Monday, July 26, 2010

Tu b’Av (excerpt from Emanations)

Tu b’Av (excerpt from Emanations)

Rabbi Ari Kahn
Dancing in the Streets

The Fifteenth of Av (Tu b’Av) is a holiday of unclear significance. Although certain elements of the celebration of this day have captured the imagination of popular Israeli culture, the day itself remains obscure. While not specifically mentioned in the Torah, it is described by the Mishna at the end of Ta’anit by way of a surprising analogy: This hitherto unknown day is compared with Yom Kippur, arguably the holiest day of the year.[1]

R. Shimon ben Gamaliel said: There never were in Israel greater days of joy than the Fifteenth of Av and the Day of Atonement. On these days the daughters of Jerusalem used to walk out in white garments which they borrowed in order not to put to shame any one who had none. All these garments required ritual dipping. The daughters of Jerusalem came out and danced in the vineyards exclaiming at the same time, “Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself. Do not set your eyes on beauty but set your eyes on [good] family. ‘Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a woman that fears the Lord, she shall be praised’. And it further says, ‘Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her works praise her in the gates’. Likewise it says, ‘Go forth, o ye daughters of Zion, and gaze upon King Solomon, even upon the crown wherewith his mother had crowned him on the day of his espousals, and on the day of the gladness of his heart’. ‘On the day of his espousals:’ this refers to the day of the giving of the Law. ‘And in the day of the gladness of his heart:’ this refers to the building of the Temple; may it be rebuilt speedily in our days. (Ta’anit 26b)  

This Mishna is the concluding Mishna of the tractate of Ta’anit, which deals with fast days and the laws of fasting. The previous Mishna had taught the laws of the ninth of Av. Now the Mishna continues to the next day of importance in Av – Tu b’Av. Ostensibly, the intent of the Mishna is to end on a positive note, especially after all the tragedies enumerated in the previous section. Indeed, the Mishna concludes with the building of the Temple, clearly a cause for monumental joy.

A scene of dancing and celebration is described, raising two questions: First, the description of Yom Kippur as a day of song and celebration seems dissonant with our understanding of Yom Kippur. And secondly, what is the significance of Tu b’Av, and why did it deserve the same celebration as Yom Kippur?

The Talmud answers the first question while raising the second, explaining the joy of Yom Kippur while pondering Tu b’Av:

I can understand the Day of Atonement, because it is a day of forgiveness and pardon and on it the second Tablets of the Law were given, but what happened on the Fifteenth of Av? (Ta’anit 30b)

Ecstatic joy, which is absent from our contemporary experience of Yom Kippur, is taken for granted in the Talmud: The experience of Yom Kippur was palpably different in Temple times. We are told that the red string in the Temple turned white, serving as a veritable spiritual barometer of God’s forgiveness of man. When the people were shown this tangible sign of forgiveness, celebration erupted.

R. Yishmael said: But they had another sign too: a thread of crimson wool was tied to the door of the Temple, and when the he-goat reached the wilderness the thread turned white, as it is written: ‘Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be as white as snow’. (Yoma 68b)
They would accompany him (the Kohen Gadol) to his house. He would arrange for a day of festivity for his friends whenever he had come forth from the Sanctuary in peace. (Yoma 70b)

This type of joy was spontaneous, even though it was a yearly occurrence on Yom Kippur. Singing, dancing and celebration broke out all over. The women of Jerusalem began dancing in the vineyards. Marriage was on their minds. Perhaps this is the reference at the end of the Mishna:

‘On the day of his espousals:’ this refers to the day of the giving of the Law.

The Talmud had described Yom Kippur as a day of “forgiveness and pardon and on it the second Tablets of the Law were given.” Yom Kippur encapsulates the mutual commitment between the Jewish People and God. It is the day that the Jews finally took their vows and were forgiven for the indiscretion of the Golden Calf. The Seventeenth of Tammuz, the day Moshe first came down with the Tablets in hand, should have been the day when the Jews solidified their commitment with God; instead it became a day of infamy. The fate of the entire community was held in abeyance in the following weeks until Moshe was invited once again[2] to ascend the mount on the first day of Elul.  Forty days later, on the Tenth of Tishrei, the day celebrated henceforth as Yom Kippur, Moshe descended with the second Tablets, and with God’s message that He had forgiven the Jewish Nation. This is what the Mishna describes as “the day of his espousals”.[3]

This idea dovetails with the teaching that one’s wedding day is a day of personal forgiveness, and has a cathartic, “Yom Kippur- like” element.[4] For this reason, tradition dictates that bride and groom fast on their wedding day, an additional expression of the atoning powers of the day. This may also explain the choice of Torah reading for Yom Kippur afternoon: The section of the Torah that enumerates forbidden relations.  The backdrop of celebration in the streets explains the need, on this day more than others, for a warning against unmitigated, excessive frivolity, and a demarcation of forbidden relations.

