From Sadness to Joy: Transitioning from Tisha B’av to Tu B’av
During the six years Shoshana and I have been married, we have never celebrated Valentine’s Day. While it is true that Valentine’s Day was first instituted by Pope Gelasius I in 496 C.E. to commemorate the martyrdom of St. Valentine and that Valentine’s Day may be a Christian reconstruction of a pagan holiday known as Lupercalia, neither of these are the reason why we refrain from participating in the February festivities. Early on in our relationship, Shoshana and I decided to join the growing trend of celebrating the forgotten Jewish holiday of Tu B’av, the 15th of Av (this year on August 15th).
Just six days after Tisha B’av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, Tu B’av is one of the most joyous. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel teaches that Israel has no holidays as joyous as Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur. On these days, the beginning and end of the grape harvest, young women would dance in the fields outside the walls of Jerusalem, robed in white garments borrowed from one another to mask wealth and poverty. As they danced, they would sing: “Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself. Do not set your eyes on beauty but set them on good family. Grace is deceitful and beauty is vain. But a woman that fears God, she will be praised.” Single men followed behind in hopes of finding a bride.
It brings a smile to my face as I try to imagine the sight!
What is most striking about Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel’s statement is that he compares Tu B’av to Yom Kippur. While one might point to the wearing of white as the unifying characteristic, there is something far more intriguing and rich to explore. The prescribed method of courtship in the Talmud regarding Tu B’av describes a scene where courtship is imbued with a high level of morality. Wealth and external beauty are downplayed while family and ethical living are elevated. On Yom Kippur we seek the same experience. We work to return to a state of innocence, realigning our lives with our values through introspection and evaluation. On Yom Kippur we approach God dressed in white, deprived of the nourishment and beauty products that give us vigor and external beauty.
Tu B’av provides an accompanying opportunity. Yet, on this day our evaluation is not of our relationship with God but of our relationship with our spouse or partner. Are we giving them everything they need from us? Are we fully present with them when we are together? Do we celebrate them for being our life-partner? Tu B’av is an opportunity to reflect on these questions.
In this country, at least, Tu B’av certainly has its advantages over Valentine’s Day. Flowers cost half as much and you never have a problem getting a dinner reservation! More importantly, Tu B’av provides a very different context from St. Valentine’s Day to celebrate our lives together, reflect on the past year, and evaluate ways we can make our relationship stronger. I invite you to celebrate Tu B’av this year with your spouse or partner. Get dressed in white, enjoy one another’s undivided attention, recount your successes and failures, your highs and lows as a couple this year, and maybe even enjoy a nice meal together. You are invited even if you already celebrated Valentine’s Day. After all, two celebrations couldn’t hurt!
Rabbi Philip Ohriner
Wikipedia articles on Valentine’s Day and Lupercalia: