Tu B'Av from an Eco-Judaic Viewpoint

Rabbi Dr. Arthur Segal

The holiday of Tu B'Av, the 15th of the month of Av, is a purely Talmudic Rabbinic Holiday is said to be the happiest day on the Jewish Calendar. It comes less than a week after the saddest day on the Calendar, the 9th of Av. As we explore it, we can see that it was and is purely Eco-Judaic, as well as promoting feminist equality, two-plus millennia before its time.

The Gemorahs in the Talmuds Yerushalmi and Bavli have a different ''take'' on the holiday and its spiritual significance as well as its historical roots.

Talmud Yerushalmi Tractate Ta'anit 4:7 teaches that the happiest day in the Jewish calendar is the fifteenth of Av. Young women and young men would dance in the vineyards and orchards and meet each other. The girls would all wear the same white simple dress so that rich girl, and poor girl ,would all look alike, none adorned with jewelry or make up, so that the males would get to know them for their intelligence and chesed, and not for their external attributes.

The Yerushalmi Talmud gives its historic etiology:

''On the eve of each ninth of Av in the wilderness, Moses would announce through the entire camp, 'Go out for the grave digging! Go out for the grave digging!' They would go out and dig graves for themselves and go to sleep. In the morning they would get up and find themselves 15,000 fewer. But in the last year they did so and arose and found themselves whole. No one had died.

They said: Is it possible we have made an error in counting?

So they did the same on the 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th of Av.

When the full moon on the 15th came, they said: It would appear that the Holy One Blessed be He, has annulled the evil decree against us. They arose and declared that day a holiday. (Talmud Yerushalmi Ta'anit 4:7)

We need to recall, that one of the evils that befell our people on Tisha B'Av, the 9th of Av, came from our Hebrew ancestors, accepting the bad reports of ten of the twelve spies, and their loosing faith in their ability to conquer the "Promised Land." Hence, God decreed that they would wander for 39 more years in B'midbar, and none of them would enter ''the land.''

Hence the section of Talmud Yerushalmi is describing their deaths each year on the 9th of Av, and how these deaths stopped 39 years later on Tu B'av, the 15th of Av.

Tu B'av, was the most joyous holiday on our calendar and somehow we have forgotten it. By the time of the Shulkan Aruk, of the 16th century, it was just another day but without the daily repentance prayers, tachanun. The other joyous day was Yom Kippur. Most look at that day as a day of drudgery, and not a day when God's love for us is so manifest that He is the all Forgiving Parent and we should be rejoicing.

The 15th of Av has an interesting Talmudic view from 2500 years ago, especially when juxtaposed against what we see today in our advertisements towards the horrid objectification of women. As mentioned above, Jewish single young women went out, all dressed in the same simple white dress, no make up, no jewels, so that no one could tell a rich girl from a poor girl, and only their personalities, their chesed, would be available to be discerned. This allowed Jewish young men to fall in love for the 'right' reasons.[ Talmud Bavli Tractate Ta'anit 30b-31a.]

But women would still try to find a way around this egalitarian ruling of the sages and promote themselves thusly:

"'What would the beautiful ones among them say? "Look for beauty, for a woman is for beauty."

"What would those of prestigious lineage say? "Look for family, for a woman is for children."

"What would the ugly ones say? "Make your acquisition for the sake of Heaven, as long as you decorate us with jewels" (Talmud Bavli Tractate Ta'anit 31a).''

The Gemara, ibid 26b, as always, puts a spiritual spin on this.

"A woman is for beauty," call these souls to God; take us as Your bride, and You will be rewarded by the pleasure You derive when Your creations realize the potential for perfection You have invested in them.

Then there are the souls of "prestigious lineage." They have hereditary love which God has implanted in all of us. "A woman is for children": our relationship will bear fruit -- the mitzvoth generated by our natural love for You. For is not our ultimate purpose in creation that we humans fulfill God's will?

"Do for Your sake, if not for ours," call the "ugly" souls of Israel. Only You know what lies behind our appearance, and only You know the truth of what You can inspire in us. For You know that, in truth, "The daughters of Israel are beautiful, it is only that spiritual poverty obscures their beauty.You know that our "ugliness" is not our true essence, but imposed upon us by spiritual poverty.

When any Jew is decorated with the jewels of Torah learning, he or she is not ugly.''

The sages found that those who married for beauty were most often unhappy. We read that the rabbis (Talmud Bavli Tractate Bava Batra 110a) advised interviewing the brothers of the prospective bride, for they taught that sons will turn out like the brothers of the bride. The rabbis advise marrying the daughter of a Talmud scholar (Talmud Bavli Tractate Pesachim 49a). This is the reason that the Talmud Bavli in Tractate Ta'anit 26b only quotes the girls from good families, as their words were the most true in the minds of the rabbis.

R' Yishmael (Talmud Bavli Tractate Nedarim 9:10) said: "The daughters of Israel are all beautiful, only that poverty makes them unbecoming." The rabbis were teaching long along the exact opposite of what our society today teaches, i.e. the objectification of women. While beautify was not shunned, chesed and intelligence were traits to be admired.

Note how this Tu B'Av, the releasing of a death decree, becomes a fertility ritual half way between the summer solstice and autumnal equinox. Boys and girls are not just meeting anywhere, but they are meeting in vineyards and orchards where life is continually being manifest. The above Gemorah mentions how women bear fruit, and children in the TaNaK have been called ''the fruit of the womb.'' [Ps. 127:3] Without orchards and vineyards, without the earth yielding its fruit, we humans can not mate and yield our fruit. If we destroy our fruit bearing trees and our vineyards and ruin the soil from which they gain nutrients, we destroy the next generation of humankind.

"Twenty is the age for chasing" (Talmud Bavli Tractate Pirkei Avot 5:18). Many, if not most young men chase young women for the wrong reasons and the wrong attributes. Tu B'Av teaches us what is meaningful in a person, and what is truly 'attractive.' We rabbis can use this holiday to teach what our rabbis tried to teach two millennia ago.

R. Zvi Elimelech of Dinov (1783-1841), the author of the work "Bnei Yissachar, " explains that Tu B'Av is a day of deep-rooted significance because it falls forty days before the date of the world's creation. The sixth day of creation was Rosh Hashanah. On that day God created man. Six days before this is the Twenty-fifth of Elul, and forty days ahead of this is Tu B'Av (the Fifteenth of Av). The rabbis teach: "Forty days before the formation of the infant an announcement is made in heaven: "The daughter of so-and-so is matched up with so-and-so." Tu B'Av, too, because it comes forty days before the creation of the world, is a day of much importance as it has a unique capacity to initiate life not only for the bride and groom, but for the orchards, the trees, and the vines, indeed the whole eco-sphere, that these young boys and girls are meeting.

To match human fertility with the earth's via fruit trees and fruits of the vine, which both have their own special beracoth, helps remind us, us to treat the earth with kindness and love and generosity, as we would when we are courting, and when we are in love with that special person.

But there is something happening on a deeper level. Comparing Tu B'Av to Yom Kippur, the Mishna Ta'anit 4:8 reads: '' 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 Torah." Rashi explains that "'the day of the giving of Torah" 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 forgiven and the second tablets were given.

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. " This is aligned with the tradition which says that the future Temple will be built in the month of Av and the tradition that says the Messiah will be born on Tisha B'Av. This is what the Mishnah means when it says "may it be rebuilt speedily in our days."

However, the Mishnah does not teach what the reason for joy on the fifteenth of Av was. So we are missing the reason for joy on the fifteenth of Av. The Talmud itself raises this question (Talmud Bavli Tractate 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?"

So while Israel's real wedding day was to be on Tammuz 17, but instead had its Ketubah, the Ten Commandments, smashed, when Moses saw the Golden Calf, in the future, the wedding day of Israel, for all eternity, will be Tu B'Av, with the rebuilding of the Temple and the Messianic age. 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" (Talmud Bavli Tractate Beracoth 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. Our living on earth must grow out of the bounty of the earth, but must not destroy it, and better still, repair it, in the process.

The Temple in Jerusalem is a metaphor for a perfect world, even though our history shows it was far from perfect and our rabbis said the Shechinah, God's holy presence, didn't even dwell in Ezra's Temple. “The world can be compared to a human eyeball - The white of the eye is the ocean surrounding the world - The iris is this continent - The pupil is Jerusalem - And the image in the pupil is the Holy Temple.” [Derech Eretz Zuta 9]. Tu B'Av is another holy day leading us to the kabbalistic concept of Tikun Olam, of repairing God's face, His holy sparks, covered over by husks, when He contracted Himself, when He created the world.

The Talmud Yerushalmi gives the reason for Tu B'av as a '''death decree'' that God put on the Hebrews, on every 9th of Av,[Tisha b'Av] where 15,000 died on that day, that ended one year, but they did not discover that it truly ended until the full moon in the mid month on the 15th of Av (Tu B'Av).

Now we can search through the Torah and not see this story at all.

The Talmud does have illusions to other events involving massive death and mass burials however for this date:

The Talmud states that there were no holy days as happy for the Jews as Tu B'Av and Yom Kippur. Various reasons for celebrating on Tu B'Av are cited by the Talmud and Talmudic commentators (Talmud Yerushalmi Tractate Ta'anit , 4:7, 4:8 and Talmud Bavli Tractate Ta'anit 30b and 31a),and of course, Rashi of the 11th century France.

