Jewish Home and Family LifeTu B'Av



There were no days for Jews as good as Tu B’Av (The Fifteenth of Av) and Yom Kippur, on which the girls of Jerusalem would go out dressed in white… and the girls of Jerusalem went out and danced in the vineyards [And all the young men who were not married would go there and watch]. What would they say? ‘Young man, raise your eyes and see which you pick for yourself.’

In the wake of this famous Mishnah at the end of Tractate Ta’anit, there are many who call Tu B’Av, the “Love Festival.” Yet, it would be more appropriate to call it the “Matchmaking Festival,” or perhaps “Choose-Day,” because the girls approach the young men so that they pick the wife of their choice. Obviously, love lurks somewhere in the background; not promiscuous, unrestrained “free-love,” but a pure love that develops between a young man and his single and unique heart’s choice. So, let’s go out on a journey of choice.

A Girl of His Age, or His Heart’s Choice

Although the Mishnah does not make a clear distinction between Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur, nonetheless, it goes without saying that these two days are significantly different, and allude to two different types of match or “choice.” In familiar terms, matches made on Yom Kippur are more inclined to the traditional “Charedi” standards – a match that is founded primarily on a similarity between the families and their social status, made mainly by the parents, while the young (sometimes very young) couple just has to confirm it at the final stages. Such matches are usually announced on the wedding invitation with the phrase, “the marriage of so-and-so with the girl of his age, so-and-so.” “A girl of his age” refers to his soulmate, who is suited to him and destined to him from Heaven, “Grapes of a vine with grapes of a vine.”

By contrast, the matches of Tu B’Av are a “modern match” (or even “secular”) – the young couple find one another, with mutual attraction being a primary incentive for their relationship. This is an attraction that often results from the dissimilarity and difference between the two; “opposites attract,” as the saying goes. On the invitation of a couple such as this, the custom is to write, “So-and-so with his heart’s choice, so-and-so.”[1]

Excuse-Day or Choose-Day

This difference is reflected in the Talmudic interpretation of the abovementioned Mishnah.[2] The Talmud begins by explaining that with reference to Yom Kippur, the festivities are clear, “Because it has forgiveness and excusing and it is the day on which the second set of Tablets was given” – this is the epitome of the relationship between the Almighty and the Jewish People, all our sins are excused and instead of the first set of Tablets, which were broken, we were presented with a second set. The emphasis in this case is not on our choice, so it is evident that matches made on this day are under the impression of “everything is in the hands of Heaven”[3] and “From God is a woman to a man.”[4]

By contrast, the Talmud asks, “But what about Tu B’Av?” What is the reason here for the festivities? And it offers a number of good reasons why. Of these, we will mention just the first two, which are directly connected to matches and marriage.

The first reason is, “The day on which the tribes were permitted to intermarry,” since during the first generation after the Land of Israel had been conquered, every girl who had no brothers inherited an estate but could only marry someone from her own tribe. However, in the following generation tribal intermarriage was permitted with no limitations. Until then, marriage had been “dictated,” but from now onwards, anyone could marry whoever they chose.

The second reason is, “The day that the Tribe of Benjamin was permitted to reenter the congregation.” After the war against the Tribe of Benjamin (following the episode of the “Concubine in Giv’ah”) the Jewish People all swore that, “No man should give his daughter to [the tribe of] Benjamin as a wife.”[5] Indeed, the custom described in the Mishnah is an extension to what is described by the Prophet in this regard, where it states that the solution to the oath would be that the young men of the Tribe of Benjamin would “snatch” themselves wives from the girls of Shiloh when the latter went out to dance in the vineyards on the festival of God (and it’s reasonable to suggest that this festival was Tu B’Av).[6] This means that although the parents were prevented from making matches between their daughters and men from the Tribe of Benjamin, these same men could jump in and choose a wife for themselves.

Permission is Given

We need to make many decisions throughout our lives and the mutual choice of husband and wife is perhaps the most critical decision of all. But do we really make a choice through our own free will? This could be an annoying question, especially for someone who takes pains to write, “…with his heart’s choice…” on their wedding invitation; don’t you know I want her wholeheartedly? Nonetheless, the question of free choice has troubled humanity throughout history, to this very day, and we can even say that this is the greatest of all philosophical riddles.

