Judaism: Tu B'Av (15th of Av): Coming Full Circle
The Mishnah in Taanit states that there were no greater holidays,Yomim Tovim, than Yom Kippur and Tu B’Av. While we certainly understand the greatness and joy of Yom Kippur as the day we anticipate being forgiven for our sins as we were in the past, the significance of Tu B’Av remains more elusive.
Nevertheless, the Talmud gives six different reasons for this Yom Tov. These reasons include that on this date, the men and women of different tribes were allowed to marry one another. Later, during the period of the Judges, the members of the tribe of Benjamin who had been banned from intermarrying with the other tribes after the terrible incident of the concubine in Givah, were allowed to marry.
Other reasons given are that by this date, the generation of the desert punished for the sins of the spies had died out, and later that the people were no longer barred from going to Jerusalem for the three pilgrimage festivals, a ban imposed for political reasons after the split of the monarchy. The reasons continue with the time of the Temple. On Tu B’Av the woodcutters had completed preparing all the wood necessary for the coming year for the altar pyres. The list continues - those who died in the rebellion against Rome at Betar were allowed to be properly buried on that day.
The Talmud then tells us that on that day, the maidens of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white dresses and dance in the vineyards.
This seems a rather eclectic group of reasons spanning many generations of our history, yet none seems to offer as great a reason for joy as does Yom Kippur. How can we explain the great joy, and what connection, if any, exists between these various reasons?
Actually, the impetus for this great joy lies in the common thread that runs through all of these reasons. Rav Reiss notes that in each of these cases, there is an element of reintegration of some group within the whole of the People of Israel, recreating the unity that lies at the core of our nationhood. For example, in the first reason, while each of the tribes initially needed to strengthen those elements that made it unique, once that was accomplished and the second generation after the conquest resided in Eretz Yisroel, it was time to share the strengths each tribe possessed with each other, thus fortifying and uniting the entire nation. Similarly, the young men and women of the small tribe of Benjamin, a generation no longer involved in the crime of their fathers, would now be allowed to intermarry with all of the Jewish People, so that the twelve tribes would remain twelve, and not become eleven.
Similarly, when it was certain, by the appearance of the full moon, that death no longer came to the generation of the desert on Tisha B’Av (Fast of the 9th of Av) to atone for the sin of the spies, the nation remained whole again and, most significantly, the people understood that God’s anger against them had abated. Of all the events of Tu B’Av, this is perhaps the most easily recognizable as unifying not only Klal Yisroel, the community of Israel, but also reuniting the nation with the Almighty.
In this vein, the Sfat Emes points out, Tu B’Av is the day of forgiveness for the sin of the spies as Yom Kippur was the day of forgiveness for the sin of the golden calf.
Millennia later, Hashem again showed His concern and compassion for His people. One of the great rebellions against the Roman Empire was led by Bar Kochba and culminated at Betar. After the Romans’ very exhausting and bloody victory, they refused to allow the bodies of the slaughtered to be buried for several years, hoping they would serve as a deterrent to other groups who might contemplate revolution.
Miraculously, the bodies did not decay, and on Tu B’Av the emperor gave permission to bury these dead. Our sages and our people took hope from this miracle and felt Hashem’s continuing love for them even though He had allowed the Temple to be destroyed. To commemorate this miracle, our sages instituted the fourth blessing of Birkat Hamazon, the Grace After Meals – Hatov vehametiv, the King Who is good and does good for all.
As we move on to the woodcutters, chronologically prio to Betar, we note that here again a group had separated from the rest of the nation, albeit for a necessary and Divine purpose. They left their homes and their Torah studies and went out to gather wood for the Temple sacrifices. This work needed to be completed by the fifteenth of Av, before the days of sunlight for drying the wood would get shorter and allow the wood to become prone to infestation, thus rendering it unacceptable for use on the altar. On Tu B’Av they returned and were again able to participate fully in all the rituals and Torah study of their people. The successful completion of this holy work and the reintegration of the woodcutters generated great joy. However, since the Temple no longer exists, we no longer feel the relevance of this joy and indeed of the other reasons given for this holiday. Rav Reiss points out that the joy of completing this work is the basis of celebrating the completion of learning a holy tractate, making a festive meal.
The girls dancing in the vineyards in borrowed clothes again is indicative of the love each maiden had for the other, so none could tell who was rich and who was poor.
Tu B’Av, then, is a day of unity, a day we are to realize that we are one people because of our connection to the One above, because of our love and dedication to His Torah and His mitzvoth.
Rabbi Zev Leff offers an alternative explanation for the joy these events generate. He begins his analysis with the events of Betar and the subsequent institution of the hatov vehametiv blessing. He explains that the basis of the joy of Tu B’Av is centered on recognizing the good Hashem always provides for us on a daily basis, as articulated in the hatov vehametiv blessing.
