Tomorrow is the minor Jewish holiday of Tu b’Av, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Av. In its origins, it marks a turning point in the annual calendar. Preceded by a three-week period of national mourning that has culminated in the grim fast of Tisha b’Av (the ninth of Av), it is a day of comfort before the annual cycle moves into the long period of repentance that will climax on Yom Kippur, the day of forgiveness.
In the Talmud, Tu b’Av does not demand any particular ritual observances—which means that even those Jews aware of its existence have tended to regard it as a pleasant afterthought to Tisha b’Av. But in contemporary Jewish circles, especially among the Modern Orthodox, it has become a kind of Jewish Valentine’s Day, celebrated with singles’ mega-events like sunset cruises on boats swathed in pink and red heart-shaped balloons.
There is basis in the Talmud for this practice. Moreover, as a careful reading reveals, the significance the rabbis attributed to the day is relevant in other ways to our own moment in Jewish history.
Tu b’Av is introduced at the end of Tractate Taanit, which is concerned primarily with fast days instituted in response to drought or national calamity. Here’s the opening statement:
Rabbi Simon ben Gamliel said, “There were no holidays in Israel like the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur we understand: it is a day of forgiveness and atonement and also the day on which the second set of tablets of the law was given [to Moses at Sinai]. But Tu b’Av? What’s that about?”
At first glance, the conjoining of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the calendar, with Tu b’Av may well strike one as astonishing enough in itself. In fact, it will turn out to be a key to understanding everything that ensues. But let’s put it aside for now to follow the text. Immediately afterward come six opinions about what exactly the day commemorates. We can take these one by one:
Rabbi Judah said in the name of Samuel, “It was the day on which the tribes were allowed to marry each other.”
To grasp Judah’s meaning, it helps to know that the Talmud interprets the biblical book of Numbers as forbidding intertribal marriage to the generation of Israelites who entered the land of Canaan following the death of Moses. According to Judah, that interdiction expired on the fifteenth of Av.
The next opinion is similar:
Rabbi Joseph said in the name of Rabbi Naḥman, “[It was] the day in which the tribe of Benjamin was allowed once again to come into the community [i.e., to marry members of other tribes].
Here the reference is to a shocking incident at the end of the book of Judges, when “there was no king in the land and everyone did what was right in his eyes.” After a gang of thugs in the Benjaminite town of Gibeah brutally rape and murder the concubine of a traveler from the territory of Ephraim, the other eleven tribes unite to make war on Benjamin and swear not to allow their daughters to marry Benjaminites. The final lines of Judges describe the revocation (or expiration?) of the oath amid dancing and celebration—on, according to Joseph, the fifteenth of Av.
With this, the Talmud moves on to a third interpretation:
Rabbi Yoḥanan said, “[It was] the day on which the generation of the desert stopped dying, for it is taught that God did not speak to Moses again until the dying stopped.”
The background here is again Numbers, in this case God’s punishment of the Israelites by decreeing 40 years of wandering in the desert until everyone over the age of nineteen will have died; only then will the younger generation enter the promised land. According to the Talmud, that decree was issued on the ninth of Av; 38 years later, on the fifteenth of Av, the last member of the old generation died. Yoḥanan thus understands the intervening period to have been one of national mourning, during which Moses received no prophecies.
The fourth theory takes us to the book of Kings:
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Ulla said, “It was the day on which Hosea ben Elah removed the roadblocks set up by Jeroboam to prevent [residents of his northern kingdom of] Israel from making pilgrimages to Jerusalem; from that point on, anyone who wished to travel to Jerusalem could do so.”
After the death of Solomon, Jeroboam had led the secession of the ten northern tribes and cut his subjects off from the temple; Hosea, the kingdom’s final ruler, removed the obstacles. For Ulla, as for the first two sages cited, Tu b’Av thus marks the end of a period of intertribal division.
The fifth interpretation connects the holiday to a more contemporary tragedy:
Rabbi Matna said, “It was the day on which those who had been killed at Beitar were brought for burial.”
In the year 135 CE (on, according to tradition, the ninth of Av), Beitar became the last Jewish fortress to fall to the Romans during the Bar Kokhba revolt. The bloody suppression of this rebellion was a devastating coup de grâce, extinguishing the last hopes of a national revival after the destruction of the Temple 65 years earlier. Like the explanation connecting Tu b’Av to the 40 years of wandering, this one sees the date as bringing closure, if not healing, to the wounds of Tisha b’Av.
