The Mystical Roots of Tu B’Av —
One of the most important days of the Jewish year.
by Rabbi Ari Kahn (taken from Aish.com)
On the 15th of Av, a holiday of unclear significance is commemorated — Tu B’Av. The Mishnah’s description of the import of the day contains a surprising analogy. Tu B’Av is compared with Yom Kippur, arguably the holiest day of the year:
There never were in Israel greater days of joy than Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur. On these days the daughters of Jerusalem used to walk out in white garments which they borrowed in order not to put to shame any one who had none …
The daughters of Jerusalem came out and danced in the vineyards exclaiming at the same time, “Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself. Do not set your eyes on beauty but set your eyes on [good] family.” As it says, “Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a woman that fears the lord, she shall be praised.” (Ta’anit 26b)
This is the concluding Mishnah of the tractate of Ta’anit, which deals with fast days. The previous Mishnah had taught the laws of Tisha B’Av. Now the Mishnah continues to the next day of importance in the Jewish calendar, Tu B’Av. Ostensibly the intent of the Mishnah is to end on a positive note, especially after all the tragedies previously enumerated. Indeed, the Mishnah concludes with the building of the Temple, clearly a cause for monumental joy.
A scene of dancing and celebration is described, raising two questions: This description seems dissonant with our understanding of Yom Kippur. And secondly, what is the significance of Tu B’Av, whereby it would deserve the same celebration as Yom Kippur?
The Talmud explains the joy of Yom Kippur while posing the question about Tu B’Av:
I can understand the Day of Atonement, because it is a day of forgiveness and pardon and on it the second Tablets of the Law were given. But what happened on the 15th of Av? (Ta’anit 30b)
A TIME OF CELEBRATION
The ecstatic joy, which is absent from the contemporary experience of Yom Kippur, is taken for granted in the Talmud. The experience of Yom Kippur was palatably different in Temple times. We are told that the red string in the Temple turned white, serving as a veritable spiritual barometer of God’s forgiveness of man. When the people were shown this tangible sign of forgiveness, celebration erupted.
Rabbi Yishmael said: But they had another sign too: a thread of crimson wool was tied to the door of the Temple, and when the goat reached the wilderness, the thread turned white. As it is written: “Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be as white as snow.” (Yoma 68b)
This type of joy was spontaneous, even though it was a yearly occurrence on Yom Kippur. Singing, dancing and celebration broke out all over. The women of Jerusalem would dance in the vineyards. Marriage was on their minds.
The Talmud had described Yom Kippur as a day of “forgiveness and pardon and on it the second Tablets of the Law were given.” Yom Kippur is viewed as a day that encapsulates the commitment between the Jewish people and God. It is the day that the Jews finally took their vows and were forgiven for the indiscretion involving the Golden Calf.
The 17th of Tammuz, the day Moses came down with the first set of tablets in hand, should have been the day when the Jews solidified their commitment with God. Instead they worshipped the Golden Calf and it became a day of infamy. The fate of the entire community was held in abeyance in the following weeks until Moses was invited once again to ascend the mount on the first day of Elul.
One’s wedding is a day of personal forgiveness, and has a cathartic, Yom Kippur-like element.
Forty days later, on the 10th of Tishrei, the day celebrated henceforth as Yom Kippur, Moses descended with the second tablets as well as God’s message that He had forgiven the Jewish nation.
This idea dovetails with the teaching that one’s wedding day is a day of personal forgiveness, and has a cathartic, “Yom Kippur-like” element. This may also explain the practice of reading the section of the Torah which enumerates forbidden relations on Yom Kippur afternoon. The backdrop of celebration in the streets explains this choice of Torah selection, both as a warning against unmitigated, excessive frivolity, and as a demarcation of forbidden relations.
JOY OF TU B’AV
While the celebratory aspect of Yom Kippur has been identified, the essence of Tu B’Av remains elusive. The Talmud offers numerous explanations for joy on that day:
Rav Yehudah said in the name of Shmuel: “It is the day on which permission was granted to the tribes to intermarry.”
