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Beit Midrash Shabbat and Holidays Tu Be'av

The Fifteenth of Av and the Day of Repentance

The Day of Atonement focuses on repentance between man and God, atoning for the Sin of the Golden Calf which effected man's relation to God. The 15th of Av aims at worldly redemption, atoning for the Sin of the Spies who disavowed the land of Israel.
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1. Two Days of Great Joy
2. The Question of the Fifteenth of Av
3. A Wedding Day and Gladness of Heart
4. An Ever-present Bond
5. Heavenly Ideal and Earthly Actualization
6. Seven Solutions

Two Days of Great Joy
The Mishnah teaches (Taanit 4:8):
Rabban 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 immersion. 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 feareth 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'" (Proverbs 31:30). Likewise it says, "Go forth, O ye daughters of Zion, and gaze upon King Solomon, even upon the crown wherewith his mother hath crowned him on the day of his wedding, and on the day of the gladness of his heart" (Song of Songs 3:11). "On the day of his wedding": 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.

This Mishnah explains the reason for joy on Yom Kippur: "'On the day of his wedding': This refers to the day of the giving of the Law." Rashi explains that "'the day of the giving of the Law" refers to the Day of Atonement, for it was in this day that the second set of Tablets of the Covenant were given. On that occasion there was great joy because the Sin of the Golden Calf had been expiated and the second tablets were given.

The Question of the Fifteenth of Av
However, the Mishnah does not teach what the reason for joy on the fifteenth of Av was. Here, then, we are lacking the essential ingredient – the reason for joy on the fifteenth of Av. The Talmud itself raises this question (Taanit 30b): "I can understand the Day of Atonement, because it is a day of forgiveness and pardon and on it the second Tablets of the Covenant were given, but what happened on the fifteenth of Av?"

Though the Talmud gives seven explanations for rejoicing on the fifteenth of Av, it is nevertheless difficult to understand why the Mishnah concealed precisely these reasons. After all, they are significantly more novel and unfamiliar than the reason given for our joy on the Day of Atonement.

Rabbi Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin (known as Pri Tzadik) explains that the fifteenth of Av is hinted at by the Mishnah in the phrase "'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." This accords with the words of the Pesikta which says that the future Temple will be built in the month of Av. This is what the Mishnah means when it says "may it be rebuilt speedily in our days."

Ostensibly, this is a problematic explanation, for how can it be that we presently celebrate a holiday based upon the fact of the Temple's construction in the future? What's more, the Mishnah says that "there never were in Israel greater days of joy" than these days.

A Wedding Day and Gladness of Heart
It appears to me that it is indeed possible to explain according to the principle laid down by Rabbi Tzadok, and that the deeper significance of the matter is contained in the verse "Go forth, O ye daughters of Zion, and gaze upon King Solomon, even upon the crown wherewith his mother hath crowned him on the day of his wedding, and on the day of the gladness of his heart." It has to do with the relation between "the day of his wedding" and "the day of the gladness of his heart."

The wedding day involves consecration, canopy, and marriage, and all of this is carried out in public, before crowds, with cheering, joy, and dancing. However, this joy, because of its publicity, does not permit inner bonding between bride and groom. Therefore, "the day of the gladness of his heart" comes later, when the groom brings the bride into his house.

Similarly, the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai represents the joy of marriage which is carried out in public and in an air of exhilaration. Its openness is its drawback, for the inner bonding between the nation of Israel and the Almighty is yet lacking. Only with the construction of the Holy Temple (may it be rebuilt speedily in our days), where the Holy Ark and the sacred vessels are stored and where the Divine Presence resides in a concealed place, where inner joy dwells – only at this time are we able to achieve a level of "the day of the gladness of his heart."

True, the longed-for "day of his wedding" should have been the seventeenth of Tamuz, the day on which the Jewish people were supposed to receive the first tablets. But because they were not so fortunate and the tablets were broken, "the day of his wedding" was postponed until the Day of Atonement, when the second set of tablets were given. At that time God said, "I have forgiven according to your request," and the wedding between the nation of Israel and the Almighty was consummated.

