Unmarried maidens dancing outside the Tabernacle at Shiloh
TU B'AV - THE 15TH OF AV
"Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: There were no days as joyous for the Jewish people as the fifteenth of Av and as Yom Kippur!"
What is Tu b'Av, (literally, the 15th of Av), and why is it so joyous?
We know why Yom Kippur is considered the most joyous day of the year: despite its solemn reputation and heightened intensity, especially in the days of the Holy Temple, when the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) entered into the Holy of Holies to lay down an incense offering before the Ark of the Covenant in what was, perhaps, the climax of the Yom Kippur Temple service, Yom Kippur is truly a joyous day because it is the day that HaShem forgives Israel her sins! Our slate is wiped clean, (contingent, of course, on the sincerity of our teshuvah - repentance), and we begin again, unburdened by our past transgressions.
But why Tu b'Av? Where does this holiday, which is not mentioned even once in the Tanach, (Hebrew Scripture), come from, and what makes it joyous?
Our sages, in Talmud Tractate Ta'anit 30:b, list six historic events that took place on the 15th of Av:
1 This was the day on which the members of different tribes were permitted to enter one another’s tribe, by intermarriage. In the book of Numbers we read of the appeal by the five daughters of Tzelophehad, who approached Moshe stating that they were orphans without a brother. According to the existing statute their father's inheritance of land in Israel would go to another male relative and not to his daughters. The daughters sought to become the rightful recipients of their father's inheritance. When HaShem, via Moshe, answered them in the affirmative, a new problem was created, prompting the leaders of the tribe of Menashe, the same tribe to which the five sisters belonged, to also make an appeal. They feared that if the five sisters were to marry men outside of the tribe of Menashe, it would diminish the tribal inheritance as a whole, as the husbands of the sisters would then become the rightful owners of the property. So a new statute was established, prohibiting marriage between the tribes. (see Numbers, chapters 26, 36)
However, once the Israelites had conquered and properly settled the land, the tribal inheritances became permanent, and marriage between tribes would have no adverse effects. Therefore, the ban on tribal intermarriage was rescinded. On what day was it rescinded? On the 15th of Av - causing the 15th to be a day of joy!
2 Following the sin of the spies who returned to the Israelite encampment bringing an evil report about the land of Israel, causing the nation to reject the land and seek to return to Egypt, HaShem condemned the entire (male) generation to die in the desert without entering the land of Israel. Following this harsh decree, (according to Midrash), every 9th of Av, the day of the evil report, the adult men would each dig a trench and lie down in it. The following morning all but fifteen thousand of the men would rise up again out of their temporary tombs. The 15,000 that wouldn't arise were gone forever. This is how the generation of men that left Egypt as adults died in the wilderness as a result of HaShem's decree. This same event took place year after year. Each year 15,000 men would not return. Finally, in the 40th year in the wilderness, the surviving men each dug their own graves as in years before. But this year, on the morrow, every one rose up out of their makeshift graves! They were stunned and thought they must have miscalculated the date. So night after night they returned to their self dug graves only to arise again, en masse, the following morning! Finally on the 15th of Av, when a full moon rose in the evening, they realized that the 9th of Av must have necessarily passed, and therefore none of them are condemned to die in the desert. On the contrary, they are all free to enter into the land of Israel!
3 Likewise, on the 15th of Av, many generations later, following a tragic and devastating inter tribal war waged between Binyamin and confederation of the other tribes, a ban against marrying sons of Binyamin was lifted. Described in Judges chapters 19–21 are the reasons for the war and the fact that Binyamin was very nearly wiped out entirely. Following the conclusion of the war the opposing tribes feared that without giving Binyamin freedom to court their daughters the defeated tribe could become extinct. The ban against intermarriage between the tribe of Binyamin and their fellow tribes was lifted on the 15th of Av, yet another cause for celebration!
Kohanim at work in the Chamber of Wood
4 Harvesting of the wood to be used for the altar fires in the Temple was completed for the year on the 15th of Av:
"And the fire on the altar shall burn on it; it shall not go out. The kohen shall kindle wood upon it every morning, and upon it, he shall arrange the burnt offering and cause the fats of the peace offerings to go up in smoke upon it. A continuous fire shall burn upon the altar; it shall not go out." (Leviticus 6:5-6)
A steady supply of kindling for the altar fires was in constant demand. Supplying wood for the altar was itself considered to be an offering! We learn of the importance of bringing wood for the altar in Nechemiah 10:35:
"And we cast lots for the wood offering, the kohanim, the Levites, and the people, to bring to the Temple of our G-d, to the House of our forefathers at set times, year by year, to burn on the altar of HaShem our G-d as is written in the Torah."
Different families were honored throughout the year with supplying wood for the altar. Once the wood arrived at the Temple complex it was stored in the Chamber of Wood, located in the Women's Courtyard to the east of the Temple. There, kohanim who had been disqualified from performing offerings would inspect, stack and oversee the flow of timber from the hands of the suppliers of the wood to the altar fires.
