“The Fifteenth of Av”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

For most of the past three weeks, beginning with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz and concluding with the fast of Tisha b’Av, the Jewish calendar has been filled with sadness and mourning. This period of sadness has been reflected in many of the recent weekly Torah messages.

Now that the period of the “Three Weeks” has concluded, we have an opportunity to focus on a positive festival–Tu b’Av. Although celebrated in contemporary times as a minor festival, Tu b’Av was, in fact, known in ancient times as one of the most festive days in the Jewish calendar.

During the time of the second Temple, Tu b’Av was a major holiday. Although there are many reasons given for the observance of this festival, not one seems to stand out as a singularly compelling reason for this day to have been regarded as one of the most joyous days of the Jewish calendar. Furthermore, the fact that so many different and divergent reasons are given for the observance of Tu b’Av is also an issue that begs clarification.

The Jerusalem Talmud in tractate Ta’anit, chapter 4, attributes the observance of the festival to the fact that Tu b’Av was the date on which the cutting of the wood for the altar ceased each year. After the destruction of the First Temple, when Ezra and Nehemiah led the exiles from Babylon back to Israel and rebuilt the Second Temple, the returnees discovered that their enemies had uprooted all the trees around Jerusalem. They were thus left with no wood for the altar and were unable to offer sacrifices.

Despite the Jewish return to Jerusalem, the enemies of Israel were bent on preventing the Jews from bringing wood to Jerusalem and blockaded all wood deliveries to the city. Anyone who was able to elude the blockade and succeeded to bring wood to the Temple was considered heroic.

In order to maintain proper dignity and insure the sanctity of the Temple, Jewish law required that the wood for the altar be dry and free of worms. Consequently, the latest day that the wood could be brought was the 15th of Av, which marked the end of the hot season. Thus, the 15th of Av, as the final day for the bringing of wood and for the performance of this mitzvah, was declared a holiday.

Tu b’Av is also celebrated historically as the day when the ban against intermarriage between the various tribes of Israel was repealed, as well as the ban against all marriages with the tribe of Benjamin.

In chapter 36 of Numbers, we read of Moses’ decision to allow the daughters of Zelaphchad to inherit their father’s land, with the proviso that the men they marry must be only from their own tribe, Menasseh. This tribal inmarriage was required so that the property of Zelaphchad would remain within the tribe of Menasseh and not transfer to any another tribe. Rabbi Judah, in the name of Rabbi Yishmael, states that this ban applied only to the generation that left Egypt, because, once the Israelites entered the land of Israel and the lands were apportioned, the tribal lands could no longer be transferred. Therefore, even if a daughter was left as the sole heir of her father’s land, there was no longer any prohibition of intermarriage between tribes. It was on the 15th of Av that the ban was repealed. Hence the festival.

Rabbi Joseph says in the name of Rav Nachman that the 15th of Av marks the day that the tribe of Benjamin was allowed to remarry after the terrible episode of the concubine of Gibeah (Judges chapter 21). After the perfidious murder of a concubine in Gibeah by members of the tribe of Benjamin, the other 11 tribes of Israel declared war on the perpetrators, leaving only 500 male survivors from Benjamin. In order to prevent the repopulation of Benjamin, the other tribes of Israel vowed never to give their daughters to the Benjaminites. On the 15th of Av this vow was rescinded, allowing the men of Benjamin to “take” or “catch” the Israelite daughters in Shilo as they came out to dance in the vineyards.

Ulah states that the festivities of the 15th of Av mark the day when Hoshea, the son of Elah, did away with the guards that the wicked King Jereboam the son of Nevat had stationed on the roads, to prevent the members of the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel from worshiping at the temple in Jerusalem and observing the three major festivals.

Rabbi Matana says that the 15th of Av was the day that the Roman authorities allowed the Jews to bury the victims of the Bar Kochba rebellion who had been killed in battle. This also led to the inclusion of an additional fourth blessing in Birkat Hamazon, known as “Hatov v’ha’may’tiv,” the blessing of G-d who continuously does good for his people Israel.

Rabbi Jochanan says that on the 15th of Av, in the fortieth year after the exodus, it was confirmed that the last of the 600,000 men of the generation of the exodus had died. After the sin of scouts, each year on Tisha b’Av morning 15,000 of the 600,000 men of that generation did not awaken. This was to fulfill the punishment of the people for listening to the scouts who did not have faith in G-d, and who spoke against entering and inhabiting the land of Israel. In the fortieth year, G-d reprieved the last 15,000 survivors and they all awakened. Thinking that they had miscalculated and would soon die, it was only after they survived until the 15th of Av that they were finally convinced that they would not die.

Although the reasons given for celebrating the 15th of Av seem quite numerous, it is not unusual for a particular observance or festival in the Jewish calendar to have multiple reasons for its observance. The fast of the 17th of Tammuz marks not only the breeching of the walls of Jerusalem, but also the breaking of the first set of Tablets. Tisha b’Av not only commemorates the destruction of the two Temples, but also the expulsion from Spain in 1492 and the decree that the ancient Israelites must wander in the wilderness and not enter the land of Israel. However, in most instances, there is a single theme that unites the multiple events that occurred on those days. The 15th of Av, on the other hand, seems to commemorate a host of entirely different events that are marked on this single day, which appear to be, for the most part, entirely unrelated to one another. Of course, if one is creative enough, a common theme, however tenuous, could probably be devised.

Clearly, the period of the three weeks, between the piercing of the walls of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, is a burdensome and draining period. Could it be that the rabbis of the past generations simply suggested that these seemingly unrelated events be celebrated together immediately after Tisha b’Av in order to give the Jewish people a reason for rejoicing, to pull the people out of the sadness and depression of the three weeks and provide them with a multitude of reasons for exultation?

I have said, on more than one occasion, that one of the least constructive “expressions” among the Jewish people is the oft repeated Yiddish statement: “Shver tzoo zein a Yid,” Being Jewish is tough! This statement’s negativity leaves Jewish people, young and old, with a depressing feeling that we’ll never be able to lift our heads up high to rejoice and sing and dance again. Despite the fact that these words are being written when our people are once again subject to the terrible test of fire and blood put to us by the Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists, it is important for Jews to recognize the truth: “Es is gut tzoo zein a Yid,” It truly is good to be a Jew!

The rabbis of old were right. Perhaps these challenging days that we face today should encourage us to come together and find reasons, however disparate and remote, to rejoice. Like the lyrics of the old Russian/Yiddish song, we should proclaim: “Af tzoolochos aleh sonim, Am Yisrael Chai.” We will look our enemies in the eye, and defiantly say to them: “We will outlive you. The people of Israel is alive and will live.”

May you be blessed.

Tu b’Av is observed this year on Tuesday evening and Wednesday, August 8th and 9th, 2006. Happy Tu b’Av.