An Ever-present Bond
However, "the day of the gladness of his heart" is not a one-time event. Rather, it reflects an ever-present bond between the nation of Israel and the Almighty. The construction of the desert Sanctuary contained a sense of gladness of heart (the Sages teach that at that time God's joy was comparable to that felt when the heavens and earth were created), however, they had not achieved the ultimate joy until they came to "the respite and the inheritance," Jerusalem. Certainly it was in the days of the Temple that the dwelling of the Divine Presence reached its height. However, even the time of its destruction is "the day of the gladness of his heart." After all, "I am God who dwells with them amidst their impurity."

This can be likened to a human couple. With the completion of betrothal and marriage, the husband "brings his wife into his house," and they embark upon a path of lifelong joy. In married life too there are ups and downs. However, after each fall, joy is increased, and the couple discovers that, despite all the difficulties, they continue to love one another. In order to be forever joyful they need neither riches nor prestige.

The same is true regarding the heart of God toward the nation of Israel. Even after the Temple was destroyed on the ninth of Av, the Prophets came in the name of God and comforted the people: "Comfort my people, comfort them." Joy returned to the nation of Israel, for they sensed that they were stilled loved, that the Divine Presence still dwelt amongst them and that the Holy Temple would be speedily rebuilt. It follows that though the Temple has not yet been restored, it is possible to rejoice over this unification with the Almighty.

This is the essence of the joy which is felt on the fifteenth of Av, when Israel achieved reconciliation with the Almighty and espoused the belief in the speedy reconstruction of the Temple. According to this, it becomes incredibly clear how all of the explanations given in the Talmud regarding the fifteenth of Av fit into the Mishnah. These explanations make it clear that despite the sin of the ninth of Av, which caused the destruction and the exile, God still loved the nation of Israel, and they rejoiced over the fact that the Divine Presence was still amongst them.

Heavenly Ideal and Earthly Actualization
Now let us provide additional clarification as to the difference between the Day of Repentance and the fifteenth of Av. A wedding constitutes an agreement between bride and groom based upon an ideal plan, while the act of entering the house constitutes life in practice. Similarly, the Day of Repentance is Israel's wedding day, its day of repentance and acceptance of the Torah, an occasion whereupon we are made liable to the Almighty, while the fifteenth of Av is "the day of the gladness of his heart" and as such represents life in actuality, the real and actual practice of affection.

Hence we find that the Day of Atonement focuses mainly on repentance between man and God. In the past, it atoned for the Sin of the Golden Calf which was a sin that effected man's relation to God. Furthermore, a Jew must request forgiveness from his fellow Jew before the Day of Atonement in order that this day succeed in securing God's expiation.

On the other hand, the fifteenth of Av concerns itself with worldly redemption, atoning for the Sin of the Spies who disavowed the land and were not willing to devote themselves to working it. It also aims at rectifying obligations that center upon man's relationship with his fellow man. By doing this it becomes clear that he is realizing a Torah life with regard to worldly matters.

Seven Solutions
Now, upon the backdrop of our above explanation, we shall consider the seven reasons for the fifteenth of Av which are mentioned in the Talmud (Taanit 30b):

1. Rabbah b. Bar Hanah said in the name of R. Yochanan: It is the day on which the generation of the wilderness ceased to die out. For a Master said: So long as the generation of the wilderness continued to die out there was no Divine communication to Moses, as it is said, "So it came to pass, when all the men of war were consumed and dead . . . that the Lord spake unto me." [Only then] came the Divine communication "unto me."

This explanation makes it perfectly clear how the Sin of the Spies was understood to have been expiated by the fact that the terrible decree that they die in the desert came to an end. It must be emphasized that there is no Divine voice here pronouncing, "I have forgiven according to your request," rather, a personal conclusion on the part of Israel. Therefore, it tells us about actual life, their feeling that the Divine Presence was with them again.

The Talmud adds that Divine communication returned to Moses. Ostensibly, this is difficult to understand. After all, Moses taught Israel Torah from the mouth of God continuously throughout the forty years that they were in the desert. How is it possible to say that God did not speak with him?

