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Question: What is the significance of Tu B’Av, the 15th of Av?

David Bernstein
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Answer: In tractate Ta’anit toward the end of the first Mishna of the fourth chapter (26b, Bi’shelosha perakim) “With the advent of the month of Av we decrease our joy,” the Gemara (29a) adds “With advent of the month of Av we decrease our joy; consequently, with the advent of the month of Adar we increase our joy.”

Interestingly our Sages do not say; “When Av comes, we refrain all joy and when Adar comes, we indulge all joy. The question one might ask – “Is Av not truly a sad month in the history of the Jewish people just as Adar is surely one of the most joyous months for our people, and if so why is the word m’ma’atin (decrease) used rather than “refrain”? The answer is that there is a bright spot; even in the midst of all the sorrow was [is] this day, the 15th of Av (Chamisha Asar B’Av, or Tu B’Av), a day so manifest in joy, as we explain further.

Rabban Shimeon b. Gamaliel said, “There were no greater days of joy for [the people of] Israel than the 15th of Av and the Day of Atonement. On these days the daughters of Jerusalem used to go out in white garments that were borrowed, in order not to put to shame anyone who had none (Rashi points out that even the rich maidens borrowed garments in order not to embarrass the less affluent).

The Gemara asks (30b): We can understand [that remark as applied to] the Day of Atonement, because Yom Kippur is a day of forgiveness and pardon, and on it the latter [second] Tablets of the Law [inscribed with the Ten Commandments] were given. But what is [i.e., what happened on] Tu B’Av?

R. Yehuda said in the name of Shmuel: It was the day on which permission was given to the tribes to intermarry [amending an earlier law which had prohibited tribal intermarriages to avoid the transfer of tribal lands]. What was the basis of that action [amending the law]? It is written (when the daughters of Tzelophechad came before Moses): “This is what G-d commanded concerning the daughters of Tzelophechehad” (Numbers 36:6-9), meaning that “this” [law] was to be enacted only in the generation of the daughters of Tzelophechad. As the verse indicates, they married their paternal cousins because of the restriction imposed on them (ibid.): “Ve’lo tisov nachala mi’mateh le’mateh acher – [thus] an inheritance [of land] shall not pass from one tribe to another.”

R. Yosef said in the name of R. Nachman: [Another reason for the joy on the 15th of Av is that] it was the day on which the tribe of Benjamin was permitted to re-enter the congregation [of Israel] – the men of the tribe of Benjamin were [again] permitted to marry the daughters of other tribes – as it is written (Judges 21:1), Now the men of Israel had sworn in Mitzpa, saying, `None of us shall give his daughter unto Benjamin for a wife’.” [This oath followed the incident of pilegesh ba’give’ah described in the preceding chapters.] On what did they base their permission? The people had sworn that they alone would not allow their daughters to marry men of the tribe of Benjamin, and thus that prohibition did not apply to their children.

Rabba b. Bar Hana said in the name of R. Yohanan (the version in Bava Batra 121a attributes this statement to R. Dimi b. Yosef in the name of R. Nachman) that [the 15th of Av] was the day on which the generation of the desert ceased to die out, for a Master said: So long as the generation of the desert continued to die out there was no Divine speech (dibbur) addressed to Moses, as he himself stated (Deut. 2:16-17), “When the men of war (meaning the men of age 20 and up at the time of the mission of the Spies) ceased to die from amidst the people, [then] G-d spoke to me … “Only then was the Divine word again addressed to him. (Rashi ad loc. remarks that although there are many instances where G-d communicated with Moses during that time, the term “va’yomer” always replaces “va’yedaber,” to indicate that the Divine communication was not addressed to him face to face.

Ulla said: [The 15th of Av] was the day on which [King] Hoshea the son of Elah removed the guards that Jeroboam the son of Nevat had placed on the highways to prevent the people of the Israelite Kingdom from going [to Jerusalem] on pilgrimage. (This refers to the three times a year people were required to go up to Jerusalem, namely, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot.) He proclaimed, “Let them go [to worship] wherever they desire.” (Rashi ad loc. notes that Hoshea was also a wicked king, and only in this matter was he better than the other monarchs of the Israelite Kingdom.)

R. Mattena said that it was the day on which permission was granted for those killed in Betar (during the war against the Romans) to be buried. (As Rashi notes, the details of the martyrdom in Betar can be found in Tractate Gitin 57a-b). On the day permission was granted to bury those slain in Betar, the Sages in Yavneh instituted the blessing of “Ha’tov ve’Hameitiv – He Who is good and does good,” (the fourth blessing in the Grace after Meals). “He Who is good,” in gratitude [for the fact] that the corpses did not rot, “and does good,” because they were allowed to bury them.

Rabba and R. Yosef both said: It is the day on which [every year] they would stop felling trees for the Altar. (Rashi ad loc. explains that fresh lumber is moist, and had to be left in the sun to dry lest it harbor woodworms and thus become unfit for use on the Altar). We learned in a baraita: R. Eliezer the Elder says, “From the 15th of Av onward the strength of the [summer] sun diminishes, and they no longer felled trees because they would not dry [sufficiently]. R. Menashia said: They called it the Day of the Breaking of the Axe. From that day onward [since the nights grow longer], “De’mosif yosif, u’delo mosif ye’asef – He who increases [his knowledge through study during the longer evenings] will add [years – i.e., will have his life prolonged], but he who does not increase [his knowledge] will have his life taken away” [a play on the roots “yasof” and “asof,” meaning to increase and to gather, respectively]. What is meant by “taken away”? R. Yosef said, His mother would bury him [indicating an untimely death].

To be continued…

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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.
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