While the celebratory aspect of Yom Kippur has been identified, the Fifteenth of Av remains elusive. The Talmud offers numerous explanations for the joy on that day:

Rav Yehdah said in the name of Shmuel: It is the day on which permission was granted to the tribes to inter-marry. … R. Yoseph said in the name of R. Nachman: It is the day on which the tribe of Binyamin was permitted to re-enter the congregation [following the episode of the concubine in Givah]. …Rabbah b. Bar Chanah said in the name of R. Yochanan: It is the day on which the generation of the wilderness ceased to die out. …‘Ulla said: It is the day on which Hoshea the son of Elah removed the guards which Yerovam the son of Nevat had placed on the roads to prevent Israel from going [up to Jerusalem] on pilgrimage, and he proclaimed ‘Let them go up to whichever shrine they desire.’ R. Mattenah said: It is the day when permission was granted for those killed at Betar to be buried. …Rabbah and R. Joseph both said: It is the day on which [every year] they ceased to fell trees for the altar. It has been taught: R. Eliezer the elder says: From the Fifteenth of Av onwards the strength of the sun grows less and they no longer felled trees for the altar, because they would not dry [sufficiently]. R. Menashya said: And they called it the Day of the Breaking of the Axe. From this day onwards, he who increases [his knowledge through study] will have his life prolonged, but he who does not increase [his knowledge] will have his life taken away. What is meant by ‘taken away’? — R. Yoseph learnt: Him his mother will bury. (Ta’anit 30b-31a)

While the Talmud offers six different causes for celebration on Tu b’Av, many of these reasons seem insufficient to justify the type and intensity of celebration described. At first glance the various explanations seem unrelated, but we may be able to find a common thread running through them by looking back to the first “Tu b’Av” ever celebrated:

R. Abin and R. Yochanan said: It was the day when the grave-digging ceased for those who died in the wilderness. R. Levi said: On every eve of the Ninth of Av Moshe used to send a herald throughout the camp and announce, ‘Go out to dig graves’; and they used to go out and dig graves in which they slept. On the morrow he sent out a herald to announce, ‘Arise and separate the dead from the living.’ They would then stand up and find themselves in round figures: 15,000 short of 600,000. In the last of the forty years, they acted similarly and found themselves in undiminished numerical strength. They said, ‘It appears that we erred in our calculation’; so they acted similarly on the nights of the 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, and 14th. When the moon was full they said, ‘It seems that the Holy One, blessed be He, has annulled that decree from us all’; so they proceeded to make [the fifteenth] a holiday. Their sins caused it {the Ninth of Av}to become a day of mourning in this world, in the twofold destruction of the Temple. That is what is written,  ‘Therefore is my harp turned to mourning, and my pipe into the voice of them that weep.’ Hence, “And the people wept that night” (Bamidbar 14, 1). (Midrash Rabbah – Eichah, Prologue 33)

This description is certainly morbid, yet it succeeds in capturing the pathos of the yearly Tisha b’Av commemoration. The crying in the desert at the report of the spies created a negative paradigm for the rejection of the Land of Israel and it’s holiness, and even more, the rejection of God. The yearly commemoration of this breach of faith was systematic, inexorable: The entire generation of the Jews who had been redeemed from Egypt and crossed the Red Sea would die out in the desert. They had doubted God’s ability to complete His promise; they had rejected the Promised Land and their own destiny, and each year on this day of infamy they would dig their own graves and lie down in them, arising the next morning to take stock of their situation. The character of this day, the spiritual power of the paradigm unleashed at the sin of the spies, was revisited on future generations when Jews rejected the sacred. Tragedy struck over and over on this same date.

 The Fifteenth of Av marked the end of the death sentence for the sin of the spies. Only on the night of the Fifteenth, by the light of the full moon, could they be certain that the chapter of the spies was closed. This alone would be sufficient rationale for the Mishna of Ta’anit, regarding Tish’a b’Av, to conclude with a teaching about Tu b’Av: On a conceptual level, the Fifteenth marks the end of the Ninth of Av.[5] During First Temple times the people certainly did not fast on Tisha b’Av but they may have celebrated Tu b’Av.

