Boy meets girl on Tu Be’av

Six days after Tisha Be’av, when we mourn the loss of two Temples, we celebrate the Israeli Valentine’s day on Tu Be’av,

August 1, 2012 21:58
Dancing in the vinyards of  W.Bank village Shiloh

Dancing in the vinyards of the W. Bank village of Shiloh 370. (photo credit: Courtesy Tel Shiloh Heritage Site)


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After the trauma of Tisha Be’av, when we mourn the loss of two Temples, only six days later we celebrate the Israeli Valentine’s day on Tu Be’av, the 15th of Av, which falls this year on Friday.

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. The Talmud states that these were the unmarried girls and boys (Babli, Ta’anith 31A) and we should hope so.

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Curiously, a similar event is also recorded on Yom Kippur.

The earliest record of such an event is in the Book of Judges (21:16ff), when the men of Benjamin (who were denied brides by the other tribes because of their heinous assaults on a concubine at Gibeah) are allowed to go and capture the girls who are dancing at the annual festival in the vineyards of Shiloh.

As it again mentions vineyards, it is assumed that this also took place on the 15th of Av, which is the wine festival, the gathering of the grapes.

Tu Be’av is just one of the many festivals celebrated on the 15th, the middle of the lunar month and the brightest night of the month, as in Nisan (for Passover), Sivan (Pentecost, according to the Ethiopians), Av (wine), Tishrei (Tabernacles) and Shvat (New Year of trees).

The festivals have a clear agricultural basis, to be celebrated each year under the full moon.

The record in the Mishna is in the name of R. Shimeon ben Gamliel, the Nasi or president, who lived in the first century CE while that described in Judges will have been in the early Iron Age, about 1100 BCE, a difference of over a thousand years.

Both events took place in the vineyards, but one was celebrated in Shiloh and the other in Jerusalem. As the center of worship moved from the Tabernacle in Shiloh to the Temple in Jerusalem, one can take it that there was a religious aspect to the dancing – though it clearly had the practical purpose of enabling the sexes to meet and view each other at a public celebration, a pretty rare opportunity in those days.

In that sense it also smacks of a pagan origin, especially as it takes place at the celebration of 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 consider the festivities of the Greek God Dionysus, which were celebrated under the Ptolemies in Egypt and so will have permeated into Israel-Palestine in the third and second centuries BCE.

How such a ritual came to Shiloh in the 12th century BCE is another matter, but it could have been the residue of a Canaanite custom that had persisted at Shiloh. For we know that before the Israelite establishment of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) at Shiloh, it had been a Middle Bronze Age cult center, as was made clear by the excavations there of the Bar-Ilan University expedition in the 1980s.

It is therefore possible to suggest that some of the Canaanite customs, like nubile girls dancing under the full moon, persisted at the site, even at the time of the Mishkan.

In the Book of Judges, it is called the festival to the Lord (21:19) and that makes it all the more possible that it was an earlier cultic custom that was adopted by the Israelites.

TO UNDERSTAND custom and form we should look at the original basis of the Dionysiac rites. Dionysus was a god of nature and of wine, whose followers were mainly women. According to Greek sources, 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, and tear it apart and devour the bleeding pieces. Clearly, if it was to be adopted, something needed to be changed.

Another aspect of Dionysus was worshipped in Asia Minor, where he was the god of 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 which would have been transferred into the dances that took place in Shiloh.

In representations on Greek vases, Dionysus is always depicted with a crown of vine leaves and he became more and more associated with the celebration of the wine harvest.

This aspect was particularly popular in Asia Minor and it may have been transferred from there to the Canaanites and eventually to the Israelites of Shiloh.

In the Israelite form, the invitation to the Benjaminites, to take the girls of Shiloh, was conditional on their father’s or brother’s approval, as is shown by Verse 22 which says, “And it shall be when their fathers and their brothers come to strive with us, that we shall say to them, Grant them graciously unto us, because we took not for each man his wife in battle, neither did ye give them unto them, that ye should now be guilty.”

This is a bit convoluted, however it shows that the Benjaminites were not just free to help themselves to the girls but had to still get the approval of their fathers or brothers, as for any other betrothal.

As described, it was a special occasion when the men of Benjamin came to take wives, whereas the event is recorded as an annual one, with religious overtones. It seems therefore to have been a yearly event that was used for single boys and girls to get together to advance their marriage prospects, and it stemmed from an ancient fertility celebration that took place at the time of the wine harvest.

IN THE Hellenistic age, the earlier Dionysiac parades became popular again, particularly in Egypt. We know that the Ptolemaic rulers introduced Greek ideas into Egypt and Ptolemy IV was especially keen on making Dionysus’s worship the state religion. There is even a mention in Third Maccabees that he tried to convert the Jews of Alexandria to the rites of Dionysus.

Ptolemy IV Philopator reigned from 222- 205 BCE and had Jewish friends in the House of Tobias (Beit Tobiah), who had an estate in Jordan. There, Tobias bred exotic animals, such as wild asses and white donkeys and sent them to Egypt, to the grandfather of Ptolemy IV in the year 259 BCE in exchange for grain.

The grandson used these and more exotic animals, such as elephants and panthers, in the New Year parades for Dionysus, which were accompanied by dancing girls in white frocks strewing flowers and petals in all directions. No doubt the young men looked on in anticipation and made a note of the girls and the names of their fathers and brothers.

We also know that Jews went down to Egypt, to Alexandria to negotiate trade and taxes with the Ptolemies and the historian Flavius Josephus tells us of a certain Joseph ben Tobiah, who had a good time there and even got together with a dancing girl that he fancied, and went to bed with her.

Josephus said Joseph did well for himself and gave his people “more splendid opportunities” (Antiquities 12; 224), which seems to mean that he was among the first to bring Hellenistic ideas to Jerusalem.

It is therefore quite possible that the Hellenistic customs of Egypt were extended to Judah and Jerusalem and this may have been the source of the Dionysiac dancing girls of Jerusalem, who continued a custom that had existed a thousand years earlier in Shiloh, and so had a certain legitimacy in traditional eyes.

And one has to ask, why did Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel record that the custom was carried out on Tu Be’av and also on Yom Kippur? One can understand Tu Be’av, as it was the wine harvest festival, which is clearly associated with the cult of Dionysus, but why Yom Kippur? WE KNOW that the Dionysiac parades in Egypt were held at the conclusion of the New Year festivities and that these festivities took place for a period of 10 or 11 days (the difference between the lunar and solar years), and of course, the 10th day in our calendar would be Yom Kippur, so the end of the New Year festivities would be as normal for a reenactment of the Dionysiac parades, as would be the wine harvest festival on Tu Be’av.

Thus, the girls at Shiloh danced each year in front of the boys on Tu Be’av, but a thousand years later, it was remembered that in Jerusalem, they had also danced on Yom Kippur.

And what about Valentine’s Day? St. Valentine was martyred by the Romans in Italy on February 14, 270 CE.

Not so romantic, and not as nice as the girls in white on Tu Be’av in Shiloh and on Yom Kippur in Jerusalem.

The writer is a Senior Fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem.

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