From a secular-scientific perspective, the issue is whether or not we can resolve the question of free-will with the logic of cause and effect, and if so, how? Indeed, the extreme scientific perspective of determinism believes that everything that happens in the world has a reason that causes it to occur, and if we only had the entire array of existing information, we could “prophecy” precisely what would happen. Just as there is a logical reason why a tree might fall southwards and not northwards, so too there is a reason why the donkey eats the pile of hay to the right and not the one to the left (if not, the donkey would “freeze” between the two piles). So too, to our great frustration, there is a reason why I “chose” to do one thing and not the other; a reason that could be psychological, biological or molecular (or maybe all three). This is where the term “choice” comes in between quotation marks, because there is still a genuine sense that “I choose” is just my imagination. In practice, all of reality, including mankind and our consciousness is an insensitive, meaningless system and we can amuse ourselves with delusions about a supra-omniscient computer that when fed with all possible details in the universe will inevitably be able to say with full certainty what I will “choose” to eat for supper this evening. Everything is just bleak natural causation.

The average individual justifiably refuses to accept such thoughts and feels that they threaten to take away his sense of freedom. Yet, it is actually not at all easy to offer a reasonable logical explanation for the existence of free-will.

With regards to a believing Torah-oriented Jew, the issue takes on a different garb in the form of the question of Divine knowledge vs. free choice. We are no longer referring to a meaningless database in which all possible choices are neatly pigeon-holed into one mega-chip, but to God’s infinite foreknowledge, which encompasses all details of reality; that which has been, is present and will be. So, if God knows ahead of time what I will do, how can we say that I have complete free-choice about what to decide? Nonetheless, we stubbornly insist that both things are absolutely true at one-and-the-same moment. As Rabbi Akiva stated in one brilliant phrase, “Everything is foreseen and permission is given.”[7] God sees and knows from the start, nevertheless, we have permission to choose as we will.

Many great Jewish sages throughout the generations have put their minds to the issue of choice and foreknowledge. Nonetheless, there remains an impression that the perfect explanation has yet to be reached, and the suspicion arises that perhaps such an explanation will never be found. The common denominator to all the interpretations is an emphasis on the fact that we do have a genuine ability to choose. As a result of this, we are required to “choose good;” as a result of this we are held entirely responsible for our own actions; and as a result of this we can change our ways and repent and return to God, as Maimonides writes:[8]

“Free-choice is a given for all mankind, if someone wishes to tend towards a good path and be righteous, they are authorized to do so; if they wish to tend towards an evil path and become a wicked individual, they are authorized to do so…. The idea suggested by the fools… that the Almighty decrees an individual’s fate from the outset to be either righteous or evil, should never cross your mind. It is not so, rather every individual has the ability to be as righteous as Moses or as wicked as Jeroboam… and this is a great principle that is a pillar of the Torah and [God’s] commandment.”

This principle is so fundamental, that without it there would be no place for commandments and words of warning and without it there would be no place for reward and punishment. One might even say that this is the preliminary principle that precedes all thirteen principles of faith that Maimonides enumerates (the “zero” principle). Because the only individual with whom one can speak about principles of faith is one who chooses, and the basic human advantage over animal life lies in our ability to choose.[9] Only under extreme circumstances is an individual’s freedom of choice negated from them, as a punishment for those evil actions that he originally chose to do. Judaism is so adamant about free choice that it seems that the most ominous thing to a Jew is that their ability to choose might be taken away from them (and this is an important principle when we come to treat emotional phenomena such as anxiety through the Chassidic teachings of the Ba'al Shem Tov).

Yom Kippur – the Day of Foreknowledge

Let’s now get back to the two dates mentioned in the Mishnah, Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur. Relatively speaking, we can say that on Yom Kippur we place more emphasis on God’s omniscience than on our free-choice: although we take full responsibility for our actions and repeatedly confess, “We are guilty, we have betrayed.” However, since we are standing before God in intimate proximity – as expressed by the High Priest who enters the Holy of Holies on behalf of us all – we are “inundated” with God’s foreknowledge. Indeed, this itself is the content of our confession, the realization that everything is revealed and known before Him and the need to notify Him of this realization:

“You know the secrets of the universe and the hidden mysteries of all living creatures. You search all the inner chambers of the stomach and interrogate the kidneys and the heart. Nothing is concealed from You and nothing is hidden from Your eyes. Therefore, may it be Your will… that You forgive us for all of our sins…”

The whole problem is that we have ignored God to some extent; we have not been sufficiently sensitive to His presence, that’s why, now, as we stand before Him in prayer, as pure as the angels on high who have no evil inclination (and who have no real ability to choose!), retroactively He can relate forgivingly to all our little pranks and misdemeanors, which are not really “us.” Look, we are here with You, as You know and let’s please ignore all our mischievous mischoices.