Three fires burned atop the altar
The supplying of wood for the altar for the current year ended on Tu b'Av. As the days begin to grow shorter and the humidity rises following Tu b'Av, and wood collected after Tu b'Av might not dry properly and could grow wormy, disqualifying it from use for the altar fires. Therefore the sages referred to Tu b'Av as the "day of the breaking of the ax," as from Tu b'Av forth, no new trees would be felled for use on the altar.
The first century CE Jewish historian (and kohen) Josephus, in his War of the Jews, makes a reference to the day, although he specifies the 14th and not the 15th of Av:
"On the next day (14th of Av), which was the Feast of Wood-carrying, on which it was a custom for everyone to bring chopped wood to the altar so that fuel for the fire might never fail (it continues always without being extinguished)." (Josephus War 2.4.25)
The Talmud makes no mention of a Feat of Wood-Carrying, but it does cite the "day of the breaking of the ax," as another reason for joy on Tu b'Av.
5 Another reason for Tu b'Av joy: it was the day that King Hoshea of the northern kingdom removed the sentries on the road leading to Jerusalem, allowing the ten tribes under his rule to once again have access to the Holy Temple. This was hundreds of years after Yarav'am (Jeroboam) rebelled against King Rachav'am (Rehoboam), and formed the northern Kingdom of Israel. Yarav'am had established idolatrous temples in the northern kingdom and forcibly banned his subjects from making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Lifting the ban was certainly a cause for great joy.
6 Some sixty four years after the destruction of the Holy Temple by the Romans, in 70 CE, Shimon bar Kochba led a revolt against Rome. The bar Kochba revolt proved a mighty challenge for the Romans who ultimately crushed the revolt some two years after it began. The fateful final battle between bar Kochba and Rome took place in the rebel's' stronghold of Beitar, just south of Jerusalem. Thousands were slaughtered, and the Romans, as a show of their implacable hatred for the rebellious Jews, did not allow the burial of the dead of Beitar until one year later - on the 15th of Av! Miraculously, when surviving Jews reentered Beitar to bury the dead they discovered the corpses intact. They had not decomposed, despite being exposed to the elements for over a year.
Unmarried girls dancing outside the walled city of Jerusalem on Yom Kippur
From Mishnah Ta'anit 4:8:
"Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: There were no days as joyous for the Jewish people as the fifteenth of Av and as Yom Kippur, as on them the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in white clothes, which each woman borrowed from another. Why were they borrowed? They did this so as not to embarrass one who did not have her own white garments. All the garments that the women borrowed require immersion, as those who previously wore them might have been ritually impure. And the daughters of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards. And what would they say? Young man, please lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself for a wife. Do not set your eyes toward beauty, but set your eyes toward a good family, as the verse states: “Grace is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears HaShem, she shall be praised” (Proverbs 31:30), and it further says: “Give her the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates” (Proverbs 31:31). And similarly, it says in another verse: “Go forth, daughters of Zion, and gaze upon King Solomon, upon the crown with which his mother crowned him on the day of his wedding, and on the day of the gladness of his heart” (Song of Songs 3:11). This verse is explained as an allusion to special days: “On the day of his wedding”; this is the giving of the Torah through the second set of tablets on Yom Kippur. The name King Solomon in this context, which also means king of peace, is interpreted as a reference to G-d. “And on the day of the gladness of his heart”; this is the building of the Temple, may it be rebuilt speedily in our days."
What is the origin of this tradition? It would appear to refer to the aftermath of the inter tribal war between Israel and Binyamin, mentioned above:
A"nd they said, "Behold, there is an offering before HaShem in Shiloh from time to time, which is to the north of Beit-el, on the east side of the highway that goes up from Beit-el to Shechem, and to the south of Levonah." And they instructed the children of Binyamin, saying, "Go and lie in wait in the vineyards. And you will see, and behold, if the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in the dances, then you shall come out of the vineyards and you shall grab for yourselves each man his wife of the daughters of Shiloh, and go to the land of Binyamin." (Judges 21:19)
The proposed, presumably short term solution to the decimated tribe of Binyamin appears to have transformed into an annual tradition.
Tu b'Av occurs just seven days after Tish'a b'Av, and has served for 2,000 years as a semi-official day of stepping away from the three week period of mourning and reflection over the Temple's destruction, and turning once again to the future, both the near future of the upcoming holidays of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, just six weeks away, and the future day of the rebuilding of the Holy Temple, as expressed in the Mishnah quoted above:
"The name King Solomon in this context, which also means king of peace, is interpreted as a reference to G-d. “And on the day of the gladness of his heart”; this is the building of the Temple, may it be rebuilt speedily in our days!"
Today, Tu b'Av is considered a "minor holiday." On Tu b'Av we refrain from uttering certain prayers of supplication, just as we do on other holidays. In recent years Tu b'Av has acquired a new/old aspect - that of a day of romantic love, a reflection of the ancient custom of dancing for a suitable suitor. Likewise, in recent years, certain communities have revived the tradition of circle dancing on Tu b'Av. In any case, Tu b'Av continues to be one of the most joyful and one of the most beloved days of the Hebrew calendar!