The Greeks had the god Dionysus, known as Bacchus to the Romans—the god of wine, grapes, and fertility. The festivals held in his honor were marked by reckless abandon and wild orgies, and it was often the women who initiated the revelry. They would seduce men with their dancing and drumming, reaching levels of drunken ecstasy that knew no bounds.
There is an echo of these pagan festivals in Jewish tradition as well. The book of Judges describes women who danced in the vineyards, where they were seen and seized by men: “And they commanded the people of Benjamin, saying: Go and lie in wait in the vineyards and watch. When the young women of Shiloh come out to join in the dancing, rush from the vineyards and each of you seize one of them to be your wife” (21:21).
In Jewish tradition, the ritual is somewhat tempered, but even so, why was it only the members of the tribe of Benjamin who were authorized to seize the dancing women? This is the result of a terrifying incident described in the book of Judges (chapters 19-21), the story of the concubine on a hill. A certain man from the tribe of Levi arrived with his concubine in a city belonging to the tribe of Benjamin. While they were dining in the home of their elderly host, a group of thugs came to the door and insisted that the host release the man so that they might have their way with him. Instead, the man offered his concubine to the mob, who raped and abused her all night long. Only in the morning, when he opened the door to hurry his concubine so that they might continue on their journey, did he discover that she was dead. He took her to his home, chopped up her body into twelve pieces, and sent them throughout all parts of the land.
This horrifying biblical story does not address the question of what the host and his guest did while the woman was being cruelly raped and abused by the mob. Was their dinner undisturbed? Did they go to sleep calm and unconcerned? Did they hear the screams of the woman and simply turn a deaf ear?
As a result of this incident, a war broke out between the tribes of Israel and the tribes of Benjamin, which was almost entirely decimated. The tribes of Israel decided not to marry their daughters to the men of the tribe of Benjamin, but so as to prevent this tribe from dying out entirely, they permitted the men of Benjamin to seize and wed the young women of Shiloh, who would dance in the vineyards. According to the biblical account in the book of Judges, the festival of the women dancing in the vineyards took place “since days of yore,” but it was only the Talmudic sages who associated this festival with the 15th of Av. And so the violent, isolated incident of seizing women by force became a regular, legally sanctioned occurrence.
According to Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, “There were no better days for the people of Israel than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur, since on these days the daughters of Israel would go out dressed in borrowed white clothing, so as not to embarrass anyone who did not have nice clothes… And the daughters of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards located on the outskirts of the city, and say: "Young man, lift up your eyes and choose wisely. Don’t look only at physical beauty – look rather at family” (Taanit 30b-31a). The holiday is described as a folk and nature festival, one that takes place in the vineyards when the grapes are ripe and intoxicating – an appropriate time for making matches. The dancing girls try to seduce the young men in the vineyards, an idea that would surely be frowned upon by today’s orthodox establishment.
In recent years, Tu B’Av has become a sort of Valentine’s Day in Israel, marked by all sorts of commercialized kitsch. It is worth noting that the Christian saint Valentine was killed in the year 270 CE because he defied the Emperor Claudius’s prohibition on marriage. Claudius wanted the men to devote themselves entirely to war, but Valentine secretly married off young couples. It seems unlikely that today’s yeshiva boys will adopt the ancient custom and seize upon seminary girls dancing in the vineyards, to renew the ancient custom of drunken revelry.
Prof. Aliza Shenhar is the provost of the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College.