While the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years, female orphans without brothers could only marry within their tribe, to prevent their father's inherited land in the Land of Israel from passing on to other tribes. On the fifteenth of Av of the fortieth year, this ban was lifted. This is according to Rav Yehudah in the name of Shmuel in Talmud Bavli Tractate Ta'anit 30b.

That same year, the last of the generation of the sin of the spies which had been forbidden to enter the Promised Land, died out. This is according to Rabbah Bar Hanah in the name of R. Yochanan in Talmud Bavli Tractate Ta'anit 30b.

The Tribe of Benjamin was allowed to intermarry with the other tribes after the incident of the Concubine of Gibeah (see Judges chapters 19-21), R. Yoseph said in the name of R. Nahman, in Talmud Bavli Tractate Ta'anit 30b.

Rabah and R. Yoseph both said that the cutting of the wood for the main altar in the Temple was completed for the year. The event was celebrated with feasting and rejoicing (as is the custom upon the conclusion of a holy endeavor) and included a ceremonial breaking of the axes which gave the day its name, the Day of the Breaking of the Ax. ''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.'' (Talmud Bavli Tractate Ta'anit 30b).

So what was the reason that 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 our people new then the value of forests and trees, not just for their use, but for maintaining their 'world,' what we would call today, their eco-system. They already had laws pertaining to not chopping down fruit bearing trees during war, which was extending to not wasting any resource. When the strength of the sun grows less , which begins to happen in the middle of Av as we head towards Autumn, fire, or in a sense 'sun' from the inside of a dry tree's wood is needed. By doing God's will and keeping His earth alive, to harvest, but not to waste, makes Tu B'Av a "day of the gladness" for the heart.

The nights, traditionally the ideal time for Torah study are lengthened again after the summer solstice , permitting more study. Rabbi Joseph said that one who studies more Torah will have his life prolonged. (Talmud Bavli Tractate Ta'anit 30b). After all, Torah is a tree of life to those who hold fast to her.

The Roman occupiers permitted the victims of the massacre at Bethar of 133 CE to be buried .The bodies exposed for years had not decomposed (148 CE), according to Rabbi Mattenah. ( Talmud Bavli Tractate Ta'anit 30b). After some years after the battle of 133 CE, Rabban Gamliel and the Sanhedrin fasted and prayed for many days and Rabban Gamliel gave his inheritance in order to satisfy the Romans.

Rabbi Ulla taught in Talmud Bavli Tractate Ta'anit 30b that King Hosea ben Eilah opened the roads to Jerusalem. Following the death of King Solomon ( 931 BCE), Jeroboam ben Nebat, ruler of the breakaway Northern Kingdom of Israel, set up roadblocks to prevent his citizens from making the thrice-yearly pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, capital of the Southern Kingdom of Judea. These were finally removed more than 200 years later by Hosea ben Eilah, the last king of the Northern Kingdom, on Av 15 (721 BCE). He only reigned for circa 10 years and was defeated by the Assyrian King Shalmaneser, starting a series of events which quickly lead to what we today call the "Ten Lost Tribes.''

I respectfully opine that the story in Yerushalmi is a combination of Bethar and the last of the generation of the Spies dying. The 9th of Av is already a horrid day with two Temples destroyed, and the rabbis are still adding to the Gemorah after Bar Kochba's failed revolt and the Martyred ten rabbis circa 135 CE.

Unlike the Bavli which places blame for the second Temple's destruction on Jerusalem's non-Jewish behavior, the Talmud Yerushalmi, finds that the 9th of Av is decreed by God long ago in B'Midbar, to be a bad day for the Jews.

So each year, 15000 Jews of the old generation all die on the same day, the 9th of Av, according to Yerushalmi. On one 15th of Av, the Hebrews realized it stopped, and hence all of the old generation had died.

We are taught only Joshua and Caleb, not even Moses, Aaron or Miriam, were the only ones of the old generation that crossed into Jordan. Further we are taught that 600,000 able bodied men left with Moses from Egypt. When we add to that their wives, children, and non- able bodied parents and grand parents, plus the mixed multitude that came with them, which the Talmud said numbered 3 million, we would need , even subtracting the folks who died in Korach's rebellion, and other tragedies, 190 years in the desert, not just 40, for 15000 to die out on each 9th of Av.

One of the ancient and most practical reasons of Tu B'Av is according R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus of the first century (Megillat Ta'anit, 5.) is that it was the Great Day of Wood-Offering, when both priests and people brought kindling-wood in large quantities to the altar, for use in the burning of sacrifices during the whole year. This day being Mid-summer Day, when the solar heat reached its climax, the people stopped hewing wood in the forest, until the Fifteenth Day of Shevaṭ , Tu B'Shevat, the New-year's Day of the trees because the new sap of spring entered vegetation on that day. The actual explanation is given in Megillat Ta'anit, 5. and Mishnah, 4:5, according to which nine families of Judah brought at certain times during the year the wood for the burning of the sacrifices on the altar. According to Neh.10:34; on the Fifteenth Day of Av, however, all the people, the priests as well as the Levites, took part in the wood-offering.

