Tu B’Av: The Jewish day of love

How did an ancient Jewish love festival grow to become a modern-day alternative to Valentine’s Day?
(Photo: Getty Images)

This week, many Jews will celebrate Tu B’Av, a day that has become known, especially in Israel, as the Jewish day of love. (In 2022 Tu B’Av starts the night of August 11.) At first glance, Tu B’Av seems a lot like Valentine’s Day — many couples exchange gifts or flowers and celebrate with a romantic dinner or a night out. However, unlike Valentine’s Day, Tu B’Av is an ancient Jewish holiday that dates back to Second Temple times. According to the Mishnah (Taanit 4:8), this was an annual matchmaking day when unmarried women would dress in white and dance in the vineyards outside the walls of Jerusalem.

After being largely uncelebrated for many centuries after the destruction of the Temple, in recent decades, Tu B’Av has experienced a moderate revival in secular Israel society. What is this lesser-known holiday really about, and how did an ancient Jewish love festival grow to become a modern-day alternative to Valentine’s Day?

Tu B’Av: One of the happiest days of the Jewish year

Tu B’Av is celebrated on the fifteenth of the Hebrew month of Av, and received its name because the Hebrew letters for “Tu” equal the number 15. The first mention of the fifteenth of Av is in the Mishnah. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel is quoted as saying: “There were no better [i.e., more joyous] days for the people of Israel than the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, since on these days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out dressed in white…and dance in the vineyards.” The unmarried women were joined by their potential partners in the vineyards, and would say: “Lift up your eyes and consider who you choose [to be your wife].” 

In many ways, Tu B’Av, which Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel describes as one of the happiest days of the Jewish year, would seem to complement Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the year, which occurs less than a week earlier. Just as, according to the Talmud, a number of tragic events are reported to have befallen the Jewish people on Tisha B’Av; in Taanit 30b, the rabbis attribute many joyous events to Tu B’Av.

On this day in Biblical times, according to Rav Yehuda, members of the different Israeli tribes were once again allowed to marry one another, after “intermarriage” among the tribes was initially prohibited. This may have been alluding to the story in the Book of Judges, when after a civil war between the tribe of Benjamin and the other tribes, the tribes vowed not to intermarry with the tribe of Benjamin. As for Yom Kippur, the Talmud states that it is a day of joy “because it has the elements of pardon and forgiveness,” and because it was the day that the second set of tablets were given to the Jewish people.