Tu B’Av: The Jewish Valentine’s Day?


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Written by Shayna Abramson. Shayna is a frequent Jewrotica contributor. For fiction by Shayna, check out Chanukah Miracle and Kiruv. To read Shayna’s essay on the the practice of shomer negiah within the Orthodox Jewish community, check out her article in the Jewrotica Reflections section.

Rated PGTu B’Av is becoming increasingly popular – perhaps because many in the religious world see it as a guilt-free way to enact the Valentines’ Day fantasies that have been put into their heads by Hallmark. In fact however, Tu B’Av is – and should be – very different from Valentine’s Day, at least as it is celebrated in the United States: Valentine’s Day might have started off as a religious holiday, but today, it has become largely secularized and commodified. Tu B’Av also started off as a religiously significant day – and I’d like it to stay that way.

Masechet Taanit states that on Yom Kippur and on Tu B’Av, Jewish women would dance in white dresses, reminding the men that “Grace is a lie and beauty is worthless – it is a woman who fears God who will be praised.” (Proverbs 31:30) In other words, women empowered themselves and banded together in order to remind men not to view them solely as sexual objects, but to focus instead on their personalities. Valentine’s Day, in contrast, is a day in which the women are meant to be passive – receiving, but not giving, gifts – and of course, those gifts must be flowers and chocolate, because its impossible that a woman would find it sexy if a man gave her a book, or a cool-looking helmet for when she rides her motorcycle – after all, why would women read, or ride motorcycles?

Leaving feminism aside however, secularizing and commodifying a holiday that the mishna compares to Yom Kippur – the holiest day on the Jewish calendar – is problematic. Tu B’Av comes only six days after Tisha B’Av, a day that focuses on the consequences of baseless hatred and lack of forgiveness, and is commemorated through rituals that have us retreat into ourselves. On Tisha B’Av, speaking is discouraged, and observant Jews are not permitted to do anything enjoyable. This essentially rules out all social activities… unless your frenemies happen to be nearby, and you’re extremely good at dissing them through your body-language.

Tu B’Av can be seen as the opposite of Tisha B’Av: It’s all about love and unification. The rabbis understood that in order to build love on a macro-level, first we must build it on the micro-level, starting with our families. Indeed, when we relate to other people in the proper manner, our homes become mini-temples, filled with God’s presence. Tu B’Av is associated with the period of comfort, during which we read comforting parts of the Hebrew Bible during Shabbat services. This period of time culminates in Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, a day that is all about forgiveness, as Yom Kippur commemorates the day on which God concretized His forgiveness of the sin of the golden calf by giving us a second set of the Ten Commandments.

In a certain sense, Yom Kippur is the opposite of Tisha B’Av – they are both night-to-night fasts in which wearing leather and engaging in sexual intercourse is forbidden, but while Tisha B’Av is about isolating oneself to mourn lack of forgiveness, Yom Kippur is about coming together as a community to commemorate an act of forgiveness, and to forgive each other. Yom Kippur services open with communal forgiveness, as the prayer leader formally gives permission to all sinners to join in the prayer-service that will unite the community in supplication for the next twenty-five hours.

If one looks at the Yom Kippur liturgy, two major themes that emerge are forgiveness and chosen-ness, or rather forgiveness as a manifestation of chosen-ness: In forgiving us and giving us a second set of commandments, God chooses us. The physical manifestation of forgiveness is also a physical manifestation of chosen-ness. This is the logic behind a prayer that asks God to forgive us because of all the different ways in which God and the Jewish people have chosen each other: sheep and shepherd, king and nation, lover and beloved. The prayer ends with the phrase, “We are those who have been verbally declared for by You, and You are He who has been verbally declared for by us”. In other words, we have mutually chosen each other.

The theme of forgiveness and chosen-ness as corollaries of each other is the link between Yom Kippur and Tu B’Av, for it is one of the essential elements of love: Not only does love involve forgiving your beloved and consciously focusing on their positive qualities*, but it is also a choice: Not just because forgiveness is a choice, but also because, at a certain point, you love someone because you chose to love them – which is perhaps why “those who their heart has chosen” is such a popular phrase in Jewish wedding invitations. (*I’m not referring to abusive relationships, in which recognizing the partner’s abusiveness is the first step to getting out.)

The concept of love as choice appears throughout the Torah: God’s love for Abraham is manifested through His choice of Abraham as the one who must go forth. When God tells us to “love your Lord”, He is talking about choosing Him by following His commandments. The concept of love as choice also appears in Avot 3:14: God’s choice of humans as the species to be imbued with the image of God is proof of His love for them.

Thus, both Tu B’Av, the holiday of love, and Yom Kippur, the holiday of repentance, are united by a common theme. In comparing them however, the rabbis were also recognizing the link between Divine and human love – for without knowing how to love our fellow humans, who are created in the image of God, we cannot know how to love God. Or, to paraphrase the rabbis, “Good manners and respect for others are prerequisites for proper study and observance of Torah.” (Midrash Rabba)

I wanted to end with something snarky, and bring this back to my critique of Tu B’Av as the modern Jewish version of “Buy a woman chocolate” day”, but then I realized I would much rather bless you, that your upcoming year be filled with love, and that you get everything you want out of your relationship with God, your relationship with others, and your relationship with yourself.

Shayna is a native Manhattanite whose interests include Torah, human rights, and poetry. An avid procrastinator, Shayna spends most of her time on Facebook, or watching any game involving the Brazilian soccer team. Brasil para Mundial 2014!