Celebrating love on Tu B’Av

Tu B’Av is regained as a holiday of love in large parts of Israeli society. This phenomenon raises hope that we are in the process of renewing a Jewish holiday of love that speaks to all social frameworks: the intimate space of a loving couple, the extended family, and the general public.

A feast on this date is very ancient – “there is the feast of the LORD from year to year in Shiloh” (Judges 21:19) which the Mishnah mentions together with Yom Kippur:

R. Simeon ben Gamaliel said, “Never were more joyous festivals in Israel than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, for on them the maidens of Jerusalem used to go out dressed in white garments—borrowed ones, in order not to cause shame to those who had them not of their own… (Mishna, Ta’anit, 4,7)

According to sages’ traditions, the holiday is the day of the unity of Israel “in which tribes were allowed to marry each other.” Other opinions attribute the holiday to other events of unity among the tribes of Israel.

Some argue that the renewal of this holiday is artificial, superficial, devoid of a deep ideological cultural infrastructure and is at best a marketing gimmick. Is that so?

These claims stem from a lack of halakhic understanding of the influence of the general public in the assimilation of holidays and customs and a lack of awareness of the sage’s doctrine of love, its centrality and scope.

During the high holidays of the month of Tishrei, Pesach or Shavuot, the reference to the “feature in preparation for the holiday”, to the “holiday eve atmosphere” in the public space does not fall short of the scope of in-depth discussions about their essence, meaning and laws. In Tu B’Av the public has an interest in celebrating love and the marketers are addressing this. Isn’t this, as in all marketing systems, a boost to needs? This question must be dealt with always and in preparation for every holiday. In practice, there is a presence and assimilation of the holiday in a way that no other framework is able to do. What’s more, this is a traditional Hebrew date and not a day that bears the name of a saint from another culture. The celebration of the holiday does not end with the purchase of gifts. The families, and the public within its framework, set events to mark a Jewish holiday of love. The holiday is being accepted by the public and is ready for the deep content of the doctrine of love of our sages.

Love between the sexes is a central and recurring theme in all of the Jewish canonical sources. The Bible, the Talmuds, the halakhic and Midrashic literature, as well as mystical works such as the Zohar, devote considerable attention to the concept of love in all its manifestations, treating both the spiritual and physical aspects of love without inhibition or complexes of any kind.

Most people are familiar with two approaches to love: the conservative approach, which they associate with religion, Scripture and “spirituality” in general; and the permissive approach, often considered materialistic and anti-spiritual, even in the eyes of its own exponents.

The harmonious approach to love of our sages, proposes an alternative to this common view, while rejecting both conservatism and permissiveness.

Our sages seek to promote just such a relationship between man and woman, which exists simultaneously on three planes: the cognitive-intellectual; the spiritual-emotional—expressed in the feelings the partners have for one another; and the physical—that is the physical contact and union between them. Love’s survival depends upon the constant effort to maintain harmony between mind, spirit and body. This wisdom is the foundation of the wisdom of the Torah in general. This understanding is based, among other things, on the following statements:

1) All love derives from a single source: love between man and woman. It is from this source that all other manifestations of love, such as love of God, love of wisdom, love of one’s fellow, draw their meaning.
2) The love and harmony between partners in a love relationship are the foundation upon which all morality, divine service and efforts to “repair” the world are built.
3) In the Kabbalah, human love relationships, desire and matchmaking are the concepts from which descriptions of the relationship between the divine world and the world of action are drawn, and as such are the very basis of mystical theology.

The wisdom of love in the sources lies in the connection between legend and thought and the halakhic practice aimed at the application of love in daily life. This connection between the world of thought and imagination and the world of practical behavior characterizes the position of our sages. The day-to-day application of the views on intimacy has in fact in interpersonal behavior, transformed a view from an abstract phenomenon into a reality, from an idea to an arbitrary and existing fact of life.

After Tisha B’Av, Tu B’Av is an opportunity to engage in the unity of the tribes, in the unity of Israel and “love your fellow as yourself” not out of the negative message of destruction but out of the positive foundation of love.

Tu B’Av as a renewed Jewish Holyday of Love in our time has a cultural, and educational infrastructure in all canonical literature. There is no question of artificiality or superficiality here. Tu B’Av become a day of learning the wisdom of love and a day of joy for lovers. Thus, we shall again hold: “Never were more joyous festivals in Israel than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur.”

Rabbi Naftali Rotenberg has been studying and teaching the wisdom of love for over three decades. His latest book: Rabbi Akiva’s Philosophy of Love was published by Palgrave Macmillan.

About the Author
Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg is the rabbi of Har Adar township, Israel, and a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute
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