Reclaiming Tu B’Av

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Sarah Robinson

In anticipation of the celebration of Tu B’Av next Monday, allow me to present a question (and tentative answer) about or celebration of that day.    

It is curious that the gemara in Taanit 30b and other rabbinic texts provide no less than seven possible reasons for celebrating Tu B’Av. Why so many? Perhaps there might be a unifying factor among the seven; allow me to present them  in chronological order of Jewish history:  


  1. After God ruled that Benot Tzelafchad could indeed inherit their father’s land, Shevet Menashe protested (Bamidbar 36:1-9), fearing that such women would marry out of the tribe and taking the land with them — thus reducing the overall tribal apportionment to each tribe.  The resolution  was for the Benot Tzelafchad and other women in this tragic circumstance would marry only within their tribe, thus enabling  them to simultaneously inherit their father’s land while maintaining the overall apportionment to each Shevet. It was then on Tu B’Av that it was determined that this ruling was relevant only for the Dor Hamidbar, thereby enabling future women in this circumstance to freely marry members of other shevatim. (Ta’anit 30b)
  2. Rashi to Taanit 30b d”h “shekulo mitei midbar” brings a midrash that following the Cheit HaMeraglim on Tisha B’Av, every night, the men between 20 and 60 would dig their graves  in anticipation of their potential death; those who woke up in the morning would then continue on the journey to Eretz Yisrael. Beginning on the 40th year on Tisha B’Av, all the men awoke the following morning. This continued for a number of days. By Tu B’Av, the men realized that they would not die in the Midbar like their parents and would merit to enter and conquer the land of Israel.
  3. Following the gang rape and death of the Pilegesh B’Givah, Am Yisrael nearly eradicated the perpetrator tribe, Shevet Binyamin, in a civil war.  They also  vowed that they would not marry their daughters to the remaining survivors of the tribe (Shoftim 20 and 21).  Regretting the enormity of their actions, Am Yisrael sought a legally permissible means to re-populate the tribe. On Tu B’Av, the Beit Din reached a solution:  women could dance in the field and be kidnapped and marry their kidnapper, thereby enabling them to marry and create children for the tribe of Binyamin (Ta’anit 30b)
  4. After the kingdoms split between Malchut Yisrael and Malchut Yehudah, it was finally on Tu B’Av that the Shavtim in Malchut Yisrael could now go to the Mikdash in Malchut Yehudah (Taanit 30b, Melachim Alef 12:26-31 and Melachim Bet 17:1-2).
  5. Following the failure of the Bar Kochva revolt, the Romans prevented the Jewish soldiers from entering Beitar to bury their dead. Many years later on Tu B’Av, Jews were given permission to bury the dead, and to their surprise, the bodies had not decayed. Thus this day contained a double blessing — the permission to bury and to bury them whole.
  6. Tu B’Av signified the date when woodchoppers who collected wood for the mizbeyach would cease that activity, indicating the shortening of days and the anticipation of the winter ahead.  (Tannit 30b)
  7. Perhaps the most well known reason is recorded in the Mishna Ta’anit 4:8. The Mishna explains that there was “no more joyous a festival than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur,” for maiden women would dress in borrow white dresses (so as to financially equalize one maiden to the other). As they danced, they enticed the male suitors with the promise of a good family. Thus a celebration for Jewish continuity and a marriage predicated on family values.

When I consider all seven of these reasons — I have to wonder — why are there so many? And why are they so different from each other? Perhaps, as Rav Yaakov Medan of Yeshivat Har Etzion would tell us in Migdal Oz — when the rishonim present a huge number of potential readings to a narrative (like the story of Nadav V’Avihu), it is an indication that none of the answers are particularly compelling and we therefore need to cull all of them together to make sense of it. Is that what’s going on here? Does the gemara need to suggest seven reasons because, alone, one reason is not enough to justify a celebration? After all, we are familiar with tens of rabbinic sources giving wildly different reasons for the Churban, so it wouldnt be outside the realm of possibilities that Tu b’Av could also be celebrated for a multiplicity of smaller victories.

Allow me to suggest another reason. There seven reasons all relate to: life and death (burying the dead of Beitar, stop dying in the midbar), marriage (orphaned women following the generation of Benot  Tzlafchad can marry outside their tribe, marrying the survivors of Shevet Binyamin, and the practice for women in white dresses to dance in the fields), and the mikdash (Jews from Malchut Yisrael can now go to the mikdash in Malchut Yehudah, and stopping the wood chopping for the mikdash).

So what do these three themes — life and death, marriage, and mikdash have to do with each other?

Perhaps the celebration of Tu B’Av is meant to indicate what a Jewish marriage is all about. The couple’s private joy is situated in the context of the Jewish community and Jewish continuity.

So on Monday night when Millennials go to their White Only parties in this reclaimed, niche holiday, let us remember what the day is really all about: the joy of continuing the Jewish people through Jewish marriage and the building of Mikdash, may it be rebuilt speedily in our days.

Sarah Robinson (SBM 2012, 2013) is a recent graduate of Yeshiva University’s women’s talmud and halacha program called GPATS; in the fall she will be teaching limmudei kodesh in the Rae Kushener Yeshiva High School. 


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