As part of a New Year’s intellectual cleaning, I came across this post which I had intended to post on my birthday. This was actually the first year I didn’t post anything since I started YUTOPIA nearly 6 years ago. As for many people, past year has not been the easiest for me on multiple personal levels. While I will not elaborate on most here, the year is ending with me coming out of a long relationship and reentering the tumultuous waters of Jewish dating. This recent emotional adjustment, though unpleasant, has been a motivating factor for reevaluating and revising the thrust of the overdue post below.
Today is the day I turn 32 – meaning “lev” or “heart” in Hebrew. Sure it doesn’t have the appeal of being a big round number or even prime, but I do find it interesting that my 32nd/lev birthday falls out on the day before Tu B’Ava day in the Jewish calendar typically associated with love and marriage. In the final Mishna of Ta’anit (4:8), we find the following description by R. Shimon Ben Gamliel:
R. Shimon B. Gamliel said: there never were in Israel greater days of joy than the 15th 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 thine eyes on beauty but set thine eyes on [good] family. grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a woman that fears the lord, she shall be praised (Mishlei 31:30). And it further says, give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her works praise her in the gates (31:31)” 1
At first glance R. Shimon B. Gamliel is describing an ancient shidduch scene of women going out to find husbands. To this day the tradition continues with numerous Shabbat Nachamu Singles Shabbatons. But to what extent is this Mishna an accurate historical account, or more to the point, is the historical understand of this Mishna really “peshat” in terms of its true intent? I ask this question not as an academic, but as a longtime single who has given a great deal of thought to dating. Imagine for a moment the account in this Mishna actually taking place. Throngs of women dressed in white may seem physically attractive, but also consider being nagged and badgered repeatedly by all of them to get your religious priorities straight. It would seem to me that this strategy would turn off even the most desperate of men. 2 Furthermore, if this method was so effective as a shidduch system, why would it occur on the 15th of Av followed by Yom Kippur – only two months later?
One of my favorite interpretations of this Mishna is the one offered by Mircea Eliade, primarily for the comedic value of sloppy scholarship. In his classic The Myth of The Eternal Return Eliade writes:
It was customary at the time of the Yom Ha-Kippurim, 3 for the girls to go outside the boundaries of the village or town to dance and amuse themselves, and it was on this occasion that marriages were arranged. But it was also on this day that freedom was allowed to a number of excesses, sometimes even orgiastic, which remind us both of the final phase of the akitu (also celebrated outside the town) and of the various forms of license that were the rule almost everywhere in the frame of New Year ceremonials (p. 61)
My sense is that Eliade likely never read this source – and probably little if any of Rabbinic literature – in the original giving his footnote on this paragraph: “See the references of the Talmud to orgiastic excesses in Raffaele Pettazzoni La confessione dei peccati, II (Bologna, 1935).” In fairness, Eliade was looking for certain patterns in comparative religion and from this perspective found in our Mishna a parallel example of an fertility renewal ritual common in agrarian societies.
My own read of the Mishna differs from Eliade for obvious reasons, but I do not believe Eliade is completely incorrect. I suggest that this Mishna does indeed address a theme of renewal, but instead of reading the Mishna as a sexual or reproductive renewal with agrarian implications, I submit that R. Shimon Ben Gamliel’s account is a metaphor for spiritual renewal, the consummation of which being redemption. 4
The first indication comes from the Talmud’s explanation for Yom Kippur and Tu B’Av being the designated days for the ritual (Ta’anit 30b-31a). The Talmud assumes the appropriateness of Yom Kippur because, “it is a day of forgiveness and pardon, and on it the second tablets were given.” Recall that the second tablets were needed after Moshe broke the first set by the sin of the Golden Calf Sh’mot 32. The giving of the second tablets indicated that God not only forgave the Jewish people 5 but that he was willing to renew the shattered covenant. It signified the conclusion of a dark moment in our history and provided the closure needed to move forward to become a stronger nation.
I suggest that we find similar themes in the six opinions the Talmud records for the significance of Tu B’Av:
- R. Yehuda in the name of Shmuel – Tu B’Av was the day the twelve tribes were allowed to intermarry with each other
- R. Yosef in the name of R. Nachman – The tribe of Binyamin was permitted to enter the congregation of Jews, specifically to intermarry with the other tribes (See Shofetim 21)
- Rabba bar bar Hana in the name of R. Yohanan – The generation of the desert died out on the 15th of Av
- Ulla – King Hoshea removed the guards that rebel King Yoravam ben Nevat had placed to prevent Jews from going to Jerusalem for festivals (‘oleh regel) (B. Gittin 88a)
- R. Matneh – Those killed at Beitar were permitted to be buried.
- Rabbah and R. Yosef – The end of the season for chopping down trees for the alter (after the 15th of Av the wood does not dry properly)
The opinions listed above may be categorized into three pairs, each a variant on the motif of renewal. The first two positions, the only ones with any reference to marriage, celebrate national unity – the first allowed the Jewish nation to prosper the second repaired a fractured relationship within the nation, both through the institution of marriage and subsequent reproduction. In contrast the second pair of opinions, number three and five, commemorate the closure provided by death and burials. The generation of the desert needed to die out before the Jewish people could fulfil its destiny (See Bamidbar 13), and the nation needed to bury the bodies at Beitar as symbol of closure in the face of the impending exile. The final pair of #4 and #6 both describe a personal reconnecting with God through the removal of outside interferance, be it from a sinner’s restriction or even the noble religious occupation of Temple service.
Now let us turn to the Talmud’s description of the “mating ritual’s” details. B. Ta’anit 31a specifically recounts that the women would borrow clothing so as not to embarrass each other:
THE DAUGHTERS OF ISRAEL CAME OUT AND DANCED IN THE VINEYARDS. A Tanna taught: Whoever was unmarried repaired thither.
THOSE OF THEM WHO CAME OF NOBLE FAMILIES EXCLAIMED, ‘YOUNG MAN etc.’ Our Rabbis have taught: The beautiful amongst them called out, Set your eyes on beauty for the quality most to be prized in woman is beauty; those of them who came of noble families called out, Look for [a good] family for woman has been created to bring up a family; the ugly ones amongst them called out, Carry off your purchase in the name of Heaven, only on one condition that you adorn us with jewels of gold.
Ulla Bira’ah said in the name of R. Eleazar: In the days to come the Holy One, blessed be He, will hold a chorus for the righteous and He will sit in their midst in the Garden of Eden and every one of them will point with his finger towards Him, as it is said, And it shall be said in that day: Lo, this is our God, for whom we waited, that He might save us; this is the Lord for whom we waited, we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation.
I suggest that these two paragraphs which conclude the trachtate Ta’anit compliment the theme of renewal. The calls of the women were understandably tailored to emphasize the women’s individual attractive traits, be it wealth, nobility, or simply the opportunity to create a holy union. And just as one waits to find their mate with which to begin a new life, the righteous similarly wait for the days of redemption.
The Torah is replete with comparing the relationship between God and the Jewish people that of a husband and wife, 6 both of which require the opening of one’s heart. It is only through this process of relationship that we too can feel renewed, and ultimately find our personal redemptions.
Personally, I’m well aware of the myriad uncertainties in my own future. But at this point in my life I will try to live the year as one of lev, with the fulness of my heart.
- Translation modified from Soncino thanks to its copy-paste functionality. ↩
- Unless of course we view this ritual as preparation for married life. ↩
- I have no patience to transcribe his diacritics and/or code them in HTML. ↩
- Warning: The following should be taken as midrash. ↩
- Most of them anyway. ↩
- See Yirmiyahu 3:14 for one of many examples. ↩