Thursday, August 2, 2012

The mystery of 15 ’Av

Jewish date:  14 ’Av 5772 (Parashath Wa’Ethḥannan).

Today’s holidays:  Feast Day of Eusebius of Vercelli and Peter Julian Eymard (Roman Catholicism) Feast Day of St. Robert Goddard (Church of the SubGenius).


Tomorrow is 15 ’Av, commonly called Ṭu be’Av or Ḥagh ha’Ahavah (“the Festival of Love”).  My posting has three purposes:

1) As I posted two years ago for the same holiday, 15 ’Av has become something of the Israeli equivalent of Valentine’s Day.  Every Jewish man with a special woman in his life is hereby forewarned to prepare a romantic gesture for her.  The consequences for forgetting may be severe.

2) I find myself trying to understand the celebration of 15 ’Av.  The primary text of interest is Ta‘anith 26b for the Mishnah and Ta‘anith 30b-31a for the Gemara’.  In the old days, young unmarried women in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) used to dress in borrowed white dresses and go out into the vineyards on 15 ’Av and Yom Kippur.  There they would dance and sing about why young men should marry them.  And the strange thing is that no one does this anymore.  There are matchmaking and romantic events scheduled, but the actual vineyard dancing is no longer practiced.  (Well, almost.  I have actually seen reference to a vineyard dancing event tomorrow—but it is for women only and thus completely misses the point of the ritual.)

The Mishnah and Gemara’ give no indication why the dancing is no longer practiced.  The Gemara’ concentrates on historical events that occurred on 15 ’Av:  permission for the 12 tribes to intermarry among themselves, permission for the tribe of Binyamin (Benjamin) to intermarry with the other tribes, cessation of deaths in the Desert, permission of Jews in the northern kingdom of Yisra’el to go into Yehudhah for Pesaḥ, Sukkoth, and Shavu‘oth (which is a very big deal in the days when there is a Temple where one is required to go to bring sacrifices), permission to bury those slain by the Romans at Bethar, and cessation of cutting wood for the altar for the year.  (See “The Meaning of Tu B'av” for an accessible summary.)  There is also some discussion of the garments the young women wore and what they would sing.  But there is nothing to indicate why the practice has ceased.  Rashi and Tosefoth, the standard commentaries, also are silent on this.

I asked a local rav about the possibility of resurrecting the practice.  (If the Talmudh acknowledges the practice as valid and lists not the slightest objection, it is easy to ask why we are not doing it.)  His answer was that people today would not react the same way to it and that Ḥaredhim would probably be outraged.  There is a lot of truth in this.  Women singing and dancing in public with the intent of getting the attention of men is unheard of among observant Jews today, and it is difficult to talk to other observant Jews about the idea of resuming the practice without them joking about modern secular dancing practices and (real or imagined) resultant improprieties.  What puzzles me is how something that used to be considered completely acceptable has come to be considered unthinkable, and I do not have a sufficient solution.  I suspect that at least in part this may be due to the influence of Christians and Muslims Jews have often lived—and still often live—among.  Christians have often had rather negative attitudes towards sexuality (thank you, Paul), and Muslims today periodically make the news over bizarre overreactions to real and imagined sexual offenses by women.  But a suspicion is not knowledge and may well be wrong.

If anyone has any information on this puzzle, please let me know.  (And, yes, I have read “Boy meets girl on Tu Be’av”, and it strikes me as rather speculative and does not really explain the cessation of vineyard dancing.)

3) Obviously I am not going to dance in a vineyard, first because I have been told not to resurrect the practice, second because I am a man, third because I do not have access to a vineyard, and fourth because I have not really learned how to dance.  However, the goal of finding a wife still remains for me, and it is the right time to be working towards this goal.  And since I have not accomplished this goal yet, I have to try new things until I am successful (at which point I will replace it with the goal of keeping said wife happy).  And so I am about to try something a bit unusual...

This is me standing under a grapevine.  (Actually, due to the heat and dryness of this summer, it is a raisinvine.)  And now for my singles ad:

39-year-old educated rationalist Dathi Le’umi nonconformist in Giv‘ath Shemu’el seeks intelligent, religious woman with compatible hashqafah and (preferably) a sense of humor. More details available upon request. Don't be shy; I don’t bite.  Referrals welcome.



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