Finding Love on Tu B’Av
Did you know that there was an ancient tradition that on two days of the year, unmarried girls used to go out dancing in the vineyards around Jerusalem in order to find a marriage partner?
The Mishna in Taanit says, “There were no happier days in Israel than the fifteenth of Av (Tu B’Av ) and Yom Kippur. Because on these two days the daughters of Jerusalem would come out and dance in the vineyards.”
The Talmud adds that anyone who did not have a wife would be able to join in to try to find one. Then it says that as the girls were dancing, each one sang about what she thought she had to offer, whether it was beauty, family, personal qualities. And they concluded by using the metaphor of “and showering her with gold” as if to say that whatever reason a man chose a wife for, he had to treat her with love and respect to get the most out of the marriage.
The Talmud gives various reasons for the significance of Tu B’Av. Some are to do with historical events in ancient Israel or with providing supplies to the Temple. But they also say that it was the anniversary of when the tribes of Israel were allowed to intermarry with each other instead of being restricted to one’s own tribe as Moses instituted.
The timing of the Fifteenth of Av made sense. The harvests were over, there was time to relax, and no one would associate it with pagan dancing around the Maypole, which took place in the early summer.
But why on Yom Kippur as well? In ancient times, Yom Kippur, although a fast, was celebrated primarily by attending the early morning Temple sacrifices and special ceremonies of atonement — all done with impressive ceremonial dress, processions, sights, and sounds. A kind of huge theatrical but also a spiritual event.
The special Temple ceremonials for Yom Kippur would be over well before midday. What did everyone do then? The city would be overwhelmed with visitors coming in from the provinces and abroad for the Holy Days. It was the perfect time to arrange marriages — as it is in Jerusalem nowadays. And if you wonder about dancing, remember this was before the destruction of the Temple. Yom Kippur actually was a happy day because after the atonement sacrifices, everyone felt forgiven and relieved.
The very idea of leaving marriage up to the young people to choose for themselves was remarkable for its time. But more importantly, I do not think that the Talmud passages I have quoted were meant to be taken literally, about rich girls, beautiful girls, or plain ones from humble families. And dressing all the girls in simple white obviously was meant to symbolize the idea that every person is equal in God’s eyes and to place less emphasis on external and material qualities.
The Talmud recognizes the importance of beauty. Why not? Beauty, joy, and attraction are important factors in life and in every area of Divine worship. Yet as the primary reason for choosing a wife, beauty is not that reliable. It is so subjective and cultural. It withers and can be changed by the artifice of a clever plastic surgeon. Character surely matters more, to cope with the vicissitudes of life and the capacity to persevere and appreciate the other — to make one’s partner feel special, wanted, valued, and loved. Neither should we underestimate the role of family and common family values in upbringing and support. All those features are referred to in the text.
It is, of course, possible to have all the above in a marriage, and it still won’t work for other reasons. And conversely, some of the best marriages I have encountered have been between the most unlikely, inappropriate, and even unattractive people. So there is no golden bullet, no guarantee. Just good advice and good fortune.
There have not been any specific rituals or customs associated with Tu B’Av in the past. But given the current vogue in Judaism for adding exponentially new customs, obligations, and restrictions, it is hardly surprising that out of nowhere, suddenly Tu B’Av has become a thing.
We are experiencing a crisis of singles. But we must look to the future. Arranging marriages is a huge mitzvah. It is thanks to those girls and boys dancing in the vineyards on the fifteenth of Av thousands of years ago that we are here today.
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US.