Tu B’Av is described in the mishnah as a summer mating festival in which girls would go out dancing in the vineyards: ‘There were no days as good (yamim tovim) for the Jewish people as the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, as on these days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white garments, so as not to shame one who did not have her own’. (Taanit 4:8)
What is particularly striking, is the mishnah’s equation of Tu B’Av to Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. The talmud questions this comparison: ‘Granted that Yom Kippur is a good day, because it is a day of pardon and forgiveness and the day on which the second Tablets of the Covenant were given. But what is special about the fifteenth of Av? (Bava Batra 121a, Taanit 30a).
The talmud segues with a number of disparate reasons for the significance of Tu B’Av, none of which appear to be connected to each other or provide a convincing reason for its comparison to Yom Kippur.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichov (1740–1809), in his work Kedushat Levi, draws on two of the reasons offered in the talmud and through a mystical lens offers a compelling reading of the Tu B’Av ritual, setting its significance en par with Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur is all about our renewed connection to God. Likewise, the name of Tu B’Av itself points to our unity with God: ‘Tu’, the letters tet and vav (whose numerical value adds up to fifteen), are a stand-in for the letters yud (ten) and hay (five) which spell God’s name. The word Av means father. The task of Tu B’Av is therefore that of reconnecting to God as our Father or parent. In this context, the mating ritual described in the mishnah seems even more out of place.
The talmud suggests that the restriction on intermarriage among the twelve tribes was lifted on Tu B’Av. The Kedushat Levi notes that each tribe had a unique trait, represented by the color of a stone in the choshen (the High Priest’s breastplate). Their intermarrying on Tu B’Av points to their ability, through a deep awareness that they are all children of one Av, one heavenly parent, to set aside all differences and distinctions, achieving unity. This process is in turn enabled by another feature of Tu B’Av, as the day that marked the waning of the sun’s brightness. The Kedushat Levi reads this dimming light as a useful ‘darkness’, one that blurs distinctions and mutes colors, again enabling a coming together in unity.
The concept of unity through a blurring of distinctions is also reflected in the mating ritual of Tu B’Av. The daughters of Jerusalem represent the souls of the Jewish people, and the mating symbolizes the coming together of the Jewish people and God. Unity among the Jewish people, a prerequisite to their unity with God, is enabled by wearing white. White is no color, yet it encompasses all colors. When spinning a disc divided into segments of various colors, the entire disc will appear white.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s read of Tu B’Av as facilitating unity among people and with God satisfies the comparison to Yom Kippur. It also frames Tu B’Av as the process for healing the rupture between God and people on Tisha B’Av, which is caused by hate and fracture among the Jewish people.
We live in times of deep schism and widespread alienation. Unbridgeable differences fuel bloody conflicts in many parts of the world. Hatred for those of different religions, ethnicity or orientations has been expressed in mass shootings most recently in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio.
We often encounter suspicion and diffidence across the political divide, and perhaps most unexpectedly among those who should be united by common goals or affiliations. This phenomenon was labelled by Freud ‘the narcissism of small differences’:
It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of strangeness and hostility between them. (The Taboo of Virginity, 1918)
Elaborating on this concept, organizational psychologist Adam Grant points out that the smallest nuances and variations in views can at times be more divisive than major ones. He cites a study in which vegans showed nearly three times as much prejudice toward vegetarians as vegetarians did toward vegans. While to omnivores the difference between the two groups may be negligible, vegans viewed vegetarians as ‘wannabes’ and somehow not fully committed to the cause. In another of Grant’s examples (that we may more readily recognize) Orthodox Jews evaluated non practicing Jews more favorably than Conservative Jews. While there’s a wider gap in practice between fully ritually observant and those who are not at all, the smaller differences in values of those who observe differently to you can be more threatening and divisive.
All this explains the ease with which we settle into factions and splinter, and find ourselves in the ruptured state of Tisha B’Av. Tu B’Av proposes an antidote. It suggests that at times it is useful to dim the lights, to close our eyes to the distinctions that divide us, or to enrobe ourselves in white, encompassing multitudinous colors, in order to discover what unites us.
But that is not an easy task. Two strange details of the Tu B’Av ritual may shed light on how we achieve this.
The girls have to borrow the dresses and they dance. The Kedushat Levi points out that a borrowed dress is something received without much effort. Dancing in its purest form is an involuntary reaction of our body to the rhythm of music. Both of these features suggest that the healing of Tu B’Av is something that cannot be achieved through our own independent effort – what hasidut terms hit’aruta d’letata, but only through gifted inspiration from above – hit’aruta d’leilah.
Just like a borrowed white dress that is not your own, or like breaking out in a jiig to the sound of another’s irrepressible music.