The end of the death sentence is the main cause for celebration offered by the Sages. But what of the other explanations offered by the Talmud? Arguably the strangest of these relates to the pagan king[6] Hoshea the son of Elah. While it may be argued that he displayed remarkably liberal thinking and was not particular whether his constituents served foreign deities wherever they chose, or served God in the Beit HaMikdash, he certainly did not lead people toward Jerusalem, toward the service of God! Why would this be a cause for celebration? Hoshea’s decree reversed the nefarious deeds of his predecessor on the throne, Yerovam, yet even this reversal seems insufficient cause for celebration: Hoshea merely removed the guards charged with preventing pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Furthermore, during Hoshea’s reign the Ten Tribes were carried into captivity. He was not a leader to be remembered in song and celebration.

In order to understand the significance of Hoshea’s decree we must first understand the implications of Yerovam’s actions. Due to the spiritual failings of Shlomo, God wrested part of the monarchy from the Davidic family.

And it came to pass at that time when Yerovam went from Jerusalem, that the prophet Ahiya the Shilonite found him in the way; and he had clad himself with a new garment; and the two were alone in the field; And Ahiya caught the new garment that was on him, and tore it in twelve pieces; And he said to Yerovam, 'Take you ten pieces; for thus said the Lord, the God of Israel, 'Behold, I will tear the kingdom from the hand of Shlomo, and will give ten tribes to you; But he shall have one tribe for my servant David’s sake, and for Jerusalem’s sake, the city which I have chosen from all the tribes of Israel; (1 Melachim 11:29-32)

Yerovam ignored God’s plan and built an alternative place of worship in an attempt to deter the people from Jerusalem, and, perhaps, allegiance to the Family of David. Motivated by jealousy, totally misdirected and self-centered, Yerovam did the unthinkable: he built places of worship replete with Golden Calves:

Then Yerovam built Sh'chem in Mount Ephraim, and lived there; and went out from there, and built Penuel. And Yerovam said in his heart, 'Now shall the kingdom return to the House of David; If this People go up to do sacrifice in the House of the Lord at Jerusalem, then shall the heart of this People turn back to their Lord, to Rehavam King of Yehudah, and they shall kill me, and go back to Rehavam King of Yehudah. (1 Melachim  12:25-27)
And the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said to them, ‘It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem; behold your gods, O Israel, which brought you out of the land of Egypt. And he set one in Beit-El, and the other he placed in Dan. (1 Kings 12:28,29)

Unlike Yerovam, Hoshea was not afraid or jealous of Jerusalem or the Davidic dynasty. He may have been an idolater, but he was not filled with spiritually self-destructive hatred. Thus, Hoshea removes the guards stationed by Yerovam, indicating healing from the hatred and jealousy, and the possibility of reconciliation.

This observation will help us reveal the message our Sages were trying to convey. The sages associated the destruction of the Temple with the sin of baseless hatred,[7] which has its roots in the fratricide perpetrated by Cain. This strand of baseless hatred is first discerned within the Jewish community in the hatred of the sons of Leah toward the sons of Rachel. Yerovam’s scheme should be seen within this context, proving that a son of Rachel could be just as bad, if not worse than the sons of Leah.

The Temple in Jerusalem was a manifestation of the unity of Israel, bringing together diverse spiritual attributes within the community of Israel. The primary tribes are Yehuda, descendents of the son of Leah who would one day be kings, and the tribe of Yosef, descendents of the favorite son, the son of Rachel. It may be argued that had the sons of Ya’akov been able to unite, the Temple would have stood in the portion of Yosef (Jerusalem) and the seat of the monarchy would have been in the realm of Yehuda. With the sons of Rachel and Leah united, this Temple would never have fallen. Unfortunately, the brothers are never able to resolve their differences with Yosef.  The son of Rachel who becomes the unifying symbol of the people is Binyamin, and the Temple eventually stands in his portion. This explains the tears of Yosef and Binyamin at the moment when Yosef reveals himself to his brothers:[8]

And he fell upon his brother Binyamin’s neck, and wept; and Binyamin wept upon his neck. (Bereishit 45:14)
R. Eleazar said: He wept for the two Temples destined to be in the territory of Binyamin and to be destroyed. And Binyamin wept upon his neck: he wept for the Mishkan of Shiloh which was destined to be in the territory of Yosef and to be destroyed. (Megila 16b – see Rashi Bereishit 45:14)

The hatred of the brothers created the spiritual power for the hatred that would one day destroy the Temple. This simmering conflict is what caused the Temple to be built in the portion of Binyamin, and not in the portion of Yosef. This is the same hatred that poisoned Yerovam and motivated him to place guards in the path of would-be pilgrims to Jerusalem. On Tu b’Av, when Hoshea rescinds the evil edict of Yerovam, the division and hatred cease.