We might venture to explain that during this period God spoke "via the throat of Moses," but it was not Moses himself that spoke. Only at the end of the forty years, when that entire generation ceased to be, did Moses begin to speak "for himself." At that time his own words achieved the status of "Torah." This is the difference between "the day of his wedding" when Torah was given in the form of the Tablets of the Covenant, and "the day of the gladness of his heart" when God drew us close to Him and "brought us to his inner chambers," allowing Moses to "author" words of Torah.

2. Rav Yehudah said in the name of Shmuel: It is the day on which permission was granted to the tribes to intermarry. Whence may this be adduced? Scripture says, "This is the thing which the Lord hath commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophehad, [saying . . . only to the family of the tribe of their father shall they marry]" (Numbers 36:6,7), [meaning] "this thing" shall hold good for this generation only.

This legal novelty contains the conclusion of the Sages of Israel to demand the unity of the nation, and this guarantees the inheritance of the land, the capacity to fulfill the Torah in the land as a people. Therefore, this contains a rectification of the Sin of the Spies.

3. R. Yoseph said in the name of R. Nahman: It is the day on which the tribe of Binyamin was permitted to reenter the congregation [of Israel], as it is said, "Now the men of Israel had sworn in Mizpah, saying: There shall not any of us give his daughter unto Benjamin as a wife." From what was their exposition? Rav said: From the phrase "any of us" which was interpreted to mean, "but not from any of our children."

Here the matter of unity receives added conceptual depth because it becomes clear to them that the division between them is what led to the crisis of the Concubine on the Hill episode. The legal novelty, which says that no tribe of Israel is allowed to become extinct, this is the rectification of the sin.

4. ‘Ulla said: It is the day on which Hosea the son of Elah removed the guards which Jeroboam the son of Nebat 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.

The Festival pilgrimage unites the nation around Jerusalem, and this comes to teach us that the true unification of the Jewish people will come about via Jerusalem, "a city which is bound firmly together," a city "which makes all of Israel friends with one another," and due to this they merited having the Divine Presence dwell among them.

5. R. Mattenah said: It is the day when permission was granted for those killed at Betar to be buried. R. Mattenah further said: On the day when permission was granted for those killed at Betar to be buried [the Rabbis] at Yavneh instituted [the recitation of] the benediction, "Who art kind and dealest kindly": "Who art kind": because their dead bodies did not become putrid. "And dealest kindly": because permission was granted for their burial.

This is the first explanation which relates to the period after the destruction of the Temple. Betar fell after Jerusalem, and so long as Betar had not fallen there was still hope of redemption. Rabbi Akiva believed that Bar Kochba was the Messiah, that there was still a spark of hope for Israel. However, Bar Kochba turned out to be a disappointment and Betar was captured. This was like an additional destruction of the Temple. And when those killed in Betar were brought for burial, our Sages took this as an indication that the Almighty had not abandoned Israel even after the great destruction. This, too, is what makes this "the day of the gladness of his heart."

6. Rabah and R. Yoseph both said: It is the day on which [every year] they discontinued 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.

Why was the joy so great? It would appear that there is a symbolic reason here. The wood for the altar is the source of the altar's fire, and when the strength of the sun grows less (the sun symbolizes the nations of the world who lead a natural existence) it comes time to raise up fire upon the altar from those logs which Israel has prepared. This demonstrates Israel's capacity for serving God, and when this power is revealed, it becomes a "day of the gladness" for the heart.

7. 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. Joseph interpreted thus: His mother will bury him.

It would appear that this relates to the verse in the Mishnah which mentions "the crown wherewith his mother hath crowned him." The Sages teach that this refers to the collective soul of the nation of Israel (Knesset Yisrael) which crowns the Almighty. Therefore the expression "His mother will bury him" is used. The fact that Knesset Yisrael rejoices in the Almighty is what makes this "the day of gladness" for God's heart.

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Translated talmudic and biblical texts in the above article were taken from or based upon the Judaic Classics Library on CD-Rom (Soncino).


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