In short, on Yom Kippur we identify more with the realization that “Everything is foreseen.” At some level or another, God knew that we would sin. He just wants us to confess it to Him, and then He will complete the game and happily forgive us. That’s why there were no better days for the Jewish People than Yom Kippur when God rejoices in His creation as He did before the primordial sin and before mankind even began to choose anything. So it’s only fitting that matches made on this day be simple, innocent matches, without looking for excitement and love at first sight, rather with a sense that God is the one who destines our fate.

Tu B’Av – Choose-Day

By contrast, on Tu B’Av the focus is on our choice. When we think about it, which is more amazing? The fact that God knows everything without any limitations of time or space, or the fact that at this very moment we have free-choice? Free-choice is the greatest innovation of all, the tremendous wonder that God created a separate entity with an independent personality, who can choose and decide with his own mind and will what to do; in the image of God.

This innovation is revealed on Tu B’Av. Just prior to Tu B’Av, we reach the lowest level of descent on Tisha B’Av (The Ninth of Av), the day both Temples were destroyed and the luminaries were extinguished. In fact, in Hebrew the words “destruction” (ח-ר-ב) and “choice” (ב-ח-ר) share the very same letters. Destruction arrives because of our bad choices, and because we have not chosen goodness. From a more profound perspective, destruction arrives when we simply don’t choose. When we no longer believe in our ability to choose, and blame everything on “blind fate” or a Heavenly decree (and in this context, one is just as bad as the other), then everything is ruined.

Psychologically speaking, when an individual stops choosing, they are ruined (to the extent that they might reach severe depression when they no longer choose to live). Instead of the soul being renewed like a well-spring of living water, it becomes devastated and arid.

Having reached this lowest level, our elevation now becomes an amazing innovation. We can once more choose our path and rehabilitate our self-confidence and our belief in our God-given ability to choose. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that beyond all the reasons stated by the sages for the festivities of Tu B’ Av, the basic reason is because this is the day of the completely full moon. The Jewish People are compared to the moon and on the day of the full moon we stand erect as if we are revived from the “dead” pit of exile and destruction. This is why Tu B’Av is the most suitable day to find one’s “heart’s choice.”

Choice vs. Choice

Yet, it still appears that the philosophical question of foreknowledge vs. free-will clouds the festive dancing on Tu B’Av. The skeptic scientist standing by as a spectator will not be able to release himself from the thought that it’s all just “make-believe,” a natural surge of hormones that nature has preordained… even the afflicted believer stands to question the young men who think they are choosing their own path in life, because everything is revealed and known before God.

The opportunity to understand our ability to choose is wedged in our faith in God, the Chooser. As long as we perceive God mainly as one who “overlooks and knows our hidden secrets,” like a Super-Brain with infinite wisdom and knowledge – we will always be in a dilemma about where man the chooser comes in. If there’s nothing else beside Him, how can belief in our very ability to choose not be heresy? Are there two different authorities? The real truth is that the Almighty is not only omniscient, but also the Chooser. Although “no mind can ever grasp Him” and no human being can ever know the Creator, nonetheless we do certainly know that just as God appears as all-knowing, so too He appears as One who has free-will and choice (in other words: just as God cannot lack knowledge, so too He cannot lack free-choice).

When God appears to us as the Chooser, He conceals His omniscience to a certain extent. “You are Havayah the God who chose Abram,”[10] “You have chosen us from all nations” – as if beforehand all options were equal. It therefore goes without saying that we stand before God in a face-to-face relationship and we too have free-will! Amazingly, an “empty space” is created in which God chooses something, and we can also choose something. And no computer program, as sophisticated as it may be, will ever be able to crack the hidden code, and will never discover the reason that made me choose something, because I really do choose from my own free-will, without any pre-ordained reason whatsoever.

Indeed, by giving us the power to choose, God allows us to “surprise” Him, as it were. The greatest surprise of all comes after the great descent of Tisha B’Av, of which the verse states, “She has descended astoundingly, she has no-one to console her”[11] and when we nonetheless do succeed in choosing to return to God after that descent, then the ascent is even more astounding, “So says the God of Hosts, if this vision is surprising in the eyes of the remnant of this people in those days; even in My eyes it is a wonder, said Havayah, the God of Hosts.”[12]

The Temple of Free-Choice

Indeed, there is one unique and singular place where God appears to us as the Chooser: “The place that God has chosen,”[13] as the (permanent) Holy Temple is referred to many times in the Torah. This is the source of the phrase, “The Temple of Choice” as Maimonides chose to call the laws of the Temple, “The laws of the Temple of Choice.” God chooses His servant David, God chooses Jerusalem, and God chooses the Temple of Choice. So, the Temple of Choice is not merely a place in which God chooses, but also a place in which we get to choose; the Temple of Free-Choice.