Rabbi Yosef said in the name of Rabbi Nachman: “It is the day on which the tribe of Binyamin was permitted to re-enter the congregation [following the episode of the concubine in Givah].”
Rabba ben Bar Chana said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: “It is the day on which the generation of the wilderness ceased to die out.”
Rabbi Ulla said: “It is the day on which Hoshea the son of Elah removed the guards which Jeroboam the son of Nevat had placed on the roads, to prevent Israel from going [up to Jerusalem] on pilgrimage, and he proclaimed ‘Let them go up to whichever shrine they desire.'”
Rabbi Mattenah said: “It is the day when permission was granted for those killed at Betar to be buried.”
Rabba and Rabbi Yosef both said: “It is the day on which [every year] they stopped chopping down trees for the altar.”
Rabbi Eliezer the elder said: “From Tu B’Av onward, the strength of the sun grows less and they no longer chopped down trees for the altar, because they would not dry [sufficiently].”
Rabbi Menashya said: “And they called it the Day of the Breaking of the Axe. From this day onward, he who increases [his knowledge through study] will have his life prolonged, but he who does not increase [his knowledge] will have his life taken away.” What is meant by “taken away”? Rabbi Joseph learnt: “His mother will bury him.” (Ta’anit 30b-31a)
While the Talmud offers six different reasons for celebration on Tu B’Av, many of these reasons seem insufficient to elicit the type of celebration described. Many commentaries agree upon the primary cause of celebration, citing the others listed above as additional events that transpired on that day.
FIRST TU B’AV
The Midrash describes the first Tu B’Av ever celebrated:
Rabbi Abin and Rabbi Yochanan said: “It was the day when the grave-digging ceased for those who died in the wilderness.”
Rabbi Levi said: On every eve of the 9th of Av, Moses used to send a herald throughout the camp and announce, “Go out to dig graves”; and they used to go out and dig graves in which they slept. The following day he sent out a herald to announce, “Arise and separate the dead from the living.” They would then stand up and find themselves in round figures: 15,000 short of 600,000.
In the last of the 40 years, they acted similarly and found themselves in undiminished numerical strength. They said, “It appears that we erred in our calculation”; so they acted similarly on the nights of the 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, and 14th of Av. When the moon was full they said, “It seems that the Holy One, blessed be He, has annulled that decree from us all”; so they proceeded to make [the 15th] a holiday.
Their sins subsequently caused it to become a day of mourning in this world, in the twofold destruction of the Temple. That is what is written, “Therefore is my harp turned to mourning, and my pipe into the voice of them that weep. Hence, And the people wept that night.” (Midrash Rabba – Eichah, Prologue 33)
This description is certainly morbid, yet it succeeds in capturing the pathos of the yearly 9th of Av commemoration. On a conceptual level, the 15th marks the end of the 9th of Av.
The crying in the desert at the report of the spies created a negative paradigm for the rejection of the Land of Israel and its holiness, and even more, the rejection of God. This potential was unleashed in future generations when Jews rejected sacred ideas. The 15th of Av marked the end of the death sentence for the sin of the spies. This alone would be sufficient rationale for the Mishnah to conclude with a teaching about Tu B’Av.
During the First Temple times, the people certainly did not fast on the 9th of Av, but they may have celebrated the 15th of Av.
But what of the other explanations offered by the Talmud? Arguably the strangest choice relates to King Hoshea the son of Elah.
Hoshea did not lead people toward Jerusalem, toward the service of God; rather he displayed remarkably liberal thinking and was not particular whether his constituents served God in the Temple or foreign deities! Why would this be a cause for celebration?
Because Hoshea’s decree reversed the nefarious deeds of his predecessor on the throne, Jeroboam.
Hoshea merely removed the guards charged with preventing pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Yet even this reversal seems insufficient cause for celebration; Hoshea merely removed the guards charged with preventing pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Furthermore, during Hoshea’s reign the Ten Tribes were carried into captivity.
