The Ancient ‘Tu B’Av’ Custom

Israel never knew such wonderful holidays as ‘Tu B’Av’ (the 15th of the Jewish month of Av) and Yom Kippur. On these days the daughters of Israel would go out and dance in the vineyards and offer themselves joyfully for the purpose of establishing Jewish families. And despite the fact that people are different – some are rich, others poor; some are beautiful, and others less; some are of noble birth, and some are not – nevertheless, on these days, special effort was made to try and bridge the gap, at least as far as wealth was concerned. Young women would therefore go out wearing white, borrowed outfits in order not to embarrass those who did not own such garments.

Seemingly, the young men were already acquainted to some extent with the families of the girls in the area, and had consulted their parents regarding an appropriate match. The final decision, however, would occur on these days. Perhaps these days were intended for those young men or women who were unsuccessful in finding a mate in the conventional way.

The Attractive and the Noble

The Talmud (Ta’anit 31a) informs us how these daughters of Israel would try to make themselves desirable: “The attractive ones would exclaim: ‘Search out beauty, for this is the purpose of a wife’; the ones of noble birth would say: ‘Search out family, for family is the purpose of a wife’; the unattractive ones would say: ‘Choose your mate for the sake of Heaven, so long as you adorn her with gold.'”

The fact that the attractive women would draw attention to their beauty is understandable. Many men choose their wives based upon beauty. Beauty presents itself as somewhat of a guarantee to a good and happy marriage, filled with life. Reality, though, does not confirm this. There is no indication whatsoever that men who married so-called “attractive” women ended up more content than those who married “less attractive” women. When beauty comes in addition to good character, it can indeed add to life. However, often it can be misleading.

Those of noble birth simply say the primary feature is character. A good family is one in which children successfully obtain a proper education, and a good livelihood. One can safely assume that a woman who comes from such a family will possess a pleasant and kind character, and proper manners. In addition, it is highly likely that the children born to such parents will also possess similar character traits. We indeed find that the Sages (Baba Batra 110a) advise examining the brothers of the prospective bride, for often, the children turn out like the brothers of the bride. The Sages also advise marrying the daughter of a Torah scholar (Pesachim 49a). This is the reason that the Mishna (Ta’anit 26b) only quotes the women from good families; in the eyes of the Sages, their words were most accurate.

The Unattractive

The most surprising of the three groups is the unattractive women: “Choose your mate for the sake of Heaven, so long as you adorn her with gold.” A simple interpretation of these words tells us that these young women are appealing to the unattractive, untalented men who would run after the beautiful and distinguished girls, only to be turned down. To these men they would say: “If you keep running after the attractive and distinguished girls, you will remain single and frustrated forever. Be realistic, and marry one of us, who are ready to marry you. After all, the Torah commands you to get married – come, marry for the sake of fulfilling God’s will.” Nevertheless, since marriage must possess an element of affection, they added: “So long as you adorn us with gold,” for by doing so, you show your love for us.

All the same, there is a more profound way of understanding the words of the unattractive girls. Sometimes a person who has merited neither beauty nor desirable lineage is successful, through the virtue of exceptional faith in God, to perfect his or her character traits, and attain great personal achievement. The level such a person reaches is even higher than that of the attractive and distinguished. A shared life with such a person is certain to be full of beauty and happiness. This is the meaning of the unattractive women’s words: “Choose your mate for the sake of Heaven, and consequently, we will ascend together and surpass the level of all the attractive and distinguished couples – and our children will be distinguished by our virtue.” And they added, “So long as you adorn us with gold.” This last statement can best be understood in light of the words of Rabbi Yishmael (Nedarim 9:10): “The daughters of Israel are all beautiful, only that poverty makes them unbecoming.” If you decorate us with gold, you will uncover our true, unique beauty. Consequently, although in practice the most desired girls are generally those who are attractive, followed by those who are distinguished, in truth, the distinguished are preferable to the attractive, and sometimes, the unattractive are the most desirable of all.

Sound Advice for Singles

This carries a bit of advice for single men: Often, girls who are actually quite pretty, appear to be unattractive. This, however, is simply the result of the man’s level of maturity. God created humans such that they enter the world as infants, and grow and develop until old age. Each stage in life has its own purpose. At the age of twenty, the desire to marry is very strong: “Twenty is the age for chasing” (Avot 5:18). At that stage in life the heart is full of enthusiasm and courage. A young man sees all that is good in his prospective match, and is ready to leap happily into married life. This period is followed by a more restrained stage of life, whose purpose is to build and prepare the next stage. If an older, single man expects to be swept away by youthful enthusiasm while dating, he is usually disappointed. Yet, instead of attributing this to his age, he finds fault in the woman. He might admit that she is pleasant and smart, however – he disappointedly explains to his close friends – she is not pretty enough, or exciting. Such bachelors should know: If you sense a woman is pleasant and smart and you enjoy her company, but the only problem is the element of excitement is missing, “choose your mate for the sake of Heaven.” Don’t worry. If you invest energy in your relationship, and “decorate her with gold,” you can be sure that you will be blessed with true love. The enthusiasm which accompanies falling in love, is actually meant to help a person take the monumental leap of entering into the covenant of marriage. Such emotion, however, does not guarantee a happy marriage. Good character traits and shared goals are much more important. A genuine, mature, and deep loving relationship, reaching the inner layers of the soul, is dependent upon these features.

The Unique Power of ‘Tu B’Av’

The author of the work “B’nei Yissachar” explains that ‘Tu B’Av’ is a day of deep-rooted significance because it falls forty days before the date of the world’s creation. The sixth day of creation was Rosh Hashana. On that day, God formed man. Six days prior to this is the twenty-fifth of Elul, and forty days prior to this is ‘Tu B’Av’. Our Sages said: “Forty days before the formation of the infant, an announcement is made in heaven: “The daughter of so-and-so is matched-up with so-and-so.” Because ‘Tu B’Av’ falls forty days before the formation of the world, it also is a day of significant importance, possessing a unique capacity to initiate life – especially for a bride and groom who wish to establish a family.

This article is an adaptation of an article appearing in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought-provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at: http://en.yhb.org.il/

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