Love, community, mysticism: The intrigue and observance of Tu B’Av
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Judaism BasicsThe mystery of Tu B'Av

Love, community, mysticism: The intrigue and observance of Tu B’Av

A little known holiday is gaining traction as the 'Jewish Valentine's Day'

Tu B’Av may not be as well-known as the fast day that immediately proceeds it – Tisha B’Av– but there’s more to this minor holiday than you might think.

Imbued with community, romance and a touch of mysticism, Tu B’Av might just be the holiday needed in these days of COVID-19 anxiety, racial unrest and pre-election jitters.

To really understand what has come to be known as the Israeli Valentine’s Day, you must begin several days earlier on the Hebrew calendar, on Tisha B’Av, according to Beth El Congregation’s Rabbi Alex Greenbaum.

“Tisha B’Av is the saddest day of the Jewish calendar; Tu B’Av is the happiest day of the year,” said Greenbaum, noting that modern Judaism marks the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem on Tisha B’Av as well as other “bad things” in Jewish history.

According to a midrash, Tisha B’Av is the day that God told the Israelites they would be forced to wander the desert for 40 years and that the adult generation would perish without stepping foot in Israel. On Tisha B’Av night, for the next 40 years, Moses commanded the people to dig their own graves and sleep in them. Every year, a number of Israelites died in those graves. On the 40th year, surprisingly, the remainder of that original adult generation did not die. Thinking they had erred in their calculation of the date, the Israelites repeated the process five more times until Tu B’Av when they saw a full moon and knew they were correct in their calculations. The Israelites marked the occasion with a celebration.

“The holiday of Tu B’Av, or the 15th day of the month of Av, is one of the greatest holidays mentioned in the Talmud,” explained Rabbi Henoch Rosenfeld of Chabad Young Professionals of Pittsburgh. “As a matter of fact, the Talmud says that there is no greater festival for the Jewish people than the 15th of Av and, believe it or not, Yom Kippur.”

Rosenfeld blames the lack of mention in the Torah for the obscurity of the holiday but notes “there is definitely a unique spiritual energy to tap into on the 15th of Av.”

During the Second Temple period, that energy was channeled beyond spiritual concerns as well.

“All the young women of marriageable age would dress in white,” Chabad of Squirrel Hill Co-Director Chani Altein explained. “They would dress in white gowns so the boys wouldn’t be able to recognize who was rich, who was poor, who had more material value, and they would dance in the fields. The young men would pick a woman and they would get married. It wouldn’t fly today but it became a day for group weddings and a day of romance and love.”

Tu B’Av was also the day members of various Israeli tribes were permitted to marry one another, Altein explained. “This was the day we could mingle and marry the men of any tribe.” Dropping this ban helped create a sense of community.

While the modern celebration includes romance and community, Altein noted, throughout history there have been mystical events of “God showing he still loved us.”

One of those moments was during the battle of Betar, the last battle of the Bar Kochba rebellion. During the fighting, thousands of Jews were killed by the Romans, who would not allow the Jews to bury their dead. When the Jews finally were able to recover those killed, “their bodies were still fresh and intact, they hadn’t rotted,” Altein said, despite a 15-year gap. The day of the miracle? The 15th of Av.

Rosenfeld pointed out that in more recent times, Tu B’Av has become a day of community and celebration.

“It’s really the hope for redemption among the exile. Any time you have light in the darkness it causes the light to shine that much brighter. Tu B’Av is joy among mourning. Traditionally, it has been celebrated by communities coming together. It’s been associated with young people coming together.”

In Pittsburgh, the young adults at Moishe House are marking the holiday by coming together (virtually) to read queer Jewish love poems and discuss what love means in the modern age.

Moishe House resident Moses* admitted that “no one in the house knew about the holiday more than a month ago.” He said it was while planning a Tisha B’Av event when they came across “this other holiday online. We were intrigued by it because none of us were aware of it. We thought it was a cool opportunity to share it with our community.”

“Love is a fun topic for people,” he added.

Greenbaum pointed out that for centuries the holiday was observed only by skipping the tachanun prayer in morning services. “It wasn’t until modern Israel that people started to embrace it. It’s become a Jewish Valentine’s Day, but I don’t know if people are giving flowers to their spouses.”

Raimy Rubin, who lives in Israel, noted that while “Hallmark cards, chocolates and flowers” don’t yet mark the holiday in the Jewish state, over the last several years “it’s been harder to get a restaurant reserved, especially at the nice restaurants.”
The holiday is a popular day for people to get engaged, added Rubin, manager of impact measurement for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. In fact, he proposed to his wife within a day of the holiday.

Despite COVID-19 forcing social distancing there are ways to celebrate the holiday, according to Rosenfeld.

“I would say people can get together with a couple of friends in a safe manner and celebrate your Judaism, have a couple, three or four friends over on your deck, share some drinks, talk about what Judaism means to you,” he said. “Talk about why you are Jewish, why you are proud to be Jewish. And then when you all leave, don’t just stop there, each of you pick up the phone and call a friend and share your conversation with them so that we can continue spreading that community warmth.”

And, if you decide to make Tu B’Av a night of romance, Altein pointed out that “there’s no social distancing required with your spouse. Make your own little romantic getaway in the backyard, carve some time out for each other.” PJC

Moses’ last name was withheld by request.
David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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