On Tisha b’Av the tribes of Yosef and Yehuda were united: When the spies returned only Yehoshua and Calev, from the tribes of Yosef and Yehuda respectively, remained steadfast in their desire to enter Israel. They serve as the prototypes for the Messiah from Yosef, and the Messiah from David (Yehuda), who will usher in the messianic era.[9] Tragically, the other tribes did not rally around those two leaders; what should have been the beginning of the great march to Israel became the day the Land of Israel was rejected. What could have been a day of celebration became a day of mourning.

This theme of division and reunion may be the key to some of the other reasons for Tu b’Av festivities offered by the Talmud. Significantly, the prohibition of inter-tribal marriage began with the daughters of Zelofchad – from the tribe of Yosef. Surely, this law, which maintained each tribe as insulated and separate, also had a negative impact on interpersonal relationships between Jews. Tu b’Av marked the end of this division. Likewise, the isolation of the tribe of Binyamin: Their role in the episode of the concubine of Givah was certainly an outrage [See the Shoftim, Chapters 19,20,21]. But the isolation of an entire tribe, specifically of the son of Rachel, was even more significant in light of the ongoing division between the sons of Rachel and the sons of Leah. Tu b’Av, in all three of these episodes, marks a reunion of the estranged sons of Rachel with the larger community of Israel.

This, then, is the unifying theme in all the explanations offered by the Talmud for the celebration of Tu b’Av: The battle of Betar was the culmination of the Bar Kochva rebellion, which was doomed to failure because the students of Rabbi Akiva did not treat one another with respect (see essay on the omer). Without national unity, the Third Temple could not be built: The failure of Bar Kochva’s messianic movement was caused by the breakdown of the Jewish community, represented by Rabbi Akiva’s students who could not get along with one another.

Another of the reasons for Tu b’Av celebrations now seems less strange: The days begin to get shorter, or in the Talmud’s words “the sun loses its strength”.  The Midrash, in recounting the first Tu b’Av in the desert, noted that on this date the moon is full. The tension between the sun and moon represents the first struggle for dominance, for leadership. This ancient, primordial struggle between the sun and the moon[10] is the same struggle for dominance as the struggle between the sons of Ya’akov, and between Yerovam and the Davidic dynasty: two kings cannot share one crown. In fact, the resolution of this struggle for dominance is one of the harbingers and prerequisites for the messianic age:  The Talmud speaks of the complementary leadership of a Messiah, son of David, and a Messiah, son of Yosef, which will pave the way to the messianic age[11].

As we noted above, the first catastrophe of Tisha b’Av was the failure of the spies, and the nation’s inability to rally around a united core of leadership- Yehoshua/Yehuda and Calev/Yosef. The Land of Israel was forfeited, the messianic age passed up, and the Temple, which cannot tolerate disunity, laid to waste on this day.  The spiritual character of this day is one of discord, internal struggle. Conversely, Tu b’Av, is a day which has the potential to rebuild the community of Israel and, as a result, the Temple. Unity of the community is a prerequisite for building and preserving the Temple; this is the message of the last phrase of the Mishna with which we began:

Likewise it says, ‘go forth, o ye daughters of Zion, and gaze upon King Solomon, even upon the crown wherewith his mother had crowned him on the day of his espousals, and on the day of the gladness of his heart’. ‘On the day of his espousals:’ this refers to the day of the giving of the law. ‘And on the day of the gladness of his heart:’ this refers to the building of the Temple; may it be rebuilt speedily in our days. (Ta’anit 26b)    

After describing the unique celebration of Yom Kippur and Tu B’Av, the Mishna intertwines the giving of the Law and building of the Temple. As we have seen, “the giving of the Law” refers to Yom Kippur.[12] Now we understand why the reference to “the building of the Temple” refers to Tu b’Av. On this day the daughters of Jerusalem would share their clothes and dance merrily in the streets, united. The Zohar identifies the type of material the garments are made from:

“Scarlet” (tola'at shani) is connected with the Fifteenth day of Av, a day on which the daughters of Israel used to walk forth in silken dresses. (Zohar Sh’mot 135a)

The significance of silk and its connection to the unique spiritual character of Tu b’Av lies in a more mystical message: Silk is not like wool or linen. The Vilna Gaon points out that the prohibition of mixing wool and linen – shaatnez- emanates from the hatred between Cain and Abel. On these glorious days the daughters of Jerusalem freely share their clothing, with no hatred or jealousy in their hearts.[13] The distinctions made by the requirements of shaatnez are irrelevant on this day. Perhaps this served as a type of healing for the hatred the brothers directed toward Yosef and his coat of many colors. This may also be the significance of the Talmud’s description of God’s attempt to lure Yerovam back into the fold:

