On Tu B’Av and Ahavat Chinam

Tu B’Av is colloquially known as the Festival of Love.  It was one of the two best days of the year, along with Yom Kippur:

Rabban Shimon son of Gamliel said: “Israel did not have better days than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, when the maidens of Jerusalem would go out wearing borrowed white clothes, so as not to embarrass those who did not have them.

And the maidens of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards. And what did they say? “Young man, look and observe well whom you are about to choose. Do not dwell on the beauty, dwell on the family”.

(Mishnah Ta’anit, 4:8)

What is Tu B’Av all about, and why is it compared with Yom Kippur? Our Rabbis give six reasons for the special events that took place on the fifteenth of Av, among which were:

  • The day on which the tribes were allowed to intermarry” – When the Bnei Israel came to Eretz Israel, intertribal marriage was forbidden to prevent land being passed on from one tribe to another in cases where daughters inherited from their fathers. This decree was abolished at the time of the Judges on the 15th of Av.
  • The day on which the tribe of Benjamin was allowed to return to the congregation” – After the terrible disaster known as Pilegesh BeGiva – the concubine on the hill – there was a war between the various tribes of Israel in which 70,000 men were killed. Benjamin was the tribe responsible for this conflict, and the elders of the congregation declared that no other tribe must marry its men. This decree was also revoked on the 15th of Av.
  • The day on which Hosea son of Ella dismissed the guards, appointed by Jeroboam son of Nebat, to guard the roads and prevent the Israelites from making pilgrimages, and said that whoever wishes to make a pilgrimage may do so” – After the kingdom was split into Israel and Judea, King Jeroboam placed army guards on the roads to Judea to ensure that his subjects do not make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. King Hosea son of Ella abolished this law and permitted all to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem once more.

The joy associated with Tu B’Av stems from the empowerment of equality as a value, as the Mishnah states: “For on them the maidens of Jerusalem would go out wearing borrowed white clothes, so as not to embarrass those who did not have them.” On that day, the social strata were ignored. No one took pride in what she owned, and no one was ashamed of what she didn’t have. Even the elite daughters of society removed their beautiful garments and wore borrowed clothes. This key event on Tu B’Av was held in the vineyards with everyone mingling with one another, without condescension or alienation. It was a huge display of love, in which members of every sector participated.

That was also the reason behind the dance. It was performed in a circle, where no classes or strata can be discerned. Every point in the circle is equally far from the center, and thus Tu B’Av was in fact a Jewish celebration of social equality.

Moreover, the decrees annulled on that day were associated with reconnecting the various parts of society to one another: tribes were allowed to intermarry, Benjamin was allowed back into the congregation and the Israelites were allowed to return to the unifying  city of Jerusalem: “The built-up Jerusalem is like a city that is united together.” (Tehilim 122); “Said Rabbi Yehushua Ben Levi: A city that makes all Israel chaverim (friends).”  (Jerusalem Talmud, Hagigah 2:6).

The Beit HaMikdash was destroyed on 9th Av because of baseless hatred, and in that sense Tu B’Av, celebrated 6 days later, is the day of atonement and rebuilding. just as Yom HaKipurim. It is a day of Ahavat Chinam, unqualified and unconditional love, which is the very foundation for the rebuilding of Beit Hamikdash, as Rav Kook says:

“If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — Ahavat Chinam. (Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 324)

We have been practicing social distancing for months, because it has proven to be the most effective way to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, the pandemic of Sinat Chinam (baseless hatred) from which we have been suffering for thousands of years should be battled with the exact opposite weapon – social closeness. By this I mean not physical closeness but rather emotional closeness, despite all of our disputes and disagreements. Social closeness is the spiritual essence of Tu B’Av and the reason that it should be the happiest days of the year.

Happy Festival of Love and Unity!

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