In order to understand the significance of Hoshea’s decree, we must first understand the implications of Jeroboam’s actions. Due to the spiritual failings of King Solomon, God wrested part of the monarchy from the Davidic family:
And it came to pass at that time when Jeroboam went from Jerusalem, that the prophet Ahiya the Shilonite found him in the way; and he had clad himself with a new garment; and the two were alone in the field. And Ahiya caught the new garment that was on him, and tore it in 12 pieces. And he said to Jeroboam, “Take your 10 pieces; for thus said the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Behold, I will tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon, and will give 10 tribes to you. But he shall have one tribe for my servant David’s sake, and for Jerusalem’s sake, the city which I have chosen from all the tribes of Israel.'” (1 Kings 11:29-32)
Jeroboam ignored God’s plan and built an alternative place of worship in an attempt to deter the people from Jerusalem, and, perhaps, allegiance to the House of David. Motivated by jealousy, totally misdirected and self-centered, Jeroboam did the unthinkable: he built places of worship replete with golden calves:
Then Jeroboam built Sh’chem in Mount Ephraim, and lived there; and went out from there, and built Penuel. And Jeroboam said in his heart, ‘Now shall the kingdom return to the House of David. If this people go up to do sacrifice in the House of the Lord at Jerusalem, then shall the heart of this people turn back to their Lord, to Rehoboam King of Yehudah, and they shall kill me, and go back to Rehoboam King of Yehudah. (1 Kings 12:25-27)
And the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said to them, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem; behold your gods, O Israel, which brought you out of the land of Egypt.” And he set one in Beit-El, and the other he placed in Dan. (1 Kings 12:28-29)
Now we gain some insight into the actions of Hoshea. Unlike Jeroboam, Hoshea was not afraid or jealous of Jerusalem or David’s family. He may have been an idolater, but he was not filled with spiritually self-destructive venom and hatred. Thus, his removal of the guards stationed by Jeroboam, indicated healing from the hatred and jealousy and a possibility for reconciliation.
The root of human hatred harks back to the fratricide perpetrated by Cain. In the Jewish community, the core is the hatred of the sons of Leah toward the sons of Rachel. Jeroboam’s scheme proved that a descendant of a son of Rachel could be just as bad, if not worse than the sons of Leah.
UNITY OF ISRAEL
The idea of the Temple was a manifestation of the unity of Israel. Within the community there were diverse spiritual potentials. The primary tribes were Judah (the son of Leah who would be king), and the tribe of Joseph (the favorite son, the first son of Rachel). It may be argued that had the sons of Jacob all been united, the Temple would have stood in the portion of Joseph (Jerusalem) and kingship would have been the realm of Judah. With the sons of Rachel and Leah united, this Temple would never have fallen.
The son of Rachel who became the unifying symbol of the people was Benjamin, and the Temple stood in his portion.
Unfortunately, the brothers were never able to resolve their differences with Joseph. The son of Rachel who became the unifying symbol of the people was Benjamin, and the Temple stood in his portion. This explains the tears of Joseph and Benjamin at the moment when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers:
And he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck, and wept; and Benjamin wept upon his neck. (Genesis 45:14)
Rabbi Eleazar said: “[Joseph] wept for the two Temples which were destined to be in the territory of Benjamin and to be destroyed… [Benjamin] wept for the Tabernacle of Shiloh which was destined to be in the territory of Joseph and to be destroyed. (Megillah 16b; Rashi – Genesis 45:14)
The hatred of the brothers created the spiritual power for the hatred which would one day destroy the Temple. Furthermore, this simmering conflict caused the Temple to be built in the portion of Benjamin and not in the portion of Joseph.
This is the same hatred that poisoned Jeroboam and motivated him to place guards in the path of would-be pilgrims to Jerusalem. On Tu B’Av, when Hoshea rescinds the evil edict of Jeroboam, the division and hatred cease.
