Why Does "The Jewish Valentine's Day" Matter?
The saddest period in the Jewish yearly cycle takes place in the summer months. Beginning with the 17th of Tammuz, which marks the breaching of the Temple walls by the Romans in 70 CE, our tradition calls for increasing mourning, climaxing three weeks later on the 9th of Av (Tishah B’Av), when the Temple was destroyed. What a surprise, then, that falling only a few days after Tishah B’Av, the 15th of Av (Tu B’Av) is described in the Talmud as one of the two happiest days of the Jewish calendar!
According to the Mishnah, during the time when the Temple stood, Tu B’Av (now often referred to as the Jewish Valentine’s Day) was a day of courtship, when young women would dress in borrowed white dresses and dance in the vineyards, wooing the young men. Amazingly, the same is said of Yom Kippur:
Rabban 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 see what you will select. Pay no attention to beauty but to one of good family.” (Mishnah Taanit 4:8)
Both Yom Kippur and Tu B’Av seem unlikely candidates for days of dancing and lovemaking, since the former is a day of penitence and abstaining, and the latter falls immediately after a time of intense mourning. However, that notion can be flipped on its head, to understand each day as the peaceful end of a period of contemplation and contrition.
Yom Kippur brings a climax and conclusion to the time of cheshbon nefesh (personal accounting) that takes place during the month of Elul and the Days of Awe. Each individual is asked to examine his or her past deeds, and to make all the necessary repairs between self and other. Hopefully, that work is done by Yom Kippur so finally, repairs between self and God can be made and balance can be restored for the year to come. With Yom Kippur, the book is said to be sealed, and, if we have done our work properly, it is said to be sealed with blessings.
Likewise, Tishah B’Av is the culmination of a period of remembrance of strife that took place not only against our people, but also amongst our people. One trend in rabbinic thought understands the destruction of the Temple as a consequence of sinat chinam (baseless hatred) between Jews. Thus, 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, Tishah B’Av asks the same of us as a people.
And, when we rise from our mourning late in the day on the 9th of Av, ideally we do so with empathy and with motivation to create a society free of animosity.
In this sense, both Yom Kippur and Tishah B’Av call our attention to our failings—whether as individuals or as a community. But when we have done our work well, they ultimately point to our capacity for repair. What a joyous realization.
And what better times could there be to look toward relationship and partnership, with our humility, empathy, and ability to restore harmony clearly in focus? Tu B’Av, as a holiday of joy and lovemaking, represents the ultimate rise from mourning and embrace of life and its bounty, with gratitude for our own capacity for love itself.