By Shlomo Riskin
“Comfort you, comfort you, My People” (Isaiah 40:1)
The Shabbat after Tisha B’Av is known as the Shabbat of Comfort, a phrase taken from the first verse of the prophetic reading from Isaiah. Additionally, a most fascinating festival day — one which is unfortunately not very well known — falls just about one week after the bleak fast for the destruction of both of our Holy Temples. An analysis of this festival, known as Tu B’Av — the 15th day of Av — will reveal a striking similarity between it and the Shabbat of Comfort.
The conclusion of the last Mishna of tractate Ta’anit (26b) teaches as follows: “Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, ‘There were no greater festive days in Israel than the fifteenth day of Av and Yom Kippur, when the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white dresses so as not to embarrass those who didn’t have their own. They would go out and dance in the vineyards. What would they say? ‘Young man, lift up your eyes and see whom you wish to choose for yourselves. Do not cast forth your eyes after beauty, but cast forth your eyes after family. False is grace and vanity is beauty; a woman who fears the Lord is the one to be praised;’ and the scriptures further state, ‘Give her of the fruit of her hands and let her deeds praise her in the gates.’”
The Talmud then cites the Tosefta, which provides a more descriptive picture: “The beautiful ones among them, what would they say? ‘Cast forth your eyes after beauty, for woman was only created for beauty.’ The ones with good pedigree, what would they say? ‘Cast forth your eyes after family, because woman was only created for children.’ The plain ones, what would they say? ‘Take your wares for the sake of heaven, as long as you adorn us with gold’ (and then even the plain-looking women will appear to be beautiful).”
Apparently, the 15th day of Av was a kind of Sadie Hawkins Day, when the women would entice the men to marry them; and each woman would emphasize her particular quality: beauty, family or “for the sake of heaven.” And, as the Mishna concludes, it is chiefly the attributes of fear of God and performance of good deeds that truly count in assessing the proper wife.
The Talmud adds, “It is clear why Yom Kippur is a Festival, since it brings forgiveness and absolution, since it is the day when God gave the second tablets [as a sign of His forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf]; but what is the reason for the joy of the Tu B’Av?” The Talmud then gives seven possible reasons, from the suggestion that on that day members of the tribes were permitted to marry one another, to the opinion that on Tu B’Av, the desert generation stopped dying, to the astronomical fact that from that day on, the sun begins to lose its strength and the days begin to be shorter.
Permit me to add another possible reason, one that would also explain the unique manner in which we are to celebrate the 15th of Av.
Josephus records that on the afternoon of the ninth day of Av 70 CE, the Holy Temple was set aflame; this was the day of heaviest fighting. It would be logical to assume that as Jews witnessed Jewish sovereignty and God’s very throne smoldering, they tore their garments and sat on the ground, sitting shiva not only for the lost lives, but also for the disappearing dream of at-hand redemption. If the seven-day mourning period began on 9 Av, it must have concluded on 15 Av, the seventh day, about which our sages rules that “partial mourning on that day is accounted as if one had mourned the complete day.”
Hence they rose from their shiva on 15 Av, Tu B’Av.
It was precisely on the day that their shiva concluded that our sages ordained the merriment of Tu B’Av. This parallels the joy when the High Priest emerged unscathed from the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur; a sign that Israel had indeed been forgiven! The Holy Temple may be burning to the ground, but the Jewish nation remains alive and God’s commitment to His eternal covenant remains intact (as is clear from this week’s reading, which we also read on Tisha B’Av (Deut. 4:25-32.)
As the Midrash teaches, God exacted punishment from the wood and stones of a physical edifice, albeit a holy one, but He demonstrated His ultimate forgiveness by keeping His nation alive and His covenant operational. This is why and how 9 Av – Tisha B’Av – will one day be a day of great celebration.
God ordains Tu B’Av as a day of weddings; Judaism sees every wedding ritual as a ringing confirmation of the future of the Jewish people; as a personal commitment to continue the nation and the faith because “there will yet be heard on the streets of Judea and in the great plazas of Jerusalem, sounds of gladness and sounds of rejoicing, sounds of grooms and sounds of brides.” (Jeremiah 33: 11)
Judaism bids us never to despair. Certainly our generation has not been disappointed.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.