By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Tu B’Av was a special day on the Jewish calendar, and it should be so, once again. Here is why.
Traditionally, it was a day when single young ladies would wear special gowns of white in order to woo a groom. The white indicated that they were free from sin. The braisah in Ta’anis (31a) states that the custom was for everyone to borrow white clothing from others so that the poorer girls who lacked the financial means to clothe themselves properly would not be embarrassed that they did not have something to wear. Even the king’s daughter and the Kohein Gadol’s daughter exchanged clothing.
Why was the day established initially? The Gemara in Bava Basra (121a–b) provides a number of reasons.
1. Rav Yehuda in the name of Shmuel: A law existed while we were in the desert on account of the b’nos Tzlafchad. This law banned the Shevatim from marrying one another when it would cause changes in an inheritance. This law was rescinded in the 40th year, on the 15th of Av. The joy inherent in rescinding this law caused the day to become special and joyous.
2. Rabba bar Bar Chana in the name of Rav Yochanan: The Tribe of Binyamin was allowed to remarry into Klal Yisrael after the incident of pilegesh b’Givah (see Shoftim 19–21). This occurred on the 15th and signified once again the unity of Israel.
3. Rav Dimi bar Yosef in the name of Rav Nachman: The people in the Midbar stopped dying on this day.
4. Ullah: It was the day that Hoshea ben Ellah undid the orchards that Yeravam placed to block passage of those who wished to visit the Beis HaMikdash. Yeravam had blocked them because he was concerned that seeing the real kings of Israel would undermine his legitimacy. Undoing the blockage contributed to Jewish unity.
5. Rav Masna: It was the day when the Romans allowed the victims of Beitar to be buried and it was revealed that their bodies had miraculously shown no decomposition.
6. It was the day when the cutting of the wood for the main altar in the Beis HaMikdash was finished because sunset was now earlier and the wood could no longer dry. We celebrated the fact that this day now allowed them to learn.
There is a serious historical question, however, with reason number five, proposed by Rav Masna. The sources quoted in the Gemara indicate that Tu B’Av was observed during the time of the Beis HaMikdash. This is borne out from the braisah mentioning that the king’s daughter and the Kohein Gadol’s daughter also partook in the exchange of clothing.
But Beitar only fell after Hadrian came to power! This was many years after the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed. Hadrian was emperor from 117 CE to 138 CE. The Beis HaMikdash was destroyed in 70 CE. How could Rav Masna explain the reason for its establishment after it was observed?
One possible answer may be that everyone agrees that Tu B’Av was observed for a multiplicity of reasons. Indeed, this is what the Rashbam on 121a (“Yom Shehutar”) seems to imply.
Another possible response to this problem is found in the Gvuras Ari (Ta’anis 31a). He seems to disagree with the aforementioned Rashbam and writes that the braisah in Ta’anis only refers to Yom Kippur and not to Tu B’Av. (See statement of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel in the Mishnah in Ta’anis (26b): Israel never had grander days than Yom Kippur and Tu B’Av.)
There are difficulties, however, with both answers. Rav Masna seems to be giving a reason for the Tu B’Av observance being established. While he may agree that the other things happened on that day, that was not the reason it was established, in his view. The Rashbam’s answer would thus require some further understanding.
The Gvuras Ari’s response is difficult as well, because the authorial intent of the braisah in Ta’anis seems to be applying the idea to Tu B’Av as well.
Perhaps a different answer might be that the simcha, the joy, of Tu B’Av was initiated in two separate stages. Stage one was prior to the destruction of Beitar. Tu B’Av was instituted during the time of the Beis HaMikdash as a special day of chesed for shidduchim, but it did not have a particularly joyous significance. Rather, it was a propitious time for people to find their future spouses. This “Shidduch Day” was replete with chesed. But its primary purpose was not to commemorate any of the other incidents. Much later, it also happened to be that on this day, the fallen of Beitar were allowed to be buried.
Coincidence? No, not at all. There is no coincidence from the Torah’s perspective. According to Rav Masna, the rabbis reevaluated the days mentioned in Megillas Ta’anis, and knew that something extraordinary happened here.
The special chesed of that day allowed for and enabled another chesed—that the fallen of Beitar could be buried, and to the delight of their brethren, their bodies did not decompose. A recognition of this chesed caused a renewal in the 15th of Av. It would be filled with renewed purpose; this was stage two of Tu B’Av.
When did this happen chronologically? The Yerushalmi (Ta’anis 4:5) states that 52 years after the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, Beitar was destroyed. This would be in 122 CE.
Origins Of The Custom
The Gemara in Gittin 57a gives us the background. The people of Beitar had the custom of planting a tree upon the birth of each child. Upon the engagement of two Beitar children, they would cut down the trees that were planted and use them to build a chuppah. One time, the Roman emperor’s daughter passed by Beitar and her chariot broke down. Her servants cut down a tree that a Beitar resident had planted for his son’s wedding. The people of Beitar beat up the emperor’s daughter’s servants. The emperor was furious and commanded that they be wiped out. The Yerushalmi indicates that the decree ended when the next emperor took over. It is not clear, however, whether the Bavli agrees to the dates of the Yerushalmi.
But getting back to this new approach in understanding Rav Masna—that Tu B’Av had two stages: the first a “Chesed Day” during the time of the Beis HaMikdash and the second stage, a time when this day was enacted by later Chazal as a remarkable yom tov—is there a lesson that can be learned?
It would seem that when chesed is done on a particular day, it creates kochos, spiritual forces, within the day itself that will have positive repercussions on that day ever onward. We find this idea in the Michtav M’Eliyahu as well, that time travels in a circle. The chesed and mitzvos imbued on a particular day change that day forever. Let us keep this in mind for yahrzeits, yomim tovim, etc.
We find a similar notion in the end of Parashas Devarim. The pasuk says that Moshe was afraid of Og. Why was Moshe afraid of him? Rashi explains that he wasn’t. Rather, Moshe was concerned that the merit that Og had in assisting Avraham may have created a significant zechus for Og in battle. This seems strange, because Og assisted Avraham by telling him that his nephew Lot had been taken captive—but he did so because he wanted Avraham killed so that he could take Sarah after Avraham Avinu’s demise.
What kind of zechus would such a lowly mitzvah possibly have? We see from here the incredible potency of the mitzvah of chesed. Even if done with rotten intentions, it has remarkable zechuyos. How much more so when done with proper intentions. We should learn from here to never avoid doing a chesed for others. You never know where it can assist you.
This theme of chesed is a lesson that we can carry with us about this holiday of Tu B’Av throughout the year. Chesed is something that lasts forever. It is an idea that should inspire us in our d’veikus Bashem and is a new insight into the holiday of Tu B’Av. ϖ
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.