This article was originally published on Beliefnet in 2000.
This past Valentine's Day, I was invited by Princess Cruise Lines as one of a panel of five "Relationship Experts." The premise of the February voyage was this: Fifty couples who had been corresponding for a period of time via the internet were now to meet in person for the first time, and we (Relationship Experts, that is) would be close at hand to advise and guide these "HTML Connections" toward becoming actual "Love Connections."
Now, a number of things surprised me as the days progressed. For one, I was taken aback by the number of Jewish singles on board who came to me asking why I was playing a lead role in celebrating a holiday named after a Christian saint. I quickly formulated a rationale: Anything that enhances love, regardless of source and origin, is to be encouraged by Jews everywhere, and especially by Relationship Experts like me. Thus my involvement in such an occasion was not only natural, but necessary. Besides, Valentine's Day had been thoroughly secularized anyway, right?
But upon my return to shore, I gave the subject further thought. And, upon intense retrospection, I came to realize that Valentine's Day is as Christian as Christmas. For a Jew to celebrate this sugarcoated, chocolate-frosted, cherub-infested holiday is the equivalent of noshing away on a bacon double cheeseburger and then drinking the wine out of the communion cup to wash it down.
Why this such sudden and extreme change of heart? Why have I become an opponent of Valentine's Day? Let's look a bit closer at this Saint Valentine. The setting is third-century Rome, and Emperor Claudius the Goth rules the land. Claudius' army is too small. Seems that young men are not eager to join the army and leave their beloved ladies behind. Go figure. So Claudius--reasoning that fewer nuptials means more soldiers--issues a decree that no more marriages can be officiated, and anyone caught doing so will be put to death. Meanwhile, back in the Roman churches is a guy named Valentine, who persists in marrying young couples despite the decree. Eventually, his luck runs out, and Valentine is sent to prison to await his fate. While there, he meets the young daughter of a prison guard, with whom he falls in love. So when at last the henchmen come for Valentine, he leaves her a simple note reading: "Love from your Valentine." And the rest, as they say, is history.
Awwwww. Sure, it's a sweet story, though more apt for a Wes Craven film than a day to honor love. I mean--dungeons and henchmen? And even if one insists that this story is really one of commitment to ideals and romance, how do we now choose to honor it? By overdrawing our credit cards? Really, what lovely traditions or rites have we borrowed from third-century Rome? Nothing! Rome didn't have Hallmark. Rome didn't have balloon-o-grams. So this is to be the day that we honor with talk of love and romance? I say no. Join the ranks. Revolt! Abandon Valentine's Day.
I think I can hear your impassioned cries of outrage: "But Shmuley! I'll never get roses or dinner at Aureole again! Do away with Valentine's Day, and I'm relegated to a lifetime of all-you-can-eat Indian Buffet Nights!" Fear not, you watchers of Merchant-Ivory films and quoters of Shakespeare! I have not stolen your day of love but rather replaced it--and much improved upon it, I might add. In lieu of Valentine's Day, I encourage the repossession of our own Jewish Day of Love: Tu B'Av.
"Tu B'What??" you ask. Isn't that one of those new Klezmer/Rap/Retro groups? Tu B'Av simply means the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Av. The story behind Tu B'av may at first seem not much of an improvement on the whole torture-chamber thing, but hear me out. The story traces back to a great civil war that raged between the entire nation of Israel and the single tribe of Benjamin, instigated by some nasty doings involving rape and murder (have patience--it does get better). As a result, most of the Benjamin tribe was killed off in battle, save for a remnant of about 600 men who had managed to escape to the hills.
As the dust cleared, and the people of Israel realized the brutality that they had witnessed and inflicted, they knew that they needed to move on. For most, this was a challenge, but for the tribe of Benjamin, it bordered on the impossible. See, there was this little issue of laws banning inter-tribal marriage. And those unfortunate Benjaminites--well, they had no women left.
And so it was decided that on this 15th of Av, not only would the men of Benjamin be permitted to marry the women of the other tribes of Israel, but they wouldn't even have to do the proverbial "asking out." Instead, the women of the other tribes dressed in white and danced in the open fields, in plain view of Benjaminites, luring them out of hiding and achieving a greater sense of unity among all the Children of Israel.
Tu B'Av thus became one of the happiest annual celebrations on the Jewish calendar. It is described in the Talmud as the day when "fair maidens" dress all in white and dance and sing barefoot together in a big field, with flowing skirts, flowers in their hair, and song on their lips. Sort of an ancient Lollapalooza. And while the young single women are frolicking about, the young single men watch in wonder, hoping to find their future wives.
There are all sorts of wonderful details that surround this charming festival. The women actually borrow the dresses that they wear, so that those maidens lacking in financial resources do not feel left out or ostracized. They also go about extolling their virtues in song, be it beauty, lineage, or moral stature, as each woman is to take pride in her individual gifts. And even so, the focus is not to be on the physical; the sages tell us of the decree sounded out to the eager suitors: "Oh youth, lift up your eyes and see what you choose. Do not set your eyes on beauty. Set your eyes on virtue. False is charm and vain is beauty, but a woman who fears the Lord, she is to be praised." What a great idea to jump-start today's dysfunctional singles scene.
Tu B'Av also moves with the greater cycles of the earth and the skies. The 15th of the month of Av is when the moon is at its fullest. The waxing and waning of the moon plays a major role in most Jewish festivals. This is because the full moon promises the glory that at the start of a month is merely potential. This date is the perfection of both time and space, the very building blocks of human creation. The Jewish Nation is like God's bride. The cycle of the moon mirrors the cycle of the women and represents the great potential and pattern of life, when "femaleness" and fertility are at their fullest. The moon also represents illumination in darkness, the glow and belief in love, in short, the perfect antidote to today's cynicism.
Tu B'Av is everything we should seek out in a "Love Day" and more. It falls at a time when both literally and symbolically the world is ready for love. Who can imagine a more passionate time of year than the steamy nights of August? February on the other hand? Brrrr. And Tu B'Av has a purpose, a history. It celebrates life and revelry. Tu B'Av puts singles in the spotlight and encourages the discovery and creation of love, rather than having us sit at home, forgotten and abandoned, writing bad poetry.
Our Israeli brethren have already reestablished Tu B'Av as the premier Jewish Love Festival, and last year alone more than 20,000 people joined in romantic gatherings at the Sea of Galilee.
So what can we in America do to revive the ancient Jewish love day of Tu B'Av? Well, you could send your special someone a heart-shaped gefilte fish--well-refrigerated, of course. Or FedEx him or her a steaming hot bowl of chicken soup symbolizing your passion. But a far better way is for you women to don gorgeous white sundresses and organize with friends to dance away in Central Park in front of a mesmerized gathering of available single men. When the cops come to arrest you, you can say that your rabbi made you do it.