‘After this thing Yerovam turned not from his evil way.’ What is meant by, ‘after this thing’? — R. Abba said: After the Holy One, blessed be He, had seized Yerovam by his garment and urged him, ‘Repent; then I, thou, and the son of Yishai [i.e.. David] will walk in the Garden of Eden.’ ‘And who shall be at the head?’ inquired he. ‘The son of Yishai shall be at the head.’ ‘If so,’ [he replied] ‘I do not desire [it].’(Sanhedrin 102a)

God grabbed Yerovam by his clothing to break his jealousy; alas, Yerovam could only join if he was given center stage and the leading role. Ultimately he was unable to control his self-centeredness. The image of his garment, torn into twelve pieces by the prophet, prevails over the image of God Himself attempting to mend the torn fabric of Jewish community.

This is the secret of Tu b’Av and the reason that marriages abound on this day. Marriage of two individuals, the most basic of all relationships, is only possible if each one controls innate egoism and narcissism. The rebuilding of the Temple is dependent on the community being able to unite in a similar manner. The first step is controlling hatred and jealousy, breaking the boundaries that exist between people. The Talmud therefore associates the mitzva of bringing joy to the newly married couple with building Jerusalem:

And if he does gladden him (i.e., the groom) what is his reward?… R. Nahman b. Isaac says: It is as if he had restored one of the ruins of Jerusalem. (Brachot 6b)
Tu b’Av marks, celebrates, even creates this type of healing behavior. Jealousies are broken down, tribal distinctions disappear, new unions are created.

We are taught that in the future the fast days marking the Temple’s destruction will be transformed into days of celebration:

Thus says the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month (17th of Tammuz), and the fast of the fifth (9th of Av), and the fast of the seventh (Yom Kippur), and the fast of the tenth(10th of Tevet), shall become times of joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts to the house of Yehuda; therefore love truth and peace. (Zecharia 8:19)

Rav Zadok HaKohen from Lublin taught that the Ninth of Av will indeed become a holiday – a seven-day holiday similar to Pesach, consisting of festival on the first and last days as well as intermediate days (Chol HaMoed). We may theorize that the first day of the holiday, Tish’a b’Av, will commemorate the coming of the Messiah[14]. Then there will be Chol haMoed, and on the seventh day – Tu B’Av - the Temple will be rebuilt. The day when Jews arose unscathed from their graves in the desert will witness the spiritual rebirth of the entire nation, symbolized by the building of the Temple. This will be followed by the ultimate Resurrection: Once again, the people will climb from their graves, as the world achieves perfection and completion. On that day the joy in the streets will be echoed in the vineyards surrounding Jerusalem, and will reverberate throughout the entire world.

[1]  Rav Menachem Azarya Defano, and Rav Zadok Hakohen (Yisrael Kedoshim section 5) both point at the power of minhag –custom- at the core of this day. We know of Torah festivals, and Rabbinic festivals; Tu B’Av has its unique charisma as an expression of the power of custom.
[2] According to tradition, Moshe ascended the mountain three times: the first and last, to receive the Tablets, and, in between, to pray for forgiveness for the People. See Rashi on Shmot 33:11, Devarim 9:18.
[3] See Rashi’s Commentary on the Mishna 26b “Zeh”.
[4]  This idea may be found in The Jerusalem Talmud Bikurim Chapter 3 section 3 page 65c. See Rashi Bereishit 36:3, Torah Temmimah Bereishit 28:9, שו"ת יחווה דעת חלק ד סימן סא
[5] Whether the fifteenth of Av marks the end of the sadness of Tish’a b’Av is a point debated by the Halachik authorities. The Mishna (Ta’anit 4:6, 26b) teaches that from the beginning of Av happiness is decreased, and debates whether  this sadness continues until Tu b’Av or until the end of the month. See Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim section 551:1, Mishna Brura bet opines that the entire month is sad, whereas Chatam Sofer rules that Tu b’Av marks the end of the sadness. See Piskei Teshuva 551:2.
[6]  For more on this king see II Melachim, Chapter 15:30. “And Hoshea the son of Elah made a conspiracy against Pekah the son of Remaliah, and struck him, and killed him, and reigned in his place, in the twentieth year of Yotam the son of Uzziah.”
[7] See Yoma 9a
[8] See Explorations page
[9]  See Sukka 52a
[10] See the essay on Rosh Chodesh
[11] See Sukkah 52a. Rashi on Yishayahu 11:13 states that the two Messiah’s will not be jealous of one another.
[12] See Rashi Commentary on the Mishna 26b “Zeh”

[14] According to Rabbinic tradition, the Messiah is born on Tish’a b’Av.

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