You’re more likely to find sales on salmon than heart-shaped boxes of candy in kosher supermarkets during the Jewish month of Av. That’s because the month begins with the Nine Days leading up to Tisha B’Av, followed by Tisha B’Av itself. It’s a time of milchigs and mourning, fasts and no leather shoes.
Still, the month of Av isn’t all doom and gloom. Right smack in the middle of the month comes Tu B’Av of which the Mishnah (Tractate Ta’anit) says, “No days were as festive for Israel as the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur.”
Most of us are ready to agree that it’s nice to be done with the mourning and back to our regularly scheduled summer fun. But what is so special about the 15th of Av? And what does it have to do with Yom Kippur? Finally, if the 15th of Av is such a big deal, how are we supposed to mark the day? Why aren’t there any heart-shaped boxes of candy in kosher supermarkets (or cutesy greeting cards, for that matter) at this time?
Forgiveness—Our Sages tell us that Yom Kippur is the day God forgave Israel for the sin of the Golden Calf. It’s the day Moshe came down from Sinai with a second set of tablets, as a result of that forgiveness. By the same token, Tu B’Av is the day Hashem forgave Israel for the sin of the spies.
Because of the negative reports of the spies, Hashem decreed that the Children of Israel would wander in the desert for 40 years and that no person aged 20 or older at the time of the decree would enter the land of Israel. For 40 years, each Tisha B’Av, all those who reached the age of 60 years, would die. That translated to 15,000 deaths each Tisha B’Av.
It was on Tu B’Av that the decree was lifted. Here’s how that worked:
For 40 years, as Tisha B’Av approached, 15,000 60 year-old wandering Jews would get ready to die. That final year, Hashem was merciful and decided the Jews had gone through enough tzuris (trouble), wandering like that in the desert, and decided he’d let that last group of 15,000 Jews live. But the Jews didn’t know that, and like every year, 15,000 of them got ready to die.
Tisha B’Av came and went and nothing happened. Hmmm. They decided they’d gotten mixed up on the date, so they figured they were going to die the next day. But that day came and went and they were still alive (lather, rinse, repeat).
When Tu B’Av rolled around, they figured out they were safe. It was the night of the full moon, which told them it was the end of what would have been the shiva mourning period had they died on Tisha B’Av. They hadn’t gotten the date wrong. They’d been spared! Forgiven for the sin of the spies.
This is why our Sages compare Tu B’Av to Yom Kippur. To a Jew, there is no joy greater than forgiveness. And that is why Tu B’Av is called a holiday (Judges 21:19).
Continuation—The story of the daughters of Tzelophchad (Numbers 36) ends with daughters inheriting from their fathers, in the case where fathers have no sons, by dint of having the daughters marry within the same tribe. This would keep the land from passing to another tribe.
That would have been fine except for something that happened many years later, when the Children of Israel swore an oath not to marry their daughters to anyone from the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 19-20). This meant that the tribe of Benjamin, one of the 12 tribes of Israel, stood to be wiped out for good.
On Tu B’Av, the prohibition was lifted, when the people realized the danger of letting a tribe disappear. They figured the oath only applied to the generation who’d sworn it in the first place, and not future generations. They extended this idea to apply to women who inherited from their fathers, figuring that was important only for the generation that had captured and divided the land under Joshua’s rule. Now they’d be allowed to marry outside their own tribes.
This is how it came to be that the tribes merged and it all happened on Tu B’Av. It was definitely a cause for rejoicing because it meant the continuation of the Jewish people. Tractate Ta’anit describes Tu B’Av as a day for getting engaged, a day when new Jewish families might flower, a festival to Hashem!
Reconciliation—When Yeravam seceded from Judea with the ten tribes of Israel, he set guards at every road that led to Jerusalem. He did this to keep the people from making pilgrimages on Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot. Yeravam felt these pilgrimages would undercut his authority, so he created new places for the people to worship, in Dan and at Beit El.
Unfortunately, these places of worship were completely idolatrous which made the separation between the kingdoms of Israel and Judea a done deal—one which would not be undone for many generations. It wasn’t until the very last king of Israel ascended the throne that the breach was repaired. That was when King Hoshea Ben Elah took away the guards from all the roads that led to Jerusalem which meant people could once again make the pilgrimage. Did you guess the date this occurred?
Yup. Tu B’Av.
Keeping the Flame Alive—When the Second Temple was built, things were pretty bad in Eretz Yisrael. The country had been laid to waste and it was difficult to find the wood to fuel the Ner Tamid (Eternal Flame) and to burn the sacrifices. Getting enough wood meant people volunteering to go get it from foreign lands and this was a dangerous trip to undertake.
Also, the wood had to be worm-free. Since worms like moisture and cold weather, it was important to gather all the wood for the year and put it into storage before winter. The final day on which wood could be brought for storage was, you guessed it—Tu B’Av. That made the day a big deal, because the wood quota for the year would have been filled. (PARTY!)
Looking Good—A lot of our people were killed during the Bar Kochba revolt in the fight for Beitar. The Romans were cruel and wouldn’t let us bury our dead. The bodies lay in the fields of Beitar for many years until one day, the Romans relented and let us give those bodies a proper burial. That was a miracle and it happened on (uh huh)Tu B’Av.
As it turns out, the bodies had not at all deteriorated during the long years they lay unburied. That was a second miracle discovered on that date.
Because of these two miracles, we added the last of the four blessings in Bircat HaMazon: Hu heitiv, hu meitiv, He is good (because the bodies had not decomposed) and does good (because permission was granted to bury our dead).
Tachlis, how do we celebrate Tu B’Av? Once upon a time, so the Gemara says, the “daughters of Jerusalem would go dance in the vineyards” on Tu B’Av, and “whomever did not have a wife would go there” to find a bride. But no one does this nowadays. (No need! We have REBBETZINS, the Oorah network of shadchanim and dating mentors!)
So quaint outdated customs aside here’s what’s left: we don’t say Tachanun in our davening. We don’t deliver eulogies for the dead. And if a chassan and kallah happen to be getting married that day, they don’t fast (as is the usual custom).
If, on the other hand, you wanted to learn a lesson about marriage and relationships from Tu B’Av, there’s nothing stopping you. All the elements are there: forgiveness, continuation, reconciliation, keeping the flame alive, and looking good! The next time you see a full moon in the sky, keep all of that in mind. That kind of knowledge is a lot more useful than a heart-shaped box of candy or a greeting card.
Though flowers wouldn’t hurt!
Mrs. Varda Epstein