We live in an age of entitlements. We feel we are entitled to every benefit, we are entitled to the best the world has to offer, to the best grade and the best job even when we may not deserve it. We are so obsessed with our entitlements that we refuse to be satisfied or content with anything less than perfection. We refuse to recognize and appreciate the good we are constantly surrounded by. We complain if our favorite dish is slightly overcooked, but do not appreciate that we have food, or that someone - whether a parent or a chef – took the time to prepare it. We complain of every lack while being ungrateful for all the good, especially for life itself.
The blessing, emphasizes Rabbi Leff, is meant to remind us on a daily basis of God’s infinite goodness. Even in the midst of horrible circumstances, we can find some good for which to be grateful. Life itself is a reason to be grateful. And in spite of the darkness of the Roman exile now fully weighing upon our people with the fall of Betar, our sages intuited that we must be grateful that Hashem has not abandoned us. Only by acknowledging the good in everything, even within the difficult and bitter, and no matter how insignificant, will we be able to survive the dark and treacherous exile.
Rabbi Leff continues his analysis by defining the essence of “good”. That which is truly “tov”, good, he explains is that which is viable, which has an element of eternity within it. He supports his definition with two examples. First, he explains, God created the world with words, but it wasn’t until He proclaimed the light and the earth “good” that creation achieved permanence. His second example is from the birth of Moshe. His mother saw that the infant was “good”, that despite being born three months prematurely, he was viable, and so she disobeyed Pharaoh’s orders, risking death, and hid him.
Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur are Yomim Tovim, they are days that celebrate the good and the eternal. Each of the reasons cited in the Talmud has an element of continuity to it. Just as Yom Kippur celebrates forgiveness and receiving the second set of the Tablets of the Law so that we can continue manifesting our destiny through Hashem’s Torah, so does each of these events perpetuate our nation or facilitate our success in performing our mission as Jews on earth.
Only when we recognize and acknowledge that the ultimate Source of all good is Hashem, even when provided through an intermediary, are we in a position to serve Hashem and study His Torah properly. It is this principle, perhaps, that prompted the maidens to borrow each other’s clothes when they danced in the fields on this day, for they understood that nothing really belonged to them; it was all on loan from Hakodosh Boruch Hu.
Rabbi Wolfson, in Emunat Etecha offers yet another interpretation based on a Kabalistic approach. He introduces us to the idea of light and energy that goes forward from an event in history versus light that is reflected back into history from a future event that has not yet happened. In this vein, he discusses the calculation that determines on which day of the week a holiday will take place. Our Sages devised a formula based on the seven Biblical days of Passover and on the Aleph-Bet. The first day, aleph, is matched with the last letter, tuff, representing Tisha B’Av; the second day of Pesach, Bet, is matched with the next to the last letter of the alphabet, shin, so that Shavuot will always fall on the day of the week that the second day of Pesach fell on. This matchup continues for six days, but the seventh day of Pesach has no stated partner.
Rabbi Wolfson puts forward the idea that the match for the seventh day is Tu B’Av, albeit the Tur does not state this explicitly. That, explains Rabbi Wolfson, is because the great joy of this holiday is in the future, when Moshiach will come and the rebuilding of the Temple will commence , when the fullness of the moon will be reflected in the fullness of our lives and in our relationship to Hakodosh Boruch Hu. The reasons cited by the Talmud for this celebration are instances of the future light being reflected back into our history, as the aura of redemption through Pesach was reflected back to Avraham who baked matzo cakes and who was told of the conception of Yitzchak who would also be born on that day.
According to Rabbi Wolfson, it was this faith in the future redemption that prompted our Sages to institute the blessing of hatov vehametiv, for they recognized in the relocation of the great Yeshiva of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai to Yavneh after the destruction of the Temple and the continuation of Torah learning in the Diaspora a sign that the Bet Hamikdosh would also someday be rebuilt (Ya-B-NeH = YiBoNEH).
Herein lies the connection between Pesach, Tu B’Av and the maidens dancing in the vineyard. Pesach is symbolized mostly through the three matzoth and the four cups of wine. The wheat matzoth represent the men in our nation, the patriarchs. The four cups of wine represent the women, the matriarchs. It is generally accepted that men tend to be more logical and cerebral while women tend to be more intuitive and emotional. (These are generalizations, not absolutes.)
Faith is based on emotion, and so the women bear within them, almost genetically from the matriarchs, the total faith and belief that Hashem will bring an end to the Diaspora, send the Messiah, and rebuild the Bet Hamikdosh. This belief fills them with joy, and they burst forth in dance, in the vineyards which grow the grapes for the intoxicating wine of their faith. The Temple is already rebuilt in the hearts of the women. Because they know the Temple is not yet ours, they continue to dance on Tu B’Av, but in clothes that are also not theirs.
On the fifteenth of Av, they put away Eicha, Lamentations, and bring out Shir Hashirim, Song of Songs, that speaks of the love of Hashem and Bnei Yisroel, that says, “Go and see the King Solomon … on the day of his marriage…” Go and see the House that King Solomon built for his Beloved, and that will be built again speedily in our day.