For starters, the full name of the holiday is “Saint Valentine’s Day.” You are probably familiar with St. Patrick’s Day. Similarly, many Catholic saints have feast days. These days commemorate their deaths (or martyrdom) and are intended to celebrate their lives and to reflect upon their teachings. So, right off the bat, it’s just not Jewish.
So who was Saint Valentine? There were actually at least three saints by that name, all of whom were martyred. The Valentine for whom the day is named is believed to have been a priest in the third century Rome. Legend says that when Claudius II outlawed marriage for young men, hoping to groom better soldiers, Valentine continued to perform marriages in secret. When he was discovered, he was put to death.
A PAGAN Holiday???
Of course, it’s never that simple. In the 800s, the Church adapted many pagan holidays into Christian holidays. Samhain became All Hallows Eve (AKA “Halloween”). Yule became Christmas and Eostre became Easter. Similarly, a holiday called Lupercalia became Valentine’s Day. Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture.
The Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would gather at the cave where Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were believed to have been suckled by a wolf (or “lupa”). The priests would sacrifice a goat for fertility and a dog for purification. Two naked young men would be smeared with the blood, which was then wiped off. The goat's hide would be torn into strips and dipped in the blood. The two young men would put on loincloths made from the goat's skin and run around slapping women and crops with the blood-stained goatskin strips as a fortuitous omen for fertility. The young women would place their names in an urn. Bachelors would choose a name from the urn and be paired with this woman for the year. Pope Gelasius declared February 14 to be St. Valentine's Day in the year 498 and the Roman “lottery” system was outlawed.
Given its Roman roots, it’s not surprising that the icon of Valentine’s Day is Cupid. Cupid is the son of Venus, the Roman goddess of love. (In Greek mythology, Venus is Aphrodite and Cupid is Eros, from which we get words like “erotic”).
So, Valentine's Day is either the celebration of a Catholic saint’s martyrdom or a Roman fertility rite – or possibly both. Either way, it’s just not a Jewish idea to send Valentine’s Day cards and gifts to your significant other.
Valentine's Day is marked by several features, not the least of which is materialism and conspicuous consumption. ("Conspicuous consumption" refers to buying a lot of stuff in order to show off or because of societal pressures to do so.) Don't believe it? Just ask the guy who didn't give his girl flowers. For a day ostensibly dedicated to love, there is a tremendous emphasis on candy, flowers, stuffed animals, greeting cards and lingerie. (Lingerie, by the way, whether given as a gift or purchased by the woman to wear "for her man," sends a message of "sex" rather than one of "love." The two may be related, but they are hardly synonymous!)
On the other hand, there's a tremendous peer pressure to have a date for Valentine's Day. For some reason, one's entire worth is deemed to hinge upon whether or not he or she has a date for this arbitrarily-chosen day of the year. (Again, don't believe it? Ask the girl without a date.)
These are not values encouraged in the Jewish holidays. Can our holidays get expensive? Sure. But acts of tzedaka (charity) are always in the forefront. On the "High Holidays" of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the message is "teshuvah, tefillah and tzedaka" (repentance, prayer and giving charity). Purim has a festive meal, but the day is spent giving shalach manos and matanos l'evyonim (gifts of food to others and money to the poor). Even the Passover seder begins with the paragraph called "Ha lachma anya," in which we invite anyone who needs a place to stay to join us for Passover. Charity, yes. Inclusion, yes. Conspicuous consumption and exclusion? No.
(This contrast of moral messages doesn't even address the sexual aspect inherent in Valentine's Day, which certainly flies in the face of the Jewish ideals of not objectifying and dehumanizing people in general and woman in particular.)
Do Something Kosher
The Talmud (Chulin 109b) teaches us that for everything the Torah does not permit, there is something comparable that is permitted. Trick or treating not appropriate for Jews? You can put on your Purim costume and deliver shalach manos door to door! (That’s also a mitzvah, which is a much more preferable way to spend one's time than chucking eggs at people’s houses.) So what’s the Torah’s kosher alternative to Valentine’s Day?
The Gemara tells us (Taanis 26b) that one of the most important and happiest days in the Jewish calendar is the 15th of Av (or “Tu B’Av”). Why? What happened on that day? A number of joyous things occurred on Tu B’Av, in stark contrast to the tragedies of Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, which is commemorated a mere week earlier. Two of these joyous occurrences relate to love and marriage:
1) In the Torah portion of Pinchas, we are told that the daughters of a man named Tzelafchad complained to Moshe that the daughters of a man with no sons did not appear to have inheritance rights. Hashem replied to Moshe that the daughters would have inheritance rights, provided that they only married men from the same Tribe. (This ensured that land belonging to one Tribe of Israel would not be inherited by another Tribe.) This restriction on the dating pool was lifted after the Jews were settled in Israel. The date it was lifted was the 15th of Av.
2) In the time of the Judges, a man and a woman traveling in the area occupied by the Tribe of Benjamin were accosted by the locals in a manner identical to the way the inhabitants of had Sodom acted (see Genesis 19). The woman was abused and killed by men from the Tribe of Benjamin, resulting in a civil war. The other Tribes of Israel did not permit their daughters to marry men from the Tribe of Benjamin. But the matter was settled and the ban was lifted on the 15th of Av.
How was the 15th of Av celebrated? On that day, the unmarried girls would put on white dresses. All of these dresses were borrowed from one another. This way, people would not to focus on the girls’ financial means, as nobody knew whose dress belong to whom. The girls would dance and they would call out to the young men not to look at physical beauty, but at their character and upbringing. They would quote the verse from Proverbs (31:30), “Grace is false and beauty is meaningless; a woman who is dedicated to G-d is the one to praise.” (This verse may be familiar to you as part of the Eishes Chayil - "Woman of Valor" - which is recited on Friday nights.) Even though Tu B’Av may not be on many people’s Jewish radars, it is still a holiday today. (For example, we do not say the Tachanun prayer, which is omitted on holidays.)
So Valentine’s Day? Not for Jews. That’s for ancient Romans, Catholics and greeting card companies. If you want a holiday that celebrates authentic Jewish concepts of love, learn more about Tu B’Av – part of your authentic Jewish heritage!
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of five books, including The Tzniyus Book. His latest work, The Taryag Companion, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.