Parshas Va-Eschanan (5768)
One of the least known, but perhaps most joyous, holidays in the Jewish calendar occurs this Saturday, the 16th of August. It has been called the "Jewish Valentine's Day". In Israel today, it is considered a "national love holiday" for singles. There are sunrise-to-sunset rock concerts on the shores of the Sea of Galilee drawing 20,000 love-happy revelers. Parties are everywhere. Matchmaking, online and offline, are the order of the day. Radio stations blare all manner of love solutions. Even bookstores give discounts on their love volumes. Weddings celebrations are found in every nook and cranny of the country.
It is the Jewish holiday of Tu B'Av. Tu B'Av simply means the 15th Day of the Hebrew month of Av, and it is considered one of the most joyous and festive days in the Jewish year.
You're probably saying to yourself as you read this, "Bummer! ... Where have I been?
A really happy and "happening" holiday like this and I never heard about it? Fast days they tell me about, but this Tu B'Av all-night dance party I miss?" To understand the origin and nature of this wonderful holiday, as well as why the majority of Jews don't celebrate it in the way that it was once celebrated, we must explore the traditional sources from where all our knowledge of the Jewish holidays (and everything else in Judaism) comes.
IT TAKES TU B'AV TO TANGO
The last Mishnah in Tractate Ta'anis says:
"There were no holidays so joyous for the Jewish People as Tu B'Av (the Fifteenth of Av) and Yom HaKippurim (The Day of Atonement), for on those days, daughters of Jerusalem would go out dressed in borrowed white clothing [so that they would all look the same and not embarrass those who didn't have nice clothing to wear]."
"And the daughters of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards located on the outskirts of the city. [And all the young men who were not married would go there and watch]."
"And what would the girls say?"
"Young man, lift up your eyes and choose wisely. Don't look only at physical beauty - look rather at the family - 'For charm is false, and beauty is vanity. A G-d-fearing woman is the one to be praised ..." (Proverbs 31:30)"
I don't know about you, but when I first learned this Mishnah, I was really shocked! I mean, it's one thing to put on your dance shoes and head over to the Tu B'Luv ... er, I mean, Tu B'Av Young Jewish Singles Dance-a-Thon on a hot summer night in mid-August. But to do that on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year according to our tradition?! Is that what Jews are supposed to be doing on the Day of Atonement?
I can just imagine this happening in our times in the middle of a long Yom Kippur day, full of fasting and praying and sermons and Yizkor appeals, and then the old Rabbi walks up to the podium and announces, "All right, everyone, as soon as you finish reciting the viduy confession, I want all of you to get up onto the dance floor and BOOGIE!" A bit incongruous, don't you think? Now, I grant you that young Jewish boys and girls getting together and socializing, especially when there are marriage prospects on the horizon, is a good thing, and such a project to bring Jewish singles together should be encouraged and fully supported by every Jewish community. But, surely, there is a time and a place for everything. And maybe Tu B'Av is for lovers, but Yom Kippur is for fasting and serious introspection!
THE DAY THE JEWS GOT UP FROM THEIR GRAVES
In order to appreciate what the "daughters of Jerusalem" were doing on both Yom Kippur and Tu B'Av, we must first try to understand the connection between these two seemingly unrelated holidays. We all know that Yom Kippur is a day when we fast and repent before G-d and He grants us atonement and forgiveness. But that still doesn't explain why we should express such great joy on such a solemn day? And what exactly was it that happened on the Fifteenth day of the month of Av that we should celebrate it so joyously?
The Talmud in Ta'anis gives many explanations and historical reasons for the celebration of the holiday of Tu B'Av, some of which date back to the Jews' sojourn in the desert before they entered the Land of Israel. One of the reasons mentioned there is as follows:
Raba bar bar Chana explains in the name of Rabbi Yochanan that, as the Torah records, the adult Jews who departed from Egypt had a Divine decree placed on them that they were to die before their children entered the land of Israel. This was a punishment for the Sin of the Spies, which caused the Jewish people to lose faith in G-d and His Promised Land. The nation knew that the deaths related to this decree occurred annually on the 9th of Av. Each year, every man in the age group destined to die would dig a grave for himself and lie down in it on the eve on the 9th of Av. All those who remained alive come the close of the 9th of Av would get up, and repeat the same actions the next year. In the 40th year, everyone arose. Seeing that no one had died, they thought that they might have erred in their calculation of the date, so they returned to their graves every night until the night of the 15th. On the 15th, they saw the full moon that indicated that their calculations were correct, and still no one had died. The decree was over, and there was cause for celebration.
