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Beit Midrash Shabbat and Holidays Tu Be'av

Living Again

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The Fifteenth of Av
The ninth of Av is the saddest day of the Jewish calendar. Six days later we celebrate the fifteenth day of Av about which the Mishnah says, "Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said that there were no happier days for Israel than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur" (Ta’anit 4:8). The Mishnah then elaborates on this and explains what was special about these days that made them so happy.

"On these days the unmarried women of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white clothing in order not to embarrass anyone who did not have [the proper clothing]. The women would go and dance in the vineyards.

"What would they say? Young man, look and see, who will you choose? Do not look only at good looks, look at the family, ‘Looks are false, and beauty meaningless, a woman who fears God will be praised’ (Mishlei 31:30)" (Ta’anit 4:8).

The joy that emanated from the day of the 15th of Av came from this matchmaking ceremony. The girls of Jerusalem would get dressed up and go to the vineyards to try and find husbands. They would all wear the same clothing and would even borrow clothing in order not to embarrass anyone.

They would dance in the vineyards and the available men would come to pick out suitable brides. The women would urge them not to rely only on good looks but to select a bride based on her family.

We could ask several questions regarding this event. Why did the girls stress the importance of the family? Why did they borrow clothing? What is the relevance of this ceremony to the month of Av?

Other Reasons for the Fifteenth of Av
Even though the Mishnah states a reason for the festival of the 15th of Av, the proximity to Tishah B’Av cannot escape us. The Gemara discusses other reasons for "celebrating" the 15th of Av.1 One of them is connected with the original reason for Tishah B’Av.

The Torah tells us that before the Jewish people entered the Land of Israel after the exodus from Egypt, they first sent out spies to inspect the Land. The spies gave a less than rosy report of Israel. They also cast doubt as to whether Am Yisrael would be successful in conquering the Land. On hearing the spies’ words, the people became frightened.

"All the assembly let out a cry, and the people cried on that night" (BeMidbar 14:1). God was incensed at this show of lack of faith and trust in Him. "You cried unnecessarily, I will establish it as a day of crying for the generations" (Ta’anit 29a). On that night God decided that the Jewish people would not be allowed to enter the Land of Israel. Instead they would remain in the desert for forty years until the entire generation that left Egypt had died out (see BeMidbar 14:22-23).

Forty years later the people of Israel realized that the decree had ended. The day on which they recognized this was the fifteenth of Av. In the words of Rashi: For all of the forty years that they were in the desert, each Tishah B’Av an announcement would be made that instructed everyone to dig. Each person would go and dig a grave for himself. He would then sleep in it in case he would die that night.

The next day an announcement would be made that the living should separate from the dead. Anyone who was alive would get up and leave the grave. Each year they would do this.

On the fortieth year they did this and on the next day everyone was still alive. When they saw this they thought that they had made a mistake with the date. Therefore they lay down again in their graves on each of the following nights, until the fifteenth of the month, when they noticed the full moon. When they saw that no one had died, they realized that they had not made a mistake with the date and that the forty years were up. They established that day as a festival (Rashi on Ta’anit 30b s.v. "Shekalu m’tei midbar").

A Celebration of Life
From this rather macabre story we can see that the festival of the 15th of Av is a celebration of life. After forty years in the desert the Jews were used to living with death. It is pertinent to consider that God did not kill all of the people at once. Rather, they died throughout the forty-year trek through the desert. Apparently all of them, or at least the majority, also died on the ninth of Av.

The Jews were used to the 9th of Av being a day of death and tragedy. They were so convinced that they were supposed to witness death that when life came and overtook death they were surprised. Their initial reaction was that some sort of mistake had been made. There must have been a miscalculation. Only when the truth was displayed before their eyes in a very obvious and undeniable fashion did they get out of their graves and celebrate their newfound life.

We can now understand the reason why the 15th of Av was chosen to be a time for matchmaking. Less than a week after commemorating the destruction we need to embrace life. The ultimate example of this is to start thinking about marriage.

