Although the solemn fast of Tisha Be’av is universally celebrated by Jews, only six days later there is another, much happier festival that many Jews know nothing about. Falling this year on August 11, Tu Be’av is known as the love festival, and is marked by celebrations at Shiloh, where my daughter and her family live.
Shiloh, in Samaria, is the location of the biblical capital city and site of the Tabernacle during the period of settlement of the tribes of Israel. In the 11th and 12th centuries, it was the home of the Ark of the Covenant.
Even though so little is known about it, the Mishna tells us that apart from Yom Kippur, there was no greater holiday for Israel, for on that day, the girls of Jerusalem used to go out in borrowed white dresses (borrowed so that “none should be abashed who had them not”) and dance in the vineyards. What would they say? “Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself.”
Although Tu Be’av is a minor festival, with no special commandments, prohibitions or rituals, it has actually been blessed with several names that make it significant.
It is the Holiday of the Grape Harvest, the Holiday of Unity, the Holiday of Love, the Festival of the Lord and The Day of the Breaking of the Hatchets.
On Tu Be’av, young Jewish men and women were encouraged to choose their mates. Even today, in some parts of Jerusalem, you will see posters announcing special prayers on that day for finding a match. While the Israelites were traveling for 40 years in the Sinai desert, there was a ban on inter-tribal marriage to ensure that the peoples’ inheritance in the land of Israel would not pass out of the hands of its original owners, but on Tu Be’av, marriage between the various tribes was permitted.
Also, intermarriage with the tribe of Benjamin was again permitted, after it had been forbidden following the Battle of Gibeah. The generation that had left Egypt ceased to die in the wilderness, as they had been doing for their sin regarding the false report of the spies about Canaan.
Thus, Moses returned to his previous high level of prophecy.
Other highlights of the 15th of Av were that King Hosea permitted residents of the Northern Kingdom to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem once again, and the dead of the great fallen city of Betar were granted burial by the Roman government.
Beginning from Tu Be’av, the fierce heat of summer begins to wane. It was the last day wood could be collected for the wood offering (any wood collected after this date had the possibility of being wormy).
On Tu Be’av, following the three-week mourning period culminating on Tisha Be’av, things are moving in a more positive direction. No Temple has been rebuilt, and the people have not yet entered the Promised Land, but the worst is over.
This year, once again there will be a celebration in Shiloh, where girls will dance in white dresses in the vineyards, there will be music and the treading of the grapes, with grape juice available for all the visitors.
Tu Be’av is an optimistic celebration after the rigors of Tisha Be’av. Perhaps its strongest message is that we must counteract the national fragmentation that brought about the destruction of the Temple, by celebrating the unity of the Jewish people.
The writer is the author of 13 books.