Here let’s pause to consider the common thread connecting these five interpretations: namely, the overcoming of separation. The first three involve barriers, whether marital or physical, among the tribes. The fourth, marking the termination of wandering in the wilderness, invokes the removal of a barrier not among tribes but between Moses, and by extension the people, and God. For the fifth, the separation is between the living and the dead, overcome on the fifteenth of Av when the scattered remains of Beitar’s defenders were gathered together and given dignified burial.
There’s another link joining these explanations: in each, fragmentation is overcome through the passage of time. In the first three, one generation has gone and another has arisen; likewise, centuries have elapsed in the northern kingdom’s separation from the southern, and time enough has passed for natural processes of decay to work on the bodies of the defenders of Beitar..
So far, however, the events marked by Tu b’Av appear to offer only partial reconciliation, void of repentance and short on healing (This, in marked contrast to Yom Kippur where self-examination, regret, and resolve to do better can remove the barriers that keep humans distant from God.) The men of Benjamin do not undergo soul-searching in the aftermath of their crime; rather, their enforced marital situation simply becomes intolerable.
As for the bloody civil war between Benjamin and the other tribes, it might be ended but national reunification under King Saul will not happen for at least another generation. Nor is Hosea, who helpfully removes Jeroboam’s roadblocks to Jerusalem, regarded by the book of Kings as exceptionally virtuous, being only a little less bad than his predecessors. In his day, after all, the northern kingdom will be destroyed by the Assyrians and the ten tribes dispersed—the opposite of reunification. Likewise, after the dead of Beitar are buried, the Jews enjoy but little respite, being still without a state, a temple, or tangible hope of national restoration.
To these five explanations, all of which understand Tu b’Av as commemorating a specific moment in Jewish history, the Talmud adds a sixth, very different one:
Rabba and Rabbi Joseph both said that on that day people stopped chopping wood for the altar. Rabbi Eliezer the Great said that on that day the heat of the sun begins to wane, so they stopped cutting wood for the altar because it wasn’t dry.
The main altar in the Temple required large piles of kindling every day: a kind of national project. By Tu b’Av, as the scorching sun began to weaken and the trees’ vital sap returned, wood required a more prolonged drying period before becoming suitable for burning. This was a natural cycle, not susceptible of human manipulation. In appending this statement to the other five, the Talmud would seem to be suggesting an analogy between the natural rhythms of the seasons and those of Jewish history. Oppressive events and periods sometimes end not by spiritual transformation but by the sheer passage of time—an apt message for today’s post-Holocaust generations as it was for the post-Bar Kokhba generation in which so many of the leading talmudic sages lived.
But what does all this have to do with sunset cruises?
After explaining the holiday’s raison d’être, the Talmud goes on to describe a single ritual that, it implies, was operative only when the Temple still stood:
On [Yom Kippur and Tu b’Av] the maidens of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white clothes, so as not to embarrass those who had no such clothes, and . . . dance in the vineyards.
The rabbis taught: the daughter of a king would borrow from the daughter of the high priest and the daughter of the high priest from the daughter of the deputy high priest [and so forth] . . . and all Israelites would borrow from one another so that no one would be embarrassed. . . . Any man who had no wife would go there.
The maidens from distinguished families would say, “Young man! Pay no attention to looks, but seek out a girl from a good family.” . . . What would the most beautiful girls say? “Young man, pay heed to beauty, because a woman is all about her looks.” . . . What would the disfavored ones say? “Take your merchandise for the sake of heaven [i.e., out of a righteous impulse], as long as you crown her with gold jewelry.”
While the Talmud is not explicit about it, we might easily connect this dance with the two rabbinic views that link Tu b’Av to the lifting of restrictions on intertribal marriage. But let’s try to make sense of the details before going on to the broader meaning.
A touching generosity marks the dress-swapping that occurs before the dance. At a moment when one might expect a competitive preoccupation with oneself to take precedence, the women instead share. Switching clothes softens the edge of rivalry, levels the advantages of wealth, protects the disadvantaged from embarrassment.