Marriage, The Basic Building Block of the Nation
Marriage is an affirmation of life, especially when it comes in the midst of sorrow and on the heels of mourning. The Torah provides us with a classic example of this. The Book of Shemot opens with the hardship and servitude of the Jewish people in Egypt. Each day seemed to bring with it ever-increasing levels of back-breaking work. The wicked ruler even started killing the Jewish children by forcing the midwives to murder the babies at birth. When this was unsuccessful, he ordered that all male Jewish children should be thrown into the Nile.

Amidst all of this destruction and slaughter we find a short verse that talks of Jewish survival. "A man from the house of Levi went and took a daughter of Levi" (Shemot 2:1). These few simple words are the key to Jewish continuity. If we are to survive as a nation we need to continue living. That means marrying and having children, even it if seems that there is no hope of them surviving.

The Gemara seems to question this verse. After all, the verse discusses the birth of Moshe as a result of his parents’ marriage. However, we know that Amram and Yocheved, Moshe’s parents, were already married and had two older children, Aharon and Miryam. The Gemara explains that this verse describes a remarriage after they were separated.

Amram was the leader of his generation. When Paro decreed that all of the boys should be thrown into the Nile he said, "Are we working for nothing?" and he divorced his wife. Everyone else also divorced their wives.

His daughter [Miryam] said to him, "Father, your decree is more severe than that of Paro. Paro only decreed against the males and your decree is also against the females. Paro only decreed in this world, but your decree also affects the next world. Paro’s decree may possibly not succeed, but yours will definitely succeed."
He remarried his wife, everyone else also remarried their wives (Sotah 12a).

The Gemara gives a graphic example of how marriage is the salvation of the Jewish people. If Amram had not remarried Yocheved and given birth to Moshe, then the Jewish people would not have left Egypt. Worse still, the Jewish people would have died out as all his followers would also have remained childless.

To Life, Together
We understand why the marriage ceremony was placed so close to the 9th of Av. It is an affirmation of life, a new beginning. We still have to explain why the girls borrowed clothes and why they instructed the potential grooms to look at the family and not at the beauty.

The call to life needs to follow certain guidelines. These are represented by the Sages as borrowing clothing and seeking out the right family.

The Mishnah already gave a reason why each woman borrowed a dress from someone else: "In order not to embarrass one who did not have." Even those that had dresses would borrow (See Rashi on the Mishnah, Ta’anit 26b s.v. "She’ulin").
The young women did not exclude those that did not have dresses. In order for the rebirth to be complete and effective it had to be inclusive. All were there, rich and poor.

The return to life is not the lot of one stratum or section of society. Rich and poor, wise and simple, scholar and laborer. All need to embrace new life and to live again. The rabbis conveyed this through the image of the borrowed dresses.

The renaissance cannot be devoid of a sense of history. The fact that we are coming to build new life does not imply that we can reject and destroy all that went before. Rather, the new must grow out of the old. The new must be seen in a historical context. One should not look only at the new glossy covering, but at the source from which it came. Only those who are linked to the past can have a hope of recharging and revitalizing the future. Therefore, the women said to the men that they should not look at beauty, but at the family.

In another Gemara the rabbis said that "whoever enjoys a wedding feast and gladdens the bride and groom it is as though he built one of the ruins of Jerusalem" (Berachot 6b). When one takes part in a wedding feast and realizes the joy of this event, he is taking part in rebuilding the world. The rabbis specified "the ruins of Jerusalem" to show that the rebuilding must be anchored in history. The rebirth must grow out of the past and not destroy the past.

This is the message of the festival of Tu B’Av. We must lift ourselves out of the graves of the destruction of the 9th of Av and live again. We must marry and have children. This must be done in an inclusive way and the rebuilding must be based on the past. When we can do so, then we will find comfort and meaning in our collective future.

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Rabbi Gideon Weitzman is the Head of the English Speaking Section of the Puah Institute for Fertility and Medicine in Accordance with the Halacha. He studied for many years in Yeshivat Beit El and teaches in various educational institutions.

This essay is taken from his second book, "In Those Days, At This Time - Essays on the Festivals Based on the Philosophy of Rav Kook." The book is available in bookstores or directly from the author. Contact him at rabbiw@growingjewish.com


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