Jewish history is nothing if not a rollercoaster of challenges and triumphs, and the Jewish calendar reflects this cycle of resilience and grit with annual holidays that mark either fasts or feasts. Tu b’Av (the 15th of Av, August 7th this year), a holiday celebrating matchmaking, love and the promise of new life, appears on the calendar between the communal mourning of Tisha b’Av (9th of Av), when we mark the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, and the somber personal spiritual introspection of the High Holiday season.
The first mention of this date is in the Mishnah (compiled and edited at the end of the second century), where Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel is quoted as saying, “There were no better (i.e., happier) days for the people of Israel than the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, since on these days the daughters of Israel/Jerusalem go out dressed in white and dance in the vineyards. What were they saying? Young man, consider whom you choose (to be your wife)?” (Ta’anit, Chapter 4)
Potential grooms were encouraged to look at the personality and character of the women, and the women would wear white dresses that they had borrowed, so that no one would be embarrassed if she didn’t own the proper garments.
Reflecting on the tradition that the second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred, the traditions of Tu b’Av seem to want to be a Tikkun, a spiritual corrective, to what was plaguing society. Keeping the memory of a destroyed Temple while still promoting love and continuity of life is the balance between the 9th and 15th of Av.
Another possible root for this celebration of love and marriage, according to the Talmud, is that on Tu b’Av women and men from the different tribes of Israel could ignore earlier prohibitions against intertribal marriage. There were times in our recent history when Ashkenazi and Sephardi families, German and Polish Jewish families and many other pieces of the Jewish ethnic mosaic, actively discouraged their children from marrying each other. Tu b’Av should also symbolize a greater openness and goal of unity among today’s Jewish groups.
Tu b’Av was dormant for many centuries, but it has been rejuvenated in recent decades, especially in the modern state of Israel. In its modern incarnation it is gradually becoming a Hebrew-Jewish Day of Love. The day is celebrated in Israel, much like Valentine’s Day in the United States, with flowers, romantic dinner dates and parties. It is considered a good date for a wedding. Lovers may well be encouraged to take an evening stroll outside and enjoy nature’s mood lighting, since the holiday falls on an evening with a full moon.
While there are no proscribed special rituals or foods associated with Tu b’Av, some creative folks have filled the gap. On Ritualwell.com there is a suggestion to convene a group and plant something new, since planting is also associated with life, nurturing and continuity. They recite together: “Let us grow new lives out of our losses. Let us remember how the people Israel emerged from the harsh wilderness into a land flowing with milk and honey. Let us celebrate together the many possibilities for love in our lives.”
There are those who would bake a wedding cake to celebrate a relationship. Wine and chocolate are always in good taste. But perhaps another holiday’s snack could also be appropriate.
Rabbi Aryeh ben David points out that the seder night on Passover “is the night for feeling God’s love for us, yet it is easy to miss the moment. That’s why the writers of the Haggadah tried creatively to help us recapture its essence in the events of the seder. What do new lovers do? What do people do when they fall in love? They are romantic: four cups of wine, reclining and haroset set the mood.”
How does haroset, a paste made of chopped fruit, chopped nuts, spices and wine, set the mood? The text of the Song of Songs, either an erotic love song between people or an allegory of God’s love for us, subtly reveals the recipe for haroset: “Feed me with apples and with raisin-cakes,” “Your kisses are sweeter than wine,” “The scent of your breath is like apricots,” “Your cheeks are a bed of spices,” “The fig tree has ripened,” “Then I went down to the walnut grove.”
The Shalom Center explains further: “So the ‘recipe’ points us toward apples, quinces, raisins, apricots, figs, nuts, wine. Within the framework of the free fruitfulness of the earth, the ‘recipe’ is free-form: no measures, no teaspoons, no amounts. Not even a requirement for apples rather than apricots, cinnamon rather than cloves, figs rather than dates. So there is an enormous breadth for the tastes that appeal to Jews from Spain, Poland, Iraq, India, America.”
Feel free keep up with the new permutations of the tradition. Love more so that we, as individuals and as a people, can live more.