Furthermore, the Talmud tells us that as long as those destined to die were still alive, the Divine Communication between G-d and Moses was on a lower and less personal level, to the extent that the Talmud considers it "no Divine Communication". Once the 15th of Av passed and it was confirmed that the decree was no longer, G-d resumed speaking to Moses as he had before the enactment of the decree. As this communication was for the benefit of Israel, the day it returned was a day of rejoicing and celebration.
So, in essence, the Talmud is teaching us that Tu B'Av is the celebration of our return to G-d's favor and the restoration of our total "love relationship" with G-d to its former glory.
This is a quality that is shared with the Day of Atonement. We are taught that on Yom Kippur, Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the second set of Tablets with the Ten Commandments written on them, signifying G-d's forgiveness of His beloved Jewish people and a complete atonement for the Sin of the Golden Calf.
THE HOLIEST SINGLES PARTY EVER
This intimate connection and restored love-bond with G-d is the essence of the tremendous joy that the Jewish people experienced on these two days, Yom Kippur and Tu B'Av, and why, even in the solemn and awe-filled atmosphere of the Day of Atonement, young Jewish girls and boys were celebrating so festively. Since they felt a tremendous bond and closeness with the Al-mighty, they channeled that joy into a simcha shel mitzvah - the spiritual joy and happiness of young Jewish boys and girls coming together in the holy bond of Jewish marriage to live spiritually fulfilling and meaningful lives together.
And it was precisely because the Jewish people felt such a joy and closeness to G-d on these two special holidays that their young ones were able to dance in front of each other without it turning into some type of wild party that could greatly compromise the holiness and solemnity of the day. This is why we find, for example, that "the daughters of Jerusalem would dress in borrowed white clothing" so that they would not look better than those who didn't have nice stuff to wear. Imagine that! Your rich friend owns a gorgeous Armani gown, but she doesn't put it on for the big party because the poor girl down the block is going to be wearing K-mart!
And the Mishnah tells us that even those girls with knock-em-dead looks, when all the guys would gather around them, would proclaim, "Don't pay any attention to my figure, just remember that it's the fear of G-d that really counts!" As you can readily see, this was not your typical meat market/singles party where the cute girls with the rich daddies get all the attention, and the rest of them just sit around wishing they could leave and plop into bed with a Valium.
This also explains why, with the exception of some party-going Israelis, the Jewish people haven't been putting on the dance shoes and doing the tango on Yom Kippur or, for that matter, on Tu B'Av, for the better part of the last two thousand years.
You see, one has to be extremely spiritually sensitive to be able to feel the manifest joy of G-d's love and closeness to us during the holidays of Yom Kippur and Tu B'Av, so as to be able to express that joy in the meeting and matchmaking of young Jewish boys and girls in a pure and holy way. Otherwise, the unfettered joy could, G-d forbid, turn into the type of party which loses its spiritual flavor and devolves into something inappropriate for the spiritually elevated status of the holiday.
And maybe the earlier generations were on such a level that they could have Yom Kippur Balls and Tu B'Av All-You-Can-Eat Singles Shindigs and not compromise the lofty nature of the day, but we of later times are not willing to run those risks. And when we do make attempts to celebrate Tu B'Av these days as in the days of old, things usually end up like a really bad imitation of Valentine's Day, devoid of any real spiritual substance, and probably missing the point of what Tu B'Av was meant to be.
THE JEWISH WAY IN DATING AND MARRIAGE
So, you're probably wondering ... if the way young Jewish girls and boys used to celebrate on Tu B'Av years ago is no longer practiced in traditional circles, why bother mentioning the holiday in the first place? After all, hardly anyone has even heard of Tu B'Av - and now we know why - so why bring it up?
The importance of Tu B'Av, in my humble opinion, for our generation that doesn't really celebrate it as we should, is to call attention to proper Jewish dating and the proper focus of Jewish marriage. There are so many people out there, single or married, who are trying to find "the right one" or to make sure that they stay married to "the right one", and in today's world, where unhappy singles and divorced couples are everywhere, we need all the help we can get.
So maybe we aren't as "holy" as the earlier generations who, while pursuing their life partners and dancing in front of them on Tu B'Av, seemed to focus entirely on who the other person was inside, not letting outer beauty and material wealth blind them from seeing true character and inner beauty. But at least we can take our cue and inspiration from those dancing Jewish girls, and, starting from this Tu B'Av, we can begin to learn what the Torah has to teach us about what to look for in a spouse and how to enter into and maintain the ideal Jewish marriage - a marriage in which we will find true love, harmony, fulfillment, meaning and peace. And that is definitely something to dance about ... any day of the year!