So, Tu B’Av is not just a day of dancing in the vineyards, but a day that also relates to the rebuilding of the Temple. As the Mishnah in Ta’anit concludes:

“Go out and see, Daughters of Zion, King Solomon in the crown that his mother crowned him with on his wedding day and on the day his heart rejoices.” “On his wedding day – this is the Giving of the Torah. And on the day his heart rejoices – this is the building of the Holy Temple, may it be rebuilt speedily and in our days. Amen.”

What does this pleasant homily have to do with Tu B’Av and with Yom Kippur? The commentators explain that “the Giving of the Torah” mentioned in the Mishnah refers to the giving of the second set of Tablets, which were given on Yom Kippur when Moses descended once again from Mt. Sinai after receiving God’s forgiveness, and “The building of the Holy Temple” refers to the dedication of the First Temple which continued until Yom Kippur.[14] But, this still doesn’t explain the connection to Tu B’Av, unless we say that Tu B’Av is actually the day that is ready for the building of the Holy Temple, the Temple of Choice. The truth is that already on Tisha B’Av itself, as soon as the destruction reached its peak, Mashiach was already born,[15] and at that point we get up from our mourning (as brought down in Jewish law that after mid-day on Tisha B’Av it is permitted to sit on a regular chair). But, in order to reveal this completely we need to reach the middle of the month, when the moon is full (and King David’s kingdom is also compared to the moon). Then we begin to feel more encouraged, believe more in ourselves and together with Mashiach, we rise and begin to build the Temple of Choice.[16]

Redemption is the reinstatement of choice. God chooses us again, “When God has compassion on Jacob and chooses Israel again,”[17] “Therefore, thus says God, I have returned to Jerusalem with compassion, My Temple will be built in it… and God consoles Zion even further and chooses Jerusalem again”[18] – and we choose Him, and build the Temple of Choice. But, the Jewish home of every Jewish groom and bride is also a Temple of Choice, a home where the couple constantly choose one another, and the Almighty chooses to settle His Divine Presence in it and to stamp His Holy stamp on their love.

The secret of redemption is the hidden wonder of our ability to choose freely, a secret that has always been one that completely baffled all who tried to crack it. This secret is one that will be revealed in the Torah of Mashiach, of which the verse states, “A [new] Torah will emanate from me.”[19] Indeed, the numerical value of “A new Torah” (תּוֹרָה חֲדָשָׁה) equals the numerical value of the phrase, “Fifteenth of Av” (חֲמִשָׁה עָשָׂר בְּאַב).

 From Rabbi Ginsburgh class on 18th Av 5773 and the Torat Hanefesh class of 7th Av 5774

[1] This idea is discussed at length in our book in Hebrew, Machol Hakeramim.

[2] Ta’anit 30b.

[3] Berachot 33b.

[4] Mo’ed Katan 18b.

[5] Judges 21:1.

[6] See the Talmudic Encyclopedia, “Tu B’Av,” note 80. Otzar Hageonim at the end of Ta’anit; Pri Tzadik on Tu B’Av, 1 and various other sources mentioned in the Book of Our Heritage.

[7] Avot 3:15.

[8] From Hilchot Teshuvah ch. 5; see the entire chapter.

[9] See Maimonides, ibid halachah 1, on the interpretation of the verse, “Man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil.”

[10] Nechemiah 9:7.

[11] Lamentations 1:9.

[12] Zachariah 8:6.

[13] Deuteronomy 12:5, etc…

[14] See commentaries of Rabbi Ovadiah Bartenura and Tosfot Yom Tov; see also in Shoshanim Ledavid (quoted in the anthology of commentaries on the Vilna version of the Mishnah) who explains that this is referring to the dedication of the second Temple.

[15] Eichah Rabah 1:51.

[16] See, Mikdash Bashanah on the Month of Av.

[17] Isaiah 14:1.

[18] Zacahariah 1:16-17.

[19] Isaiah 51:4; see Vayikra Rabah 13:3.

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