Understanding Tu B’Av the Jewish Valentine’s Day

By Binyamin Kagedan/JNS.org

Everyone loves a happy ending. Jewish holiday ritual, though it has its share of melancholy moments, usually prefers to go out on a high note.

This week, many Jews will celebrate Tu B’Av, a day that has become known, especially in Israel, as the Jewish day of love. (In 2021 Tu B’Av starts the night of July 22, in 2022 the night of August 11.)—is a celebration that has passed under the radar for much of Jewish history. In ancient Israel, however, communal observance of Tu B’Av included a remarkable ceremony unlike anything else in Jewish practice. The Talmud paints a vivid and touching picture of a day devoted to love and matchmaking:

“…the daughters of Jerusalem used to walk out in white garments, which they borrowed in order not to put to shame anyone who had none…[they] came out and danced in the vineyards exclaiming: “Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you will choose for yourself. Do not seek beauty but seek a good family…” (from Ta’anit 26b)

Girls of marriageable age twirling around in vineyards in the finest white clothing they could borrow, hoping to be chosen by a handsome young suitor—needless to say, the practice hasn’t survived into the 21st century. However, there is also no oral tradition or textual evidence indicating that the ritual was observed for any amount of time after the destruction of the Second Temple! The fate of Tu b’Av is indeed a great historical mystery.

Why would such a joyous ritual be shelved? One can imagine that the practice may have fallen into disuse as Diaspora Jews settled into various cultures across the world and gradually adopted those cultures’ ideas surrounding love and marriage. Alternatively, the rabbis who oversaw the transformation of the Temple-based religion of ancient Israel into the Judaism we know today may have deemed the practice too immodest, or perhaps too reminiscent of Israel’s pagan roots. Whatever the reason, by the Middle Ages Tu b’Av had become an empty shell of a holiday, marked by minor changes in the daily prayer service but lacking a unique flavor or special ritual.

Fast forward to the birth of the modern State of Israel. Over the last 60 years, Israel’s organic secular Jewish culture has breathed new life into Tu b’Av and its observance. Since it lacks its own rituals, Tu b’Av was the perfect foundation upon which to build a new secular tradition—a holiday drawn from and named by historical Judaism but free of specific theological overtones. Inspired by the account given in the Talmud, Israelis seized upon the timeless theme of love and reimagined Tu b’Av as a Jewish counterpart to Valentine’s Day. Israelis today show appreciation for loved ones with flowers and romantic dinners while bakeries prepare heart-shaped treats. Restaurants advertise Tu b’Av specials featuring specially prepared meals for two, and nightclubs across the country hold themed parties with special guest bands and DJs.

More recently, the trend has made its way across the Atlantic, as more and more American Jewish organizations are holding Tu b’Av-themed events, aimed especially at young adults and singles. Some have even resurrected the practice of wearing white by organizing so- called “White Parties” in the form of club nights or rooftop soirees.

Be part of this renewed and wonderful tradition by spending the day with someone you love!

Binyamin Kagedan has an MA in Jewish Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.