Ask Rabbi Zalman: Sweet! There’s a Jewish Valentine’s Day Too?

This is a guest post by Rabbi Z Bendet, Rabbi with Chabad of Greater St. Paul and Director of the St. Paul chapter of the Jewish Learning Institute. ”Ask Rabbi Zalman” is TC Jewfolk’s new column for all those questions you were afraid to ask in Hebrew school. Got a question for the Rebbe? Email it to [email protected]

Dear Rabbi Zalman,
I hear that today is the holiday of Tu B’av, which is a sort of Jewish Valentine’s Day. That’s awesome. I love excuses to get flowers and chocolate. Can you tell me more about the holiday? And how should we celebrate it?
– Jewish Love Child

Dear J. Love Child,

Ahh, Tu B’av – the fifteenth day of the Jewish month of Av [“Tu” being made up of the two (not to be confused with “tu”) Hebrew letters Tet and Vav, which together have the numerical value of 15]. – That wonderful, mysterious and joyful day. When I was a kid in camp we marked the date with “dance night”. What fun.  Although, my wife tells me, that when she went to camp they did the whole “mock wedding” thing, which, by all accounts, takes the proverbial cake.

But let’s start from the very beginning [after all, it is the very best place to start].

Although in Israel, Tu B’Av is perceived mostly as the holiday of love, a kind of Jewish equivalent to Valentine’s Day, in truth, however, the holiday’s roots run much deeper and do not necessarily relate to love as an underlying principle. Tu B’Av is only a minor Jewish holiday with no special observances or customs [other than the omission of the Tachanun – supplication – in the daily prayers], but because of the joyous events which occurred on this day our sages regarded it to be one of the two most auspicious days on the Jewish calendar -the other being Yom Kippur (Talmud, Ta’anit 26b).

At face value, the historical connection between Tu B’av and Yom Kippur is that they together they, respectively, marked the beginning and end of the grape harvest.  On a deeper dimension, both of these dates are days of forgiveness and rejoicing for the Jewish people.  Tu B’Av, like Yom Kippur, is about introspection and new beginnings concerning our relationships; our relationship with G-d, as well as our personal relationships.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, in Jewish tradition “when it rains it pours”, and often positive occurrences happen on already auspicious days and negative happenings on ill-omened days.  Tu B’av is one of the good ones, and the Talmud [Baba Batra 121a] lists a number of happy events which happened on this day.  An underlying theme to all the incidents which are commemorated on Tu B’Av is: on this day different segments of the Jewish Nation were united, thus bringing love, peace and reconciliation to the people of Israel.

The most well-known event of the day however, was the custom in ancient Israel where “the maidens of Jerusalem would go out in linen garments (which were borrowed, so as not to embarrass those without their own)… and dance in the vineyards” and “whoever did not have a wife would go there” to find himself a bride (Talmud, Ta’anit 31a).

It is not a far stretch from this to associations with match-making and weddings. Hence in modern day Israel it is celebrated as a holiday of love “Yom Ahavah” – a Valentines Day of sorts. To be perfectly honest with you, I can’t say I feel completely comfortable with the “Judafication” of Christian holidays and customs, but that may just be me. [Another example would be the recent tradition associated with Chanukah of gift-giving, which by all accounts “derives directly from Hanukkah’s proximity to Christmas”.] Not that I have anything against spreading a little love. By all means buy roses and chocolate.  I just figured you’d want to know the score.

On to my favorite part:

At this time of the year the days begin to get shorter and the nights longer. On a practical level this means we have more time to study Torah, since, according to the Talmud, “the night time is the right time” [ the exact quote is something more like: “the night was created for study”]. Besides, I can’t imagine how else one would spend their evenings anyway. [Kidding]

According to the Kaballah, this day/night thing is deeply symbolic and certainly no coincidence. The sun symbolizes the strength of the forces that dominate the Jewish people, while the Jewish people themselves are analogous to the moon.

“The people of Israel, says the Zohar, mark time with the moon because they emulate the moon. Like the moon, the Jewish people dip and soar through history, our regressions and defeats but preludes to yet another rebirth, yet another renewal. The story of the moon is the story of a nation, and the story of every productive life: lack fuels initiative, setbacks stimulate growth, and one’s highest achievements are born out of moments of diminution and depreciation.”

The full moon then represents the cosmic state in which Israel is at its zenith. This is especially true considering that Tu B’Av marks an informal “high”, countering the “low” of the The Three Weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av. The fullness of the moon on Tu B’Av is great in relation to the descent that precedes it; the greater the descent, the greater the ascent.

On Tu b’Av we celebrate a most joyous “bounce-back” holiday. This day marks the anniversary of several events, all of them connected with the reversal of a tragedy. This holiday comes only six short days after the saddest day of the year, Tisha b’Av, and is symbolic of our nation’s resiliency and our capacity to recover from all the tragedies which may befall us.

(Photo: Kelvin255)