If you’re not super observant you’ve probably never heard of the holiday of Tu B’Av. Translated to mean the 15th day of the Jewish month of Av, it is a day that doesn’t have any prescribed mitzvahs to accomplish (no shofar to hear, no Megillah to read). It doesn’t have any prohibitions to avoid, it’s not a “yom tov.” It does even have any iconic symbols (nothing like a sukkah or a hannukia). Yet the holiday stands out in two aspects. One, it’s associated with shidduchim (marriage) and finding your besherit (soul mate.) The other, is that the Talmud says, “No holidays are as great as Yom Kippur and Tu B’Av.”
Why is this little known holiday considered the pinnacle of romance and what does that have to do with the Day of Atonement?
6 reasons for Tu B’Av
Before I get to those questions, here’s a little background. With most holidays we can point to a single event which brought about the tradition. Chanukah, we found the oil, Pesach, we left Egypt. But Tu B’Av has six events attributed to it.
- Intermarriage A-okay!
The first generation that entered the Land of Israel was prohibited from marrying into the other tribes. On the 15th of Av that restriction was rescinded, anyone could marry anyone else. (Among the Jewish people. Intermarriage into other cultures was still prohibited.)
- Binyamin was saved.
There is a troubling episode told in the book of Judges which recounts something terrible that the tribe of Binyamin did that lead to a civil war that almost wiped out the whole tribe. With only about 600 males left, there was a ban placed on intermarrying with Binyamin. But when the Jewish people realized that would result in the death of the whole tribe, they rescinded that decree. How romantic!
- Digging your own Grave.
The tragedy of the spies lead to the first generation having to die out in the desert over 38 years. The Talmud recounts that many of that generation would die each year on Tisha B’Av. So what each person would do was dig a grave, go to sleep in it, and if you didn’t wake up, you were pretty much already buried. Well, after the 38th year, everyone woke up. But because they weren’t sure if they had miscalculated, the kept sleeping in the grave for another week. By Tu B’Av they realized that God’s punishments had ended.
- Civil War Reconstruction
After the Temple was built, it wasn’t long before the nation splits into the Northern Kingdom (Judah) and the Southern Kingdom (Jerusalem). However the King of the North at the time didn’t love that his people had to travel to Jerusalem to visit the Temple. So he put up roadblocks to discourage that travel. Eventually one of his successors, Hoshea, took down those barriers. That was on the 15th of Av.
- Burying the Massacred
When Rome squashed the Bar Kochba revolt, the Romans didn’t allow the massacred to be buried. But then after three years, Rome reversed the decision and Jews were allowed to perform burial rights for the dead. According to the Talmud a miracle happened and the bodies had not started to decompose in the slightest. Guess what day this happened on.
The 6th reason is a little more complicated, but I think it is going to bring all these morbid and seemingly unromantic ideas together.
When the Jews rebuilt the Second Temple, at first, many of the Jews remained in Babylon. The Jews who did return to Israel were poor and struggled greatly. One of the necessities to keep the service of the Temple going was the wood for the mizbeach (sacrificial altar). And in order to make sure the sacrifices continued, these poor families donated their wood to the Temple.
We don’t think about how much of a commodity wood was in those days. For us, we’ve got our heaters, our microwaves, our hot water etc etc. But in those days, wood was needed for everything. The other thing is that wood for the mizbeach had to be completely dry. Once wood started to get wet, worms would get into the wood and once that happened, it was not considered suitable for the sacrifices. So that meant in order to get wood, you had to chop it during the hottest days of the Israeli summer. The day which was decreed to be the last day for chopping wood was closely tied to the Summer Solstice… you guessed it, Tu B’Av.
What does Chopping Wood have to do with Yom Kippur and Marriage?
Before I get to that, I have one more thing to explain. The Soul.
Judaism not only believes the human has a soul, it believes we have FIVE NATURES of the soul. Neffesh, Ruach, Neshama, Chaya, and Yechida.
Neffesh is the body soul. Every living thing has a Neffesh. Our biological drives are the domain of the Neffesh. The Ruach, which can also mean spirit or breath, is tied to our emotions. Love, compassion, empathy, anger. That’s all Ruach. Then there is the Neshama. On Rosh Hashanah, God breathed into Adam the Neshama. It is the place of cognition. Rationality. Logic. Those are our three earthy components of the soul. The other two are not talked about often because their qualities are much harder to define. But as I understand them, the fourth level is Chaya. Life. The drive for meaning and awareness. The last one, Yechida is the hardest to comprehend. I’ve been told that it is tied to your uniqueness. The thing that you bring to the world that no one else can. But it is also the part of you that is most closely tied to Hashem. It is One with Hashem. It is incorruptible.