To be sure, the words the Talmud puts into the mouths of the “maidens” can jar on the modern ear. The beautiful or high-born flaunt their advantages; the less favored urge prospective suitors to prioritize the mitzvah of marriage and to honor their brides with adornments. Yet the overall effect of both clothes and words is to democratize desire: the poor or the plain have as much right to marry as the wealthy or beautiful, and the religious imperative—marrying for the sake of heaven—gives everyone a chance at fulfillment.
This twinned theme of egalitarianism and dancing brings us to the lines with which the talmudic tractate of Taanit concludes:
Ulla said in the name of Rabbi Elazar: in the future the Holy One Blessed be He will arrange a circle dance for the righteous. He will sit among them in the Garden of Eden and every one of them will point and say, “In that day they shall say, this is our God: we trusted in Him, and He delivered us. This is the Lord in whom we trusted. Let us rejoice and exult in His deliverance!” (Isaiah 25:9)
The 19th-century ḥasidic master Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica (known after the name of his main book as “the Mei Shiloaḥ”) took this passage as vindicating an egalitarian hope that he attributes to Koraḥ, the leader of a desert rebellion against Moses. Koraḥ’s main grievance was the elevation of Aaron and his descendants to serve as priests. In Rabbi Leiner’s view, Koraḥ was motivated not by raw envy alone but, in protesting that “the entire congregation is holy,” also by a kernel of moral principle. What he failed to grasp was that this truth would be realized only in the messianic future.
In this connection, Rabbi Leiner cites the circle dance in our passage, noting that, in a circle, no one is closer to the center than anyone else. Like the Tu b’Av dance of the maidens, the future circle dance of the righteous will erase hierarchies and extend the fulfillment of the human desire both for love and for closeness to God.
This reading helps us to see what links the two dances. Still, questions remain about the entire sequence of passages concerning Tu b’Av. How to justify the provocative comparison between this minor holiday and Yom Kippur? Is there some deeper bond with the theme of spouse-seeking than the biblical story of inter-tribal marriage? Or some deeper relevance to the messianic circle dance? And why does the tractate of Taanit, which mainly deals with communal responses to disaster and drought, end on this note?
The last of these questions, I think, is the key to answering the others. In addressing its main subject, Taanit is much preoccupied with nature and the cycle of the seasons. It begins with the question of the date on which one begins reciting the prayers for rain, an issue of vital importance in biblical and talmudic times as also in modern-day Israel. Without the proper alternation between rainy and dry seasons, agriculture is impossible. Although the annual rhythm is somewhat predictable, there is always the fear that the rains will come late—hence the constant juxtaposition in Taanit between the natural (the seasons) and the supernatural (the role of prayer and fasting to beseech God for rain when it doesn’t arrive on time).
Tu b’Av occurs as summer starts to wane but autumn has not yet begun. Although it doesn’t signify full healing from national trauma, it does signal the beginning of the recovery process. In this sense, as we have seen, it is a day of reconciliation, whether among tribes or between the Jewish people and God. In Jewish sources, that latter relationship is often likened to a marriage, and especially so in Taanit.
The philosopher Stanley Cavell, in an analysis of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (a drama similarly concerned with the theme of reconciliation effected both through repentance and by the passage of time), writes that “marriage is located as the art, the human invention, which changes nature, which gives birth to legitimacy, lawfulness.” If so, then the marriage dance that ends Taanit, in addition to symbolizing the reunification of God and Israel, is also a culmination of Taanit’s signature theme of humanity as a part of and yet apart from nature. In representing the circular relationship between heaven and earth and among God, rainfall, and the natural world, it reminds us that this relationship is subject to, and irrevocably altered by, the involvement of humanity.
Therein may reside the link between the happy minor holiday of Tu b’Av and the most holy day of Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, humanity is granted the ability to rectify the past through the freely chosen act of repentance, t’shuvah. The pairing and comparing of these days ask us to note how, as agents of healing, t’shuvah and time intermingle. Where does human agency end, where do natural processes take over? Wedding dances in the fields at harvest time, emblematic of the reassertion of natural vitality in human affairs, unfix these boundaries; the switching of clothes on such occasions indicates a temporary suspension of the social structures that can limit the flow of renewed life. Just as the late-summer waning of the sun precedes the rains of fall and winter, so, too, a salutary passage of time may be necessary before we can take stock of our lives, labor to improve, make our way back to God—and allow God to return to us.
On this journey, Tu b’Av offers at once a stopping place, a point of departure, and a foretaste of the great dance of redemption.