“Vast floods cannot quench love, Nor rivers drown it. If a man offered all his wealth for love, He would be laughed to scorn.” (Song of Songs 8:7)
Tu B’Av, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Av, is a special day on the Hebrew calendar, one with deep Biblical roots. Yet it is barely recognized outside of Israel.
Even in modern Israel, Tu B’Av is popularly known as Chag HaAhava, the holiday of love, and its celebration looks a lot like America’s Valentine’s Day, including red hearts, chocolates and flowers.
That’s unfortunate because the true Biblical roots of Tu B’Av are significant. A number of Biblical events, several of which are directly related to marriage, occurred on Tu B’Av.
Expanding The Marriage Pool
During the 40 year period that the Jewish people wandered in the desert, women whose fathers had passed away, and who also had no brothers to inherit their family’s portion in the Land of Israel, could not marry men from other tribes. This rule was instituted in order to preserve the portion of land Moses had assigned to each tribe. The date this ban was ultimately lifted, allowing women to marry men from other tribes, was Tu B’Av, in the 40th year of the desert wanderings.
Surviving Tisha B’Av
Tu B’Av is also associated with the end of the punishment for the Sin of the Spies.
none of the men who have seen My Presence and the signs that I have performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and who have tried Me these many times and have disobeyed Me, shall see the land that I promised on oath to their fathers; none of those who spurn Me shall see it. Numbers 14:22-23
Each year, on Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the month of Av), the men who were alive at the time of the Sin of the Spies slept in graves they had dug for themselves. Every year, some of those men did not wake up.
In the 40th year, the remaining men who were complicit in the Sin of the Spies dug graves and slept in them, as usual. To their surprise, no one died that Tisha B’Av night. They didn’t immediately realize that the punishment was over. Rather, they assumed they had miscalculated the date. So they laid in their graves the next several nights.
Six nights later, Tu B’Av arrived, with its full moon. As with other notable days on the Hebrew calendar that fall on the 15th of the Hebrew month, such as Passover (15th of Nisan) and Sukkot (15th of Tishrei), there is always a full moon on Tu B’Av.
All the men who were still alive after that Tu B’Av entered the Land of Israel with Joshua.
White Dresses and Match Making
Another marriage-related, or, more accurately, match-making tradition associated with Tu B’Av was taught by Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel (a sage from the 1st century CE) who said: “There never were in Israel greater days of joy than the 15th of Av and the Day of Atonement. On these days, the daughters of Jerusalem used to walk out in white garments which they borrowed, in order not to put to shame anyone 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.’”
Then they would quote from the Book of Proverbs, encouraging the young men to choose a wife based on her character, rather than solely on her looks.
Grace is deceptive, Beauty is illusory; It is for her fear of Hashem That a woman is to be praised. Extol her for the fruit of her hand, And let her works praise her in the gates. Proverbs 31:30-31
One Tribe Had No Wives
One of the most gruesome stories in the whole Tanach (Hebrew Bible) is the story of the Pilegesh B’Givah, the concubine of a man from the tribe of Levi. Her story is told in the Book of Judges, chapters 19-21. After this horrifying incident, the leaders of the other tribes agreed that they would not allow their daughters to marry anyone from the tribe of Benjamin.
This vow was eventually lifted on Tu B’Av, and the men of the Tribe of Benjamin were able to find wives from among the women of other tribes. King Shaul (Saul) was among those who benefited directly from the lifting of this ban.
Restoring Access to Jerusalem
One additional Biblical association with the 15th of Av is not at all related to romantic love. Tu B’Av is the date on which King Hoshea (II Kings 17) dismissed the guards, established by King Yeravam (Jeroboam) who were blocking the road to Jerusalem, thus allowing the residents of the Northern Kingdom, the Ten Tribes, to once again travel to Jerusalem, in order to worship at the Holy Temple.
Tu B’Av As A Day of Joy and Torah Study
In contrast with the mournful Tisha B’Av, Tu B’Av, which occurs this year from sundown Thursday, August 15 until Shabbat begins at sundown on Friday, August 16, is a joyful day. Many couples get engaged or married on Tu B’Av and already-married couples might arrange romantic dates.
Tu B’Av is noted for one more thing. As summer wanes and the nights start getting incrementally longer, the rabbis teach that, on Tu B’Av, it is proper to gradually increase the amount of time one spends in the evenings studying Torah, particularly in preparation for the approaching High Holiday season.