A gift of Shabbat morning joy
Fields of dreams

Happy Tu b'Av!

On the Jewish calendar, today is a holiday of which many contemporary Jews are entirely unaware: Tu b'Av, the 15th of the month of Av, which was once a great festival. In the post The 15th of Av: Love and Rebirth, the folks at Chabad explain (drawing on the Shulchan Aruch) that beginning on this date one should increase one's study of Torah, since (in the northern hemisphere) nights are beginning to lengthen, and nights were made for study. (I can't help noticing that tonight is full moon -- maybe we're meant to do some studying by moonlight tonight?)

Once upon a time, on this date, the daughters of Jerusalem would go dance in the vineyards wearing white dresses, and "whoever did not have a wife would go there" to find himself a bride. (So we learn in Talmud -- this took place during the Second Temple period, before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.) Talmud also teaches, "Said Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel: There were no greater festivals for Israel than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur." (That's in Taanit 26b.)

Far-out, right? Once upon a time, our greatest festivals, our days of greatest joy, were the day of atonement and the full moon of the month of Av. Now 15 Av goes all but unnoticed (and I suspect it's a stretch for many of us to experience Yom Kippur as a day of joy -- though I hope to help with that this year!)

Why was Tu b'Av considered such a day of joy? I think the custom of courting in the vineyards probably had something to do with it. Talmud also offers a list of great events which happened on this day in our ancient history. (You can read about those at the Chabad website too, if you're so inclined: Why do we celebrate the 15th of Av?) In Israel today, some celebrate Tu b'Av as a kind of Jewish Valentine's Day; others celebrate through women's dance festivals like the one in the West Bank town of Shiloh. But in the rest of the Jewish world, these seem unlikely to catch on -- and the occurrences memorialized in Talmud may be difficult for us to relate to. How might we find, or make, meaning in Tu b'Av again?

Rabbi Jill Hammer at Tel Shemesh offers a beautiful meditation on this day: The Frut | 15 Av. Reb Jill writes:

Tu B'Av is an unlikely day of joy, coming as it does in a season of sadness. In its essence, Tu B'Av is a hinge between the time of mourning and the time of gladness, between the pathos of reaping and the celebration of harvest. It is a door opening from death back into life. Tu B'Av is a day of rebirth, when the cut-down stem yields the ripe, sweet fruit.

I love her idea of this day as a hinge in time: the hinge between mourning and celebration, the hinge between the long days of summer and the long nights of winter (perfect for curling up by the fire with the Good Book!), the hinge between the outward-focused energy of summertime and the more inward-focused energy of the season that is coming. (You can also find some suggestions for practice, connections with other traditions' late-summer rituals, and a ritual for Tu b'Av at Tel Shemesh.)

At the Jewish Women's Archive, Leah Berkenwald sees exciting feminist undertones in this sex-positive festival. As she writes in her post Embracing Tu b'Av, "Creating a holiday that celebrates love and sexuality from a progressive, feminist, and Jewish prospective?  Now that is a movement I can get behind!"

In his book The Jewish Holidays, Michael Strassfeld notes that Tu b'Av comes one week after Tisha b'Av, and sees today as the definitive end to our formal period of mourning. Today we shake off the last vestiges of whatever mourning consumed us last week. It is as though we are all mourners who have been sitting shiva together, and now we can feel released from those strictures and that sorrow. Even if we're not putting on white dresses and dancing in any vineyards today (though I envy any of you for whom that practice is actually possible!), we can try to experience today as a day of celebration, a day to shake off our sorrows and let our spirits dance.