This week we celebrated a festival known as Tu b’Av– the fifteenth day of the month of Av. It is a day in the Jewish calendar that often goes unnoticed. There is no special service, no commemorative rituals or specific customs. Yet the Mishna (Taanit p.2) declares that “there were no festivals as great for the Jewish people as the days Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur. In other words, this day somehow represents the greatest festival in the Jewish year, with Yom Kippur trailing close second.
This statement is obviously puzzling, implying that Tu b’Av is somehow greater than the other holidays. Yom Kippur is understandably one of the holiest days of the year, the pinnacle of our spiritual pursuit, the day of the giving of the second tablets, a day that promises atonement for all our sins and chance at a fresh start. But what are we to make of the 15th day of Av, a day smack in the middle of a period plagued with memories of destruction?
Many may know it as a holiday of love and romance. The Talmud relates that years ago the “daughters of Jerusalem would go dance in the vineyards” on the 15th of Av, and “whoever did not have a wife would go there” to find his match. But surely this can’t be the extent of its significance.
The Mystical sources (Pri Eitz Chaim) state that the festival of Tu b’Av marks the middle of the month, the time when the moon is completely full, and all the other events associated with this day are only outcomes of this occurrence. The symbolism communicates that the Jewish people, who are compared to the moon, are at full strength.
This is based on a principle that rising after a fall is not simply a recovery but guaranteed to reach a higher level than before. In other words, the greater the decent, into darkness, the greater will be the subsequent ascent and ensuing revelation. Plugging this back into the above symbolism, the Jewish people suffered a tremendous blow during the month of Av, and the full moon of Tu b’Av signifies the luminous repair that follows this intense period of darkness, an increased ascent.
More concretely, the festivity of Tu b’Av is directly related to the sadness of the Tisha b’Av. While the ninth of Av marks the onset of a disease and destruction, the 15th of Av serves as the cure, the recovery, and furthermore a sign of reaching greater heights.
This theme concurs with the Talmud’s (Taanit p.30b-31a) reasons why Tu B’av was made a holiday. Two of these reasons are connected to the events of Tisha B’av:
Tisha b’Av marks the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem. But the stigma began a long time before. Tradition relates that the Biblical episode of the spies occurred on this day and since then it was ripe to become a “cursed day.” After the spies returned in tears with a discouraging report about the land, G-d declared “If so… you will have something to cry about on this day.”
It was on Tisha B’av night that God decreed that the generation of the wilderness would not enter the Land of Israel; and it was on this same day, around fifteen hundred years later, that the great city of Betar fell to the Romans and its dead were left unburied. Tu B’av came to rectify these misfortunes: the generation that left Egypt ceased to die in the wilderness. The dead of Betar were granted burial by the Roman government.
The day of Tu B’av carries a deeper message of hope, a vision of the future rebuilding, and the encouragement that the worst is over, the best soon to arrive. Its placement in the month of Av and close proximity to Tisha b’Av has a more profound instruction for us about the nature of sadness and joy.
The abovementioned principle (of the greater the decent, the greater the subsequent ascent) can also be applied on a psychological level. It is not simply a question of contrast, where one’s suffering allows for a greater appreciation when things go well. Rather, there is a now greater joy, one that would not have been possible without the dark period.
There is a famous saying that one who knows not how to cry, will not truly know how to celebrate. In other words, to the extent that a person can feel shame, can mourn, can empathize and embrace sadness at the appropriate time, is the extent that one can also recognize and feel the true emotion of joy when it comes.