Sunday, 10 August 2014

Tu Be'Av

Tomorrow (Friday) is the 15th of Av also known as Tu Be'Av (not to be confused with Tu Bishvat). In modern day Israel this holiday has become in secular Israeli society as Israeli Valentine's Day or Chag Ha'Ahava. It is a day for many weddings. But what exactly is this lesser known holiday all about and what are its origins?

Tu Be'Av is first mentioned in the mishna in Masekhet Ta'anit:
"Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel said: There were no holidays so joyous for the Jewish People as the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, for on those days, daughters of Yerushalayim would go out dressed in borrowed white clothing. And the daughters of the rest of the Jewish People would borrow from each other, so as not to embarrass those who didn't have. And the daughters of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards located on the outskirts of the city. And everyone who didn't have a wife would go there. And what would they say? Young man, lift up your eyes and choose wisely. Don't look only at physical beauty - look rather at the family - For charm is false, and beauty is vanity. A God fearing woman is the one to be praised."

The Gemara (Ta'anit 30b) asks a very basic question. Yom Kippur is a happy day because God forgives our sins. But what is so special about Tu Be'Av? Various Rabbis from the Talmud - Amoraim give six different answers.

1. It is the day on which permission was granted to the tribes to inter-marry. 
A man named Tzelophad had five daughters. They beseeched God that they deserved to inherit the land of Israel because they had no brothers. God granted them land, however, the men of their tribe were upset and said when these ladies marry their lands will go to men of other tribes. As a compromise the five daughters of Tzelophad had to marry within their own tribe. This decree of marrying in their own tribe was lifted a generation later on Tu Be'Av.

2. It is the day on which the tribe of Binyamin was permitted to re-enter the congregation of Israel.
In the book of Judges there was a terrible civil war between the Tribe of Binyamin and the rest of the Tribes. After the war the other tribes made a decree that no one would give their daughters or sons to marry men and women from the tribe of Binyamin. That decree was annulled one generation later on Tu Be'Av. 

3.It is the day on which the generation of the desert ceased to die.
(Fair warning that this is a Midrash and should not be understood literally) After the sin of the spies the Jews were punished with having to stay in the desert for 40 years till all the men over 20 died. According to Midrashic tradition, each year on Tisha Be'Av to commemorate the decree, all adult men dug their graves on the night of Tisha Be'Av. Each year 15,000 men died until the final year when no one died. They thought they had miscalculated the day so they repeated this until the 15th when they realised that the decree was over and they could now enter the land of Israel. I think that this Midrash is trying to convey the idea that for forty years the Jewish People were preoccupied with death and remaining in the desert. Tu Be'Av represents their mental shift to life and entering Israel. 

4. It is the day on which Hoshea the son of Elah removed the guards which Yerovam the son of Nevat had placed on the roads to prevent Israel from going up to Jerusalem for the Chagim. 
Yerovam was very upset with Rehovam for putting high taxes on the Jewish people and Israel was split into two kingdoms. The Kingdom of Israel (the Ten Tribes) and the Kingdom of Yehuda (The Tribes of Binyamin and Yehuda). Yerovam was concerned that his kingdom would not last if the tribes went up to Jerusalem in Yehuda's territory for Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. So he established idols and border patrols to prevent his people going to Jerusalem. This lasted for almost 200 years when Hoshea allowed his subjects to visit the temple in Jerusalem. He gave his permission on Tu Be'Av.

5. Rav Matna said: It is the day when permission was granted for those killed at Betar to be buried.
One of the tragedies of Tisha Be'Av was that all the inhabitants of the city of Beitar were killed. In an act of cruelty the Romans did not allow the Jews to bury their dead until Tu Be'Av. Despite this horrible act a small miracle happened that the bodies did not decompose. This gave the people hope that despite the horrific tragedy, God had not abandoned them. 

6. It is the day on which they stopped cutting trees for the altar since from the fifteenth of Av onwards the strength of the sun grows less and they no longer cut trees for the altar, because they would not dry sufficiently.
This last one is very cryptic and requires a bit of explanation. Since the nights were longer and they didn't need to cut wood during the night, they would have more time to learn Torah. 

Whichever reason is your particular favorite, traditionally this became a day of young people choosing their partners. It is a day of unity and comes as a healing period after the sadness of Tisha Be'av. It is the ray of light after the storm. It is a day for optimism and opportunity for new beginnings and new possibilities. It is a day of national harmony and a day of the Jewish People seeing their close relationship with God.

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