Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel stated, “Israel had no holidays as joyous as Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur, when the young women of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards” (Mishna Ta’anit 4:8).
Our sages compared Tu B’Av to Yom Kippur, no less. What is so special about this day – the fifteenth day of the month of Av – which makes it deserving of such a noble comparison? We know that on Yom Kippur the second set of Tablets were given to Moshe Rabeinu, and Gd forgave the Jewish People the sin of the Golden Calf. Therefore this day, the day we received the Ten Commandments for the second time, has always been a day of forgiveness and rejoicing for us (see Rashi on Ta’anit 28:2).
The Talmud (in Baba Bathra 121a) gives six reasons for us to rejoice on Tu B’Av:
1. On this day, the tribes were granted permission to intermarry. In the first generation to enter the Land of Israel and to receive their portion of land, women who inherited their fathers were not allowed to marry out of their tribe, so as not to allow land belonging to one tribe to pass over to another.
On Tu B’Av, the next generation of women were granted permission to marry whomever they desired, as the limitation on the first generation had expired. Unfortunately, today we still suffer from ethnic jealousy, and there are still Jews who consider it a tragedy if their offspring marries a Jew of another ethnic group.
2. The tribe of Benjamin was allowed to marry other tribes. In the civil war following the incident of “Pilegesh Bagiv’a,” the tribe of Benjamin was almost wiped out, except for six hundred young men who managed to escape.
But the People of Israel took an oath at Mizpeh that they would not allow their daughters to marry anyone from the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 21). Later, when they realized that the tribe was in danger of extinction, they regretted the oath and looked for a way to allow the Benjaminites to marry and maintain themselves as a tribe. It was decided that no one would willingly give his daughter to a Benjaminite, but neither would he prevent him from “running off” with her. The men found out where the girls of Shiloh went to dance, and “carried them off,” with the tacit agreement of the girls and their parents. Thus the tribe of Benjamin was saved from extinction.
3. The “Desert Generation” ended.
Following the Sin of the Spies, when the people of Israel cried that they would not go to the Land of Israel, the whole generation of Israelites who had left Egypt was sentenced to die in the Desert.
Every year until the fortieth year, on the eve of the Ninth of Av, Moshe Rabeinu would command them, “Go out and dig!” They would go out of their desert camp, dig themselves graves, and sleep in them overnight. The next morning, a messenger would proclaim, “Let the living separate from the dead!” About fifteen thousand men would have died that night; the others would return to the camp for another year.
In the last, fortieth year, no one died. At first they thought that they might have counted the days wrong, and so they slept in their graves the next night, too. This went on until the fifteenth of Av, when they finally realized that no more people would die, and they declared that day a day of celebration (Talmud Yerushalmi, Ta’anit 4:6). (The reason they had not realized that the forty years were up was that they mistakenly counted forty years from the Sin of the Spies but, actually, the year they left Egypt was counted as the first year of the decree.)
In addition, all those years, Gd did not appear to Moshe Rabeinu in a prophecy, but rather communicated with him through the Urim and Tumim (Ta’anit 30:2).
This is like a couple who are angry with each other and write notes because they are not on speaking terms. On Tu B’Av of the fortieth year, Gd again began to speak to Moshe Rabeinu directly.
4. Yerovam Ben Nevat, the first king of the break-away Kingdom of Israel, feared that if Jerusalem, political capital of the Kingdom of Judah, continued also to serve as the spiritual capital of all Israel, it would weaken his sovereignty and eventually cause his downfall.
Therefore, he set up ‘border policemen’ to prevent anyone from the Kingdom of Israel from crossing over into the Kingdom of Judah and going to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (I Kings 12). One of the last kings, Hoshea Ben Ela, annulled this decree on Tu B’Av, and allowed the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Although he was not known as one of the most righteous kings, this act of Hoshea was a noteworthy one (see Rashi on Ta’anit 31:1). In quantity, the number of mitzvot he did may not have been great, but in quality, this act of his was quite remarkable (see Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 3:2).
5. Those who were killed at Beitar were buried.
At the end of the Bar Kochba revolt, the Romans conquered the city of Beitar and murdered thousands of Jews, leaving their corpses strewn all over. The Romans, who were bent on breaking the Jews’ spirit, would not even allow them to bury their dead (Gittin 57-58; Ta’anit 31:1). Nothing could take the spirit out of the remaining Jewish soldiers more than the sight of their friends lying dead on the ground beside them. (This is something like what we experienced during the Yom Kippur War.)
In Beitar, miraculously, the bodies did not rot or smell during the prolonged period before Tu B’Av, when they were permitted to be buried.
On that day, our sages added another blessing to the Grace after Meals, “HaTov V’HaMeitiv”: “HaTov – for the miracle of the bodies not emitting bad odors, and HaMeitiv – for they were permitted to be buried” (Brachot 48b). This blessing was added to honor the memory of Bar Kochba’s fighters.
Whenever we eat bread, we recite this blessing, honoring the fighters despite the fact that the revolt itself was unsuccessful and we suffered great losses.
What connection is there between the tragedy of Beitar and the Grace after Meals? This same question may be asked about other blessings of the prayer. The first blessing, “Who sustains all life” is indeed a fitting blessing. But in the second paragraph, we thank Gd for giving us the Land of Israel, Brit Milah, and the Torah. What do these have to do with food? And in the third section, we pray, “Please have mercy on Israel, and on Jerusalem, and on the Kingdom of David, and on the Holy Temple.”
The fourth section begins with thanksgiving for the burial of the corpses of Beitar. All of the above are important, but what connection do they have with the Grace after Meals?
Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk explains that they remind us why we eat. We need strength so that we may strive on behalf of the common good, the Nation of Israel. By reciting the Grace after Meals, we attempt to sanctify the act of eating and to channel the strength it gives us into uplifting activity. Mentioning Torah, Eretz Israel, Jerusalem, and the Kingdom of David help us to utilize our strength to rebuild the Land and Jerusalem.
For that reason, our leaders composed these blessings. Moshe Rabeinu, who led us in the desert for forty years, composed the first blessing. Joshua, who brought us into the Land of Israel, composed the second. David and Solomon composed the blessing, “Who builds Jerusalem.” Each one is a step above the other (see Meshech Chochma to Deut. 8:10; Rav Kook, Siddur Olat Re’eya I, p. 361-3).
The fourth blessing, composed by our sages in honor of the dead of the Bar Kochba Revolt, represents another stage: Despite the traumatic defeat, we were not totally annihilated.
Divine Providence is particularly evident in the miraculous preservation of the corpses of Beitar until the time when they were finally brought to burial. The Bar Kochba Revolt was but another phase in the battle over Eretz Israel and Jerusalem. Even though it ended in defeat, we will eventually triumph in our battle. As Rav Kook wrote to his beloved Bnei Akiva, ” Rabbi Akiva was full of enthusiasm and dedicated to strengthening every vision of redemption and renewal of Jewish life in Eretz Israel.
He supported the Bar Kochba Revolt and treated it as if it might be the Redemption (see Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 11:3). It is precisely because the revolt failed then, Bar Kochba was killed, and Jewish independence was lost, that we are certain that Rabbi Akiva’s vision will one day come true.
“Failure will not overtake us a second time. It was not for nothing that the Nation of Israel fought for its very existence. Eventually, we shall be victorious; the day is fast approaching.” (Ma’amarei Re’eya, Letter to Bnei Akiva, p. 203). The process of Redemption and Renewal today is simply a modern version of the Bar Kochba Revolt. The nation is re-awakening, and this time we shall certainly succeed, with the help of Gd.
6. No more trees were cut down for use on the Holy Altar.
The wood used to fuel the Holy Altar was dried, since fresh logs might contain worms. After Tu B’Av, the days become shorter and the sun is no longer strong enough to dry out freshly cut logs. Therefore, no more trees were cut down after Tu B’Av, and the day was nicknamed, “Axe-breaking Day” (Ta’anit 31a; Rashi op. cit.).
This, too, reminds us of our dedication to the Holy Temple. The Talmud tells us of the family of Salmai of Netofa: Once, the wicked rulers (the Romans) passed a law forbidding Jews to bring logs for the Altar to the Holy Temple. They stationed guards at checkpoints along the main roads, just as (the Kingdom of Israel’s) Yerov’am ben Nevat had done, to prevent Jews from coming to the Temple.
What did the Gd-fearing men of that generation do? They made ladders out of the logs, and carried them on their shoulders. When the guards asked them, “Where are you going?” they answered, “To bring doves from our dovecotes down the road, using the ladders on our shoulders.” As soon as they passed the checkpoint, they dismantled the ladders and brought the logs up to Jerusalem. These people deserve to be remembered as “Tzaddikim (righteous men) of blessed memory” (Ta’anit 28a).
Even under duress and persecution, we remained faithful to Jerusalem and to the Holy Temple.
All of the six incidents which are commemorated on Tu B’Av have one thing in common: On this day, different segments of the Jewish Nation were united:
Jews of different families and tribes were permitted to marry each other.
The tribe of Benjamin was once again allowed to marry women of other tribes, thus preventing them from extinction, despite the grave sin they had committed.
The Nation of Israel showed its commitment to the Land of Israel and the Holy Temple.
The Generation of the Desert ceased to die, and the sin of the spies was forgiven.
The border policemen preventing Jews from the Kingdom of Israel from coming to Jerusalem were sent away. As a result, the ties between the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah and the Holy Temple were re-established.
The corpses of Beitar were brought to burial, honoring the memory of these freedom-fighters who gave their lives to regain a sovereign state and the freedom to worship Gd as they chose.
Trees were no longer cut down to be burnt on the Altar. This custom of donating logs affords another opportunity to illustrate the dedication shown by righteous Jews even when they were persecuted.
“Who can compare to Your People, Israel, a singular Nation in the Land” (II Samuel 7:23): Domestic harmony within the Nation, and harmony between the Nation and its Land are really one and the same. In the Land of Israel, they become one People (Zohar, Parshat VaYikra 93b; the Natziv, Shivat Zion, vol. II; Eim HaBanim S’meicha, p.321).
Tu B’Av is the opposite of Tisha B’Av. In contrast to the baseless hatred that brought about the destruction of the Holy Temple and the Exile, the events commemorated on Tu B’Av revolve around love and unity among different sectors of the nation, and our deep connection to Israel and the Holy Temple.
Tu B’Av is a day of renewal of ties among the nation, and Yom Kippur is a day of renewal of our ties to the Holy One of Blessed Name. On this day, we turn over a new leaf.
There is a famous story about the Ba’al Shem Tov, who sent his disciples to learn how to repent by following the example of a very simple man. They saw him standing in prayer, holding two notebooks, and speaking to Gd, “Master of the Universe, in this notebook I have recorded the many sins which I committed this past year. And in the other notebook I have recorded all the suffering and troubles you brought upon me. I will forgive You for all the troubles if You forgive me for all my sins!”
He then threw both notebooks into the fire. This should serve as a model for all our relationships – with our friends, our spouses, and so on. We must learn to throw all the notebooks into the fire, and begin anew.
This is also why it is fitting for Yom Kippur to be the “Wedding Day” of Israel to the Lrd, and Tu B’Av to be a day for Jewish weddings. Therefore, “Israel had no holidays as joyous as Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur.”