On the 9th of Av the tribes of Joseph and Judah were united: When the spies returned only Joshua and Caleb, from the tribes of Joseph and Judah respectively, remained steadfast in their desire to enter Israel. They serve as the prototypes for the Messiah from Joseph, and the Messiah from David (Judah), who usher in the Messianic Era. (see Talmud – Sukkah 52a)
THEME OF DIVISION
This theme of division and reunion may be the key to some of the other reasons offered by the Talmud. Significantly, the prohibition of inter-tribal marriage began with the daughters of Tzlafchad, who were from the tribe of Joseph. Surely this law, which maintained each tribe as insulated and separate, also had a negative impact on interpersonal relationships between Jews.
Likewise, the isolation of the members of the tribe of Benjamin (second son of Rachel) is now seen in a different light. Their role in the episode of the concubine of Givah was certainly an outrage (see Judges, Chapters 19-21), but the isolation of an entire tribe was even more significant in light of the ongoing division between the sons of Rachel and the sons of Leah.
Tu B’Av, in all three of these episodes, marks reunifications with the sons of Rachel who had become estranged from the community.
Tu B’Av, then, is a day which has the potential to rebuild the Temple. Unity of the community is a prerequisite for building the Temple. This is the intention of the last phrase of the Mishnah we quoted:
On the day of his espousals, this refers to the day of the giving of the law. And on the day of the gladness of his heart, this refers to the building of the Temple; may it be rebuilt speedily in our days. (Ta’anit 26b)
After describing the unique celebration of Yom Kippur and Tu B’Av, the Mishnah intertwines the giving of the law and building of the Temple. As we have seen, the giving of the law refers to Yom Kippur. Now we understand why the reference to the building of the Temple refers to Tu B’Av.
On this day the daughters of Jerusalem would share their clothes and dance merrily in the streets, united. The Zohar identifies the type of material the garments are made from:
Scarlet is connected with Tu B’Av, a day on which the daughters of Israel used to walk forth in silken dresses. (Zohar – Exodus 135a)
The significance of silk is not immediately apparent. This may be a mystical message: Silk is not like wool or linen.
The prohibition of mixing wool and linen emanates from the hatred between Cain and Abel.
The Vilna Gaon points out that the prohibition of mixing wool and linen emanates from the hatred between Cain and Abel. On these glorious days the daughters of Jerusalem freely share their clothing, with no hatred or jealousy in their hearts.
This is the secret of Tu B’Av and the reason that marriages abound on this day. The ability for a couple to marry is based on each one controlling innate egoism and narcissism. Marriage is the most basic of relationships. The rebuilding of the Temple is dependent on the community being able to unite in a similar manner.
Tu B’Av is a day which commemorates healing behavior. The Talmud therefore associates the commandment of bringing joy to the newly married couple with building Jerusalem:
And if he does gladden [the groom] what is his reward?… Rabbi Nachman ben Isaac says: “It is as if he had restored one of the ruins of Jerusalem.” (Brachot 6b)
We are taught that in the future, the fast days marking the Temple’s destruction will be transformed into days of celebration:
Thus says the Lord of Hosts: “The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall become times of joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts to the house of Judah; therefore love truth and peace. (Zechariah 8:19)
Rav Tzadok HaKohen from Lublin taught that the 9th of Av will indeed become a holiday — a seven-day festival.
The first day (9th of Av) will commemorate the coming of the Messiah. Then there will be Chol HaMoed (intermediate festival days), and on the seventh day (Tu B’Av) the Temple will be rebuilt.
The day when Jews came out of their graves years ago will mark the spiritual rebirth of the entire nation, symbolized by the building of the Temple. This will be followed by the ultimate Resurrection of the Dead. Once again the people will climb out from their graves, as the world reaches its perfection and completion. On that day, the joy in the streets will be echoed in the vineyards surrounding Jerusalem and will reverberate throughout the entire world.