Some rabbis say that the day of Yom Kippur atones for all Jews. That even if you did no teshuvah (repentance) whatsoever, you’d get atonement on some level. Because even if you aren’t repenting, your Yechida is. But even if that isn’t the case, Yechida factors into Yom Kippur in another special way.
Times to Pray
Normally Jews pray three times a day. Shacharis (morning), Mincha (afternoon), Maariv (evening). On Shabbat and holidays, we have a fourth prayer, Mussaf (additional). But on Yom Kippur, and only Yom Kippur, there is a fifth, Neilah. The rabbis say these prayer services correspond to the levels of the soul. Maariv (which is technically first) – Neffesh, Shacharis – Ruach, Mincha – Neshama, Mussaf – Chaya. It is only on Yom Kippur that our Yechida prays the Neilah. Clearly that must be special. But there is an even deeper connection.
In orthodox dating practices, the couple doesn’t touch before marriage. It’s called Shomer Negia. And they are forbidden from being alone together without a chaperone. That mitzvah is called Yechud. However, once the couple gets married under the chuppah, they are escorted to a room where they MUST be secluded together to be alone. That room is called the Yechud room.
On Yom Kippur, when we pray the Neilah service we are told that the doors are closing so any prayers or teshuvah we want to do better be done then and there. However, there is another interpretation. That the doors have already closed. But our soul, our Yechida, is on the inside of those doors, secluded alone with Hashem, and that Neilah prayer is one on one with the Almighty, like to how the newlyweds are alone after the chuppah.
Now we can see how the connection to marriage and Yom Kippur makes sense. But what about the woodcutter?
Valentines Day versus Tu B’Av
The modern concept of romance is about experiencing the most amazing feelings in the world because you’ve found someone beautiful to share your life with. And though that is tremendously beautiful, Judaism says that is far from what the aim of a marriage should be. Don’t get me wrong, you should feel those feelings, but they are not the end goal.
You see, the woodcutter is going to cut that wood to donate to the Temple anonymously for a sacrifice that is for the sake of the community. He won’t get recognition for it and he won’t get any direct benefit for it either. It goes to benefit someone else who broke a Torah law and needs atonement. Why should this woodcutter care what Shlomo Greenberggoldstienberg did? Why should he be laboring during the hottest days of the year, doing back breaking labor?
The answer is because the woodcutter cares about what is best for the Jewish people.
When a person can view his friend’s success as his success, when he can view his neighbor’s growth as his growth… that’s Yechud… Oneness. That’s really what marriage is about. It’s not, what can I do to get more pleasure from you. It’s, what can I do to get you more pleasure. When we put the needs of others ahead of our own, that’s unity. In a marriage, when you make something important because your spouse feels it is important, that is Yechud.
The first reason for Tu B’Av, intermarriage among the nations was really about making sure the lands of Israel stayed with each tribe. A distinction in the face of unity. Allowing Binyamin to intermarry asked the question, does the nation want to eradicate Binyamin and permanently sever a relationship, or is there forgiveness? The graves in the desert was about understanding the consequences of betrayal. The ultimate sleeping on the couch. Then there’s the impediments to the Temple. Rabbi, monks, and marriage counselors all agree one of the worst things you can do in a relationship is “keep score.” One Rabbi, YY Jacobson, said he was helping a couple who had internalized that problem so badly that they had split all finances and household resources “down the middle” like in that I Love Lucy episode. When Hoshea removed the impediments to the Temple, it was an act to rectify that outlook. And for burying the massacred of the Bar Kochba revolt, the mitzvah of burying the dead is called a chessed shel emet, a kindness of truth. It’s the only mitzvah where the person benefitting can’t repay the person doing the mitzvah, so it is considered as selfless as you can possibly get.
The rabbis saw that selflessness was embedded into the DNA of Tu B’Av. So when we learn to embody that selflessness ourselves, we merit the chuppah. But in order to do that, we need to view the needs and wants of others as important as the needs and wants of our own. God willing we will soon be free from quarantines and social distancing. When those days come we should dance at our friends’ weddings as if we were getting married ourselves. Until then, we should pray for our single friends’ shidduchim as much as we have prayed for our own besherits.
The merit of this post is for all the single souls searching for shidduchim.
Much of this blog post is pulled straight from Rabbi YY Jacobson’s Tu B’Av lecture. I highly recommend listening as there’s a lot I glossed over.