Outside of Israel, Tu B’Av, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Av (which begins this year on Sunday night August 14), is the most minor of holidays. If it is acknowledged at all, it is almost exclusively by Orthodox men during morning prayers, when the penitential “tahanun” prayer is omitted, as befitting a festive day. In Israel, almost everyone has heard of the holiday of Tu B’Av. It has been warmly embraced by the secular public as a kind of Valentine’s Day, since the holiday is also known as “the Day of Love.”
What is this holiday of Tu B’Av? A clear reference to the day is found in the Mishnah, written almost 2,000 years ago. The Mishnah speaks of Tu B’Av as a festive day upon which the “daughters of Jerusalem” would go out into the vineyards with white clothes that they had borrowed (so that no could tell who was rich or poor), and the girls would sing: “Boys, choose carefully. Don’t look at appearances, but look at our families, for it is written, ‘Grace is deceptive, Beauty is illusory. It is for her fear of the Lord that a woman is to be praised.’” Here, therefore, is an original source for Tu B’Av as a Jewish “Day of Love.” The way that modern Israel celebrates this holiday, however, is a little different from the way it was celebrated in the days of old.
On Tu B’Av in Israel, restaurants as well as music, dance and theater festivals all try to capitalize on this romantic holiday by promoting events for lovers. In past years, for example, the restaurant along the Manara Cliffs in the Galilee offered a multi-course meal, a cable car ride up the cliffs and personal musical accompaniment. (One could choose between a wandering violinist, guitarist or flutist). The advertisement for the event said that “this offer could be especially appropriate for those who are thinking of an original idea for a marriage proposal.”
In a country where women of all ages enjoy wearing “hultzot beten” (“tummy shirts,” which don’t quite manage to cover one’s — pierced or unpierced — navel), the attire at Tu B’Av festivals is rather less modest than the attire described in the Mishnah. My friend Danny sees this as a perversion of Jewish tradition: “If there is any connection to the traditional Tu B’Av, it is that the popular Israeli way of celebrating this holiday is the exact opposite of what our sages intended.” A different friend of mine goes even further: “It’s like a man stranded at sea, dying of thirst, who in desperation starts to drink salt water. It’s water, true, but that man is poisoning himself. So with Israelis and Tu B’Av: they’ve got the name of the holiday and the date, but what they do on this day hurts them spiritually, because they use this day to sin.”
I believe that it is possible to find redeeming value in Tu B’Av even as it is celebrated today. In Israel, where Jewish civilization has come fully alive after a hiatus of two millennia, Tu B’Av has also come back to life. Though current popular observance is hardly chaste, every now and then, alongside the love festivals, traditional sources of the holiday are recalled, and there is discussion of such topics as sexual ethics and the differences between male and female sexuality.
For Jews outside of Israel, Tu B’Av will remain what it is until the arrival of the Messiah, when, it is traditionally believed, it will mark the seventh day of a week-long holiday beginning on the former fast day of the 9th of Av. As with the founding of the State itself, Israelis have chosen not to wait for the Messiah. Is God happy with this situation? Even though I have a Ph.D. in theology, I still find it hard to tell what God wants. But I do know where I would want to be with my beloved on Tu B’Av.