The Mishna tells us that on Tu Be’av the girls of Jerusalem went out into the vineyards and called to the boys to select one of them as a mate. In the Babylonian Talmud an unknown source says these were the unmarried girls (Ta’anit 31A) – and we should certainly hope so. Curiously, this event also happened on Yom Kippur, thus giving it religious overtones.
A similar account is mentioned much earlier, in the Book of Judges, when the men of Benjamin are invited to go and capture the girls dancing in the vineyards of Shiloh at the annual festival held there. Because some men of Benjamin had gang-raped a concubine at Gibeah and the tribe had refused to punish the perpetrators, the rest of Israel had decided not to grant wives to the tribe of Benjamin. But after a time they relented when they saw that Benjamin would be wiped out without heirs, so they told them about the girls dancing at Shiloh, under the moonlight in the vineyards.
As it mentions vineyards it is assumed that this was again on 15th of Av, which is reckoned to be the festival of the wine harvest. It is thus one of the many festivals celebrated at the middle of the lunar month, the brightest night of the month, like Passover in Nissan and Succot in Tishrei, and even Shavuot in Sivan, according to the Ethiopians. For this reason we can assume these festivals have an agricultural basis, with the farmers and their wives celebrating on the most luminous of their nights.
The event recorded in the Mishna is in the name of Rabbi Shimeon ben Gamliel Hanasi, of the first century CE. The event in the Book of Judges is considered to have happened in the early Iron Age, in about 1100 BCE, or 1,200 years earlier than the Mishnaic record.
Both incidents take place in the vineyards, but one is in Shiloh whereas the other is in Jerusalem. As the center of orthodoxy moved from the mishkan or Tabernacle in Shiloh to the Temple in Jerusalem, we can take it that there was a religious significance attached to the dancing. But it clearly had another purpose, in enabling the sexes to meet and view each other openly in public, which may have been a pretty rare opportunity in those days.
In that sense it smacks of a pagan and sexual origin, especially as it takes place at the wine harvest. We do not need to consider the orgies held in the name of Bacchus, the Greek and Roman god of wine, but we should have in mind the festivities held in the name of the Greek god Dionysus, which were celebrated under the Ptolemies in Egypt and so will have permeated into Israel in about the third and second centuries BCE. How such a cult came to Shiloh in the 12th century BCE is a matter of speculation, but it could have been the residue of a Canaanite custom that persisted at Shiloh.
We know that before the Israelite establishment of the mishkan at Shiloh, it had been a Middle Bronze Age (c.2000 BCE) cult center, as was made clear by the excavations there of Bar-Ilan University (under Israel Finkelstein) in the 1980s. We can therefore surmise that some of the Canaanite customs, like perhaps the popular one of the girls dancing under the light of the full moon, persisted even to the time of the mishkan.
In Judges 21:19 it is called the Feast of the Lord, which makes it all the more possible that it was an earlier custom that was taken over by the Israelites in a slightly different form.
To understand that different form, we should look at the original basis of the Dionystic ritual. Dionysis was a popular god of nature and of wine, whose followers were mainly women. His cult was so popular in Thrace and Greece that the women abandoned their houses and their work and roamed around the mountains whirling torches in ecstatic dances. At the peak of their ecstasy they would seize an animal, or even a child, tear it apart and devour the bleeding pieces. Obviously if it was to be adopted, something needed to be changed.
Another aspect of Dionysis was worshipped in Asia Minor, where he was a god of the rebirth of vegetation, not of the crops but of the trees and the vine, a god of fertility celebrated by ritual parades and dances, and it is this aspect that would have been transferred into the dances that took place in Shiloh. In representations on the Greek vases, Dionysus is always depicted with a crown of vine leaves, and he became more and more associated with the celebration of the annual wine harvest festival. This aspect was particularly popular in Asia Minor and it may have been transferred from there to the Canaanites and eventually to the Israelites in Shiloh.
In the Israelite form, the invitation to the men of Benjamin to capture the girls of Shiloh was conditional on their father’s or their brother’s approval (as Judges 21:22), they were not just free to help themselves to the girls but it had to be done in a conventional and orderly way, unlike the obvious pagan antecedents.
But this was only a special event, when the men of Benjamin came to procure wives, whereas the ceremony is recorded as an annual event that was openly used for boys and girls to get together, perhaps a rare opportunity for them to meet and advance their marriage prospects. And this all stemmed from an ancient fertility celebration that took place under the light of the full moon at the wine harvest festival on Tu Be’av in Shiloh, originally some 3,000 years ago.
The writer is a Senior Fellow at the W.F.Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.