occupying power. One has to wonder why.
I am reminded of a recent “tweet” that asks why a prominent politician is tweeting terrible racism, and suggests that the deflection is to stop people paying attention to something worse – the statutory rape of underage girls. Here the rabbinic tradition has a clear story of strong young single women in public space, helping each other with their clothing and “seductively” dancing and singing among the grape vines, with their symbolism of wine and wealth and fertility. So immediately there is a deflection – Beitar! Bnot Zelophehad! Possibly the darkest story in bible of a young concubine gang raped and murdered, whose fate was to be cut into twelve pieces each of which was sent to one of the tribes of Israel! Sin and death and lying in the grave! Rebellion and Massacre!
It seems to me that the Tannaim (the rabbis of the Mishnah, c50-200CE) were fine with the celebrations of Tu b’Av and the fact of young girls out on a summer evening enjoying their bodies, their strength and their music, but the Amoraim (the rabbis of the Gemara c200-500CE) were decidedly not. So Tu b’Av became a date more often ignored than celebrated. The single attention was liturgical – Tachanun (the penitential section of prayers of supplication and confession) are not said on Tu b’Av. Only since the modern State of Israel has been established has Tu b’Av been celebrated – it has become a kind of Jewish “Valentine’s Day”, a day for love, for weddings, for romance. The 19th century Haskalah poet Judah Leib Gordon wrote about its celebration in the newly planted vineyards and certainly for the more secular Israelis this is a Jewish festival to take to their hearts.
It’s worth noting the framing of the Mishnah where Tu b’Av is recorded. It is mentioned in the same breath as the most solemn day in the calendar – Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the white fast. On this day people traditionally wear kittels – the white shrouds they will be buried in. The day is a day of joy as well as penitence, because when we have truly repented, God will forgive us. We leave the day lightened by our activities and return more able to continue with living our lives.
There are real similarities between the two festivals, albeit one is a day out of time “as if dead” and the other a day of sensuous delight. Each reminds us of the importance of living our lives as fully and as well as we can. Each reminds us about living” in the now”, each helps us create our future selves.
So – let’s reclaim Tu b’Av, the full moon that follows three weeks of mourning, that takes place 6 days after the blackest day in the calendar. Let’s remind ourselves that life must continue, joy must be part of our living, that relationships with others matter and that the future is ours to create.