Tu B’Av – The Jewish Festival of Love

Texts and beliefs By Rabbi Zahavit Shalev 16th Aug 2019

Tu B’Av is what we Jews have instead of Valentine’s Day. We learn of it from the end of Tractate Ta’anit, the tractate of the Talmud which discusses when and why Jews fast. Following its discussion of the fast of the 9th of Av, it considers the 15th of Av: 

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: ‘There were no days as joyous for the Jewish people as the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur, for on them the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in white clothes, borrowed from one another so as not to embarrass anyone who did not have her own white garments.’ (Ta’anit 26b) 

Tractate Ta’anit returns to discussing Tu B’Av (Tu is the numerical value of 15 in Hebrew letters) in its closing passages (Ta’anit 31a), elaborating on the way the day was celebrated. It explains that girls would borrow clothes from those one rung beneath them on the social ladder. (Hooray – it’s all about reducing social inequality!) But next we learn that the girls would call out to their prospective partners as they danced in the vineyards. Beautiful girls would boast of their beauty, those from distinguished families would boast about their lineage, and those who were “ugly” (it really says this!) would call out “Acquire your purchase for the sake of Heaven, provided that you adorn us with golden jewellery.” (Oh no – it’s really just entrenching social hierarchies and objectifying women as chattel!) 

There’s a lot going on here, some of it crying out for a feminist reading. This is a holiday on which girls are encouraged to enjoy themselves by dancing with one another. From that place of strength, they are seen as emerging to initiate relationships with boys by telling of what they have to offer. This makes the girls very active participants, even instigators, of marriage, when in rabbinic law they are generally rendered passive. 

Three types of girls are considered. Of particular fascination are the third and final category mentioned, the “ugly” girls who, lacking obvious beauty or status nevertheless insist on their right to kind and generous husbands. These girls are well aware of what they have to offer, and they remind future partners (and the reader) of the importance of a good attitude (“for the sake of Heaven”) and continuing generosity (“golden jewellery” which I’m reading metaphorically rather than literally) for a good and enduring marriage. 

The very last passage of the Tractate remains with the theme of dance, with the suggestion that in the Messianic future God will have the righteous dance in a ring in the Garden of Eden. The dancers will point at God and exclaim “And it shall be said on that day: Behold, this is our God, for whom we waited, that He might save us. This is the Lord; for whom we waited. We will be glad and rejoice in His salvation” (Isaiah 25:9).” 

The righteous will take their behavioural cues from happy, flirtatious and empowered girls. Having been recognised and rewarded, they will no longer have any need for coyness. They will unabashedly assert their self-worth and enjoy the rewards of their good deeds – intimacy with God.  

Tu B’Av enters our awareness and our calendar almost immediately after the saddest day of the year (9th Av). It brings with it a rich and nuanced awareness of inequality, but also proposes solutions which require honesty with a lightness of touch. Pleasingly it also rejects the consumerism which has become so associated with its secular equivalent, Valentine’s Day. 

Rabbi Zahavit Shalev is a member of the rabbinic team at New North London Synagogue and the rabbi at New Essex Masorti Synagogue 

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