Did you know that there is an ancient tradition that on two days in the year, unmarried girls used to go out dancing in the vineyards around Jerusalem in order to find a marriage partner?
The Mishna in Taanit says that
“ There were no happier days in Israel than the fifteenth of Av ( Tu B’Av ) and Yom Kipur. Because on these two days the daughters of Jerusalem would come out and dance in the vineyards. They would be dressed on borrowed white clothes so as not to embarrass anyone who did not have anything to wear…and what would they say as they danced? Young man, lift up your eyes and choose a wife for yourself. Do not look only for beauty but regard the family. “Grace is deceptive, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised” (Proverbs 31:30). And “Let her works praise her in the gates” (ibid 31:31).”
The Talmud adds that anyone who did not have a wife would be able to join in to try to find one. Then it says that as the girls were dancing, each one sang about what she thought she had to offer, whether it was beauty, or family, or personal qualities. And they concluded by using the metaphor of “and showering her with gold” as if to say that whatever reason a man chose a wife for, he had to treat her with love and respect to get the most out of the marriage.
When I first read learned this I was quite shocked at the idea of nice Israelite girls dancing in public in the vineyards. But the Book of Judges actually gives a three-thousand-year-old precedent. The last chapter describes a war between the tribe of Benjamin and all the others over the refusal of Benjamin to bring rapists to justice. By the end of the war, the Benjaminites had been reduced to a few hundred single men. At that point, the tribes decided they couldn’t allow one of their number to disappear. However, they had sworn not to give their daughters to Benjamin officially. Their solution was that at the annual festival held at Shiloh, the religious center at that time, when the unmarried girls went out dancing in the vineyards, the remaining men of Benjamin would be able to go and choose wives from amongst the dancers. Not the nicest of stories nor the ideal solution, but clearly dancing in the vineyards was a thing in those days.
The Talmud gives various reasons for the significance of Tu B’Av. Some are to do with historical events in ancient Israel or with providing supplies for the Temple. But they also say that it was the anniversary of when the tribes of Israel were allowed to intermarry with each other instead of being restricted to one’s own tribe as Moses instituted ( Number 36). Perhaps the story of Benjamin was the reason for freeing up the marriage market even if the Bible mentions no specific date. So it struck me that this occasion really is about arranging marriages. The first big singles event, officially sanctioned and authorized by the religious authorities.
The timing of the Fifteenth of Av made sense. The harvests were over, there was time to relax and no one would associate it with pagan dancing around the Maypole which took place in the early summer.
But why on Yom Kipur as well? In ancient times Yom Kipur, although a fast, was celebrated primarily by attending the early morning Temple sacrifices and special ceremonies of atonement. All done with impressive ceremonial, dress, processions, sights, and sounds. A kind of huge theatrical but also a spiritual event.
The special Temple ceremonials for Yom Kipur would be over well before midday. What did everyone do then? The city would be overwhelmed with visitors coming in from the provinces and abroad for the Holy Days. It was the perfect time to arrange marriages. As it is in Jerusalem nowadays. And if you wonder about dancing, remember this was before the destruction of the Temple and Yom Kipur actually was a happy day because after the atonement sacrifices everyone felt forgiven and relieved. They were looking forward to a new year, and a future creating new generations. So why not take advantage?
The very idea of leaving marriage up to the young people to choose for themselves was remarkable for its time. Particularly since even now around the world, so many marriages are all but compelled. But more importantly, I do not think that the Talmud that I have quoted was meant to be taken literally, about rich girls, beautiful girls, or plain ones from humble families. And dressing all the girls in simple white obviously was meant symbolize the idea that every person is equal in God’s eyes and to place less emphasis on external and material qualities.
The Talmud recognizes the importance of beauty. Why not? Beauty, joy, and attraction are important factors in life and in every area of Divine Worship. Yet as the primary reason for choosing a wife, beauty is not that reliable. It is so subjective and cultural. It withers and can be changed by the artifice of a clever plastic surgeon. Character surely matters more, to cope with the vicissitudes of life and the capacity to persevere and appreciate the other. To make one’s partner feel special, wanted, valued, and loved. Neither should one underestimate the role of family and common family values in upbringing and support. All those features are referred to in the text.
It is of course possible to have all the above in a marriage and it still won’t work for other reasons. And conversely, some of the best marriages I have encountered have between the most unlikely, inappropriate, and even unattractive people. So there is no golden bullet, no guarantee. Just good advice, good fortune ( Siyatta diShmaya, Heavenly Support).
There have not been any specific rituals or customs associated with Tu B’Av in the past. But given the current vogue in Judaism for adding exponentially new customs, obligations, and restrictions, it is hardly surprising that out of nowhere, suddenly Tu B’Av has become a thing. t It has gained significance as a Shiduch Day. To arrange events for singles looking to get married.
We have just gone through days of mourning and the fast of the 9th of Av which record the horrific disasters endured over the millennia. Yet no sooner are they over when we are celebrating the happiest of events getting married! The timing is crucial. In religious circles, the Yeshivot and Seminaries have closed for a break before Ellul and singles are freed of academic obligations and have the leisure time to date. And that is why Tu B’Av has now gained its role as our version of Valentine’s Day. Actually it was yesterday, Wednesday 5th so if you are looking, it’s too late this year.
We are experiencing a crisis of singles. But we must look to the future. Arranging marriages is a huge mitzvah. It is thanks to those girls and boys dancing in the vineyards on the fifteenth of Av thousands of years ago, that we are here today.