Tisha b’Av was a date I had heard of. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem is commemorated on that date, we mildly observed at the Jewish summer camps of my youth. Tu b’Av, however, I didn’t know about that one, until I was 30 years old and in rabbinical school.
Tu b’Av, or the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Av, is sometimes called “Jewish Valentine’s Day.” In Israel today Tu b’Av it is celebrated like a mild version of its February friend, with restaurant specials and date night deals. Though it hasn’t reached the commercial heights of February 14 in the US, the celebration of Tu b’Av has changed dramatically from the organized evening of matchmaking described in the second Temple Period.
The first mention we have of this holiday comes from Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:8).
Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel said: “The Israelites had no greater holidays than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur, for on those days the maidens of Israel used to go out in white garments, borrowed so as not to put to shame any who had none. These garments were dipped in a ritual bath to purify them, and in them the maidens of Israel would go out and dance in the vineyards. The men would go there, and the maidens would say: Young man, lift up your eyes and consider who you would select (for marriage). Pay no attention to beauty but to one of good family.”
The sages of the Talmud do not agree about the origins of the holiday. Rabbi Judah bar Ilai, Samuel of Nehardea and Rabbah bar Hana, claim it was originally a celebration of changes to marital laws, while according to other midrashim it celebration of the end of Tisha b’Av, or was in some way related to the summer equinox. In addition to the ancient lists of interpretations, modern scholars have likened it to the original Sadie Hawkins dance, allowing women to approach the men these few times a year, and understood it as the remnants of an ancient pagan ritual of sun worship.
We might never know the true origin of Tu b’Av, but as we approach the date on our calendar I am struck by its placement between Tisha b’Av and the start of Elul. Tisha b’Av is the culmination of a period of mourning and repentance and Elul marks the beginning of the season of repentance and preparation for Yom Kippur. Rabbi Jordana Schuster Battis notes in her article, “Why Does The Jewish Valentine’s Day Matter,” that “the summer mourning period calls on us to reflect on and correct the hatreds and misdeeds of our people as a whole. Where Yom Kippur offers an opportunity for personal compunction and mending, Tisha b’Av asks the same of us as a people.”
And between these two challenging periods of reflection on where we’ve gone wrong as a people, as individuals, before we consider how to change ourselves and the world, we make time for a party. Our tradition reminds us to find balance in our lives and in our hearts. Between these periods of judgment we find love. Between sadness of these times we find hope. Between somber work of reflection we take time for joyous play.
As we move from the summer toward the fall, from the weeks leading up to Tisha b’Av toward the days of Elul, you may not want to borrow a white dress and go out dancing and looking for love (though you’re certainly welcome to, as our ancient ancestors once did!) but let us remember to create one more moment of joy before we set upon the personal work before us as the High Holy Days approach.