We have to look at this in historical context. At the beginning of the Second Temple period, the Land of Israel lay almost totally waste, and the wood needed to burn the sacrifices and for the eternal flame that had to burn on the altar was almost impossible to obtain. Hence, these nine families took it upon themselves to bring wood to the Temple. The Judeans and those who lived in Judea while they were in captivity in Babylon for 70 years, were not good caretakers of the earth.

Josephus also mentions this festival, and calls it the Feast of Xylophory ("Wood-bearing"), but places it on the Fourteenth of Av, saying that "it was the custom for every one to bring wood for the altar on that day so that there should never be any lack of fuel for the eternal fire."

We can see that again Judaism, using synchronicity wisely, took pagan mid-summer and mid-winter festivals and assigned them Judaic spiritual significance, which we today, can assign Eco-Judaic and social reeducation significance. {Syrians still celebrate their ancient mid summer fertility festival with bon fires similar to our mid-winter Tu B'Shevat festival. It is called Midsummer Day, De Syria Dea.}

In reality, I think the holiday was kept alive by the rabbis, as this is also the beginning of the 7 weeks of comfort, Nachamu, to keep folks' minds off Tisha b'Av's events, and focus on the future. And what better way to do think of the future, then to have a fertility party, with the hopes of children and grandchildren? And what better way for us, now, when we are still in galut, and facing a true galut of being spit off the planet, and not just out of the 'land,' to use this day, as another day, 6 months before and after Tu B'Shevat as a holiday to remind us that we are married to the earth , to God, and to each other.

I'd like to end on a Jewish Spiritual Renewal aspect of the Holiday....the fact that it is in the middle of the month, and is always when there is a full bright moon.

How can we explain Rabbi Shimon's amazing statement that "There were no greater festivals for Israel" in Talmud Bavli Tractate Ta'anit? In what way is the 15th of Av greater than Passover, or Shavuot, or even the other "great festival," Yom Kippur?

It has to do with our lunar calendar. The Zohar explains that we mark time with the moon because '' we rise and fall through the nights of history knowing times of growth and diminution, our moments of luminous fullness alternating with moments of obscurity and darkness. And like the moon, our every regression and defeat is but a prelude to yet another rebirth, yet another renewal.''

So even though our Exodus process began on Nissan One, we celebrate it on Nissan 15 when the actual Exodus occurred. Even though One Tishrei is Rosh HaShanah, we truly rejoice on Sukkoth, the 15th of Tishrei. The Talmud tells us to ''sound the shofar on the moon's renewal, which is concealed until the day of our festival, Sukkoth.''

The full moon is a sign of comfort, nachamu, for us, after the horrible events of the 9th of Av. The full moon of Tu B'av gives Tikvah, hope, to the Jews, in Galut. More than this is that the 15th of Av is also the holiday of the ''Destruction of the Ax's.'' We used the axes to make the fire wood for the altar for the Temple.

Why break the axes? Why not store them for next year's cutting? Because the ax represents the very opposite of what the Altar, and for which the Temple as a whole, stood.

"When you build a stone altar for Me, do not build it of cut stone; for if your sword has been lifted upon it, you have profaned it"; "Do not lift iron upon it… The altar of God shall be built of whole stones" (Ex. 20:22; Deut. 27:5-6) If any metal implement as much as touched a stone, that stone was rendered unfit for use in the making of the altar.

Our rabbis explain: "Iron was created to shorten the life of man, and the Altar was created to lengthen the life of man; so it is not fitting that that which shortens should be lifted upon that which lengthens" (Talmud Bavli Tractate Middot 3:4). Iron, the instrument of war and destruction, has no place in the making of the instrument whose function is to bring eternal peace and harmony to the world. And we cannot have peace in the world, if we have no world. Hence Eco-Judaic concepts are built into Talmudic Rabbinic Judaism as well as Hebraism.

The ax is a symbol of weapons used upon man versus man and man versus earth. We cannot afford to take an ax to the earth anymore, [if we ever truly could], nor can we afford to take an ax to another human anymore, [if we ever truly could], be it in war, or be it in racism or sexism.

Tu B'Av can be recaptured as a modern holiday for Spiritually Renewed Jews to promote Eco-Judaism and the correct values regarding love, sex, gender issues, and treatment of one another.

While, it seems to be our destiny to wax and wane like the moon, I do pray that we have more days and years like a full bright moon, with no instruments of war aimed at us, or forced into our hands to defend ourselves, and that our shovels and backs are used to plant fruit trees and not to dig graves. Amen.


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