Judaism: The Ancient Tu B'Av Custom
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedThe writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English. Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: www.yhb.org.il/1
Israel never knew such wonderful holidays as Tu B'Av and Yom Kippur. On these days the daughters of Israel would go out and dance in the vineyards and offer themselves joyfully for the purpose of establishing Jewish families. And despite the fact that all individuals are different - some are rich, while others are poor; some are more beautiful, and others, less; some are of noble birth, and others are not - all the same, on these days, special effort was made to try and bridge the gap, at least as far as wealth was concerned. The young women would therefore go out wearing white borrowed outfits in order not to embarrass one who did not herself posses such a gown.
Most likely, the young men were already acquainted to some extent with the families of the girls in the area and had consulted their parents regarding an appropriate match. The final decision, however, would take place on these days. Perhaps these days were meant for those boys or girls who were not successful in finding a mate in the conventional way.
The Attractive and the Noble
The Talmud (Taanit 31a) informs us as to the manner in which these daughters of Israel would try to make themselves desirable: “The attractive ones would exclaim: Search out beauty, for this is the purpose of a wife; the ones of noble birth would say: Search out family, for family is the purpose of wife; the unattractive ones would say: choose your mate for the sake of Heaven, so long as you adorn her with gold.”
That the attractive girls would draw attention to their beauty is understandable. Many men choose their wives based upon beauty. Beauty presents itself as a kind of guarantee to a good and happy life, a life filled with vitality. Reality, though, does not confirm this. There is no indication whatsoever that men who married so-called attractive women ended up more content than those who married “less attractive” women. When beauty comes in addition to good character it can indeed add to life - but, often, it can be misleading.
Those of noble birth say just that: The main point is character. A good family is one in which many of its members have been successful in obtaining a proper education and good livelihood. One can safely assume that a woman who comes from such a family will possess a pleasant and kind character, and agreeable educational habits. In addition, it is highly probable that the children resulting from such a matrimony will also possess such traits. We indeed find that the sages (Baba Batra 110a) advise examining the brothers of the prospective bride, for it often happens that the children turn out like the brothers of the bride. The Sages also advise marrying the daughter of a Torah scholar (Pesachim 49a). This is the reason that the Mishna in Taanit 26b only quotes the girls from good families; in the eyes of the Sages, their words were the most true.
The Unattractive Ones
The most surprising of the three groups is the unattractive one: “Choose your mate for the sake of Heaven, so long as you adorn her with gold.” A simple interpretation of these words tells us that these young women are appealing to the unattractive, untalented men who would run after the attractive and distinguished girls only to be turned away. To these men they would say: “If you keep running after the attractive and distinguished girls, you will remain single and frustrated forever. Be realistic and marry one of us who are ready to marry you. After all, the Torah commands you to marry - come, marry for the sake of fulfilling God's will.” And because marriage must possess an element of affection they added: “So long as you adorn us with gold,” for such behavior gives expression to your love for us.
But this is not all. There is a more profound way of understanding the words of the unattractive girls. Sometimes a person who has merited neither beauty nor desirable lineage succeeds, by virtue of exceptional faith in God, to perfect his or her character traits and attain great personal achievement. The level such a person reaches is even higher than that of the attractive and distinguished. A shared life with such a person is sure to be full of beauty and happiness. This is what they meant: “Choose your mate for the sake of Heaven and by so doing we will ascend together and surpass the level of all the attractive and distinguished couples - and our children will be distinguished by virtue of us.” And they added, “So long as you adorn us with gold.” This last statement can be understood best in light of the words of Rabbi Yishmael (Nedarim 9:10): “The daughters of Israel are all beautiful, only that poverty makes them unbecoming.” If you decorate us with gold, you will uncover our true unique beauty. And so, though in practice the most desired girls are generally the attractive ones followed by the distinguished ones, in truth, the distinguished are preferable to attractive and, sometimes, the unattractive are the most desirable of all.
Sound Advice for Singles
Here, then, is a bit of advice for single men: Often, girls who are actually quite pretty appear to be unattractive. This, though, is simply the result of the man's level of maturity. God created humans such that they enter the world as babies and grow and develop until old age. Each stage in life has its own purpose. At the age of twenty, the desire to marry is very strong: “Twenty is the age for chasing” (Avot 5:18). At that stage in life the heart is full of enthusiasm and courage. A man sees all that is good in his prospective match and is ready to leap happily into married life.
This period is followed by a more restrained stage, the purpose of which is to build and prepare the next level of life. When an older, single man anticipates to be swept up by youthful enthusiasm when dating, he is usually disappointed. Yet, instead of attributing this to his age, he finds fault in the girl. He might admit that she is pleasant and bright, but, he disappointedly explains to his close friends, she is not attractive and exciting enough.
Such bachelors must be informed: If the girl is pleasant and smart in your eyes, and you enjoy being together with her, and the only problem is that the element of excitement is lacking, “Choose your mate for the sake of Heaven.” And do not worry, for, if you invest energy in your relationship and “decorate her with gold,” you can be sure that you will be blessed with true love. The enthusiasm which accompanies falling in love is actually meant to help a person take the monumental step of entering into the covenant of marriage. Such emotion, however, does not guarantee a happy marriage. Good traits and shared goals are much more important. True, mature, deep love which reaches the deeper levels of the soul is dependent upon these features.
The Unique Power of Tu B'Av
The author of the work “Bnei Yissachar” explains that Tu B'Av is a day of deep-rooted significance because it falls forty days before the date of the world's creation. The sixth day of creation was Rosh HaShannah. On that day God formed man. Six days prior to this is the 25th of Elul, and forty days prior to this is Tu B'Av (the 15th of Av). The Sages tell us, “Forty days before the formation of the infant an announcement is made in heaven: “The daughter of so-and-so is matched up with so-and-so.” Tu B'Av, also, because it falls forty days before the formation of the world, is a day of significant importance with a unique capacity to initiate life - especially for a bride and groom who wish to establish a family.