It is the full moon of the Jewish month of Av, or the “holiday” of Tu B’Av. This certainly counts as one of the lesser known Jewish holidays, though it never really was a “holy” day in any religiously significant sense. Rather, it is one of those days that had more meaning for the agricultural calendar than the religious one. Of course, the agricultural connections of many of the religious holidays is a recurring theme around these parts.
In one of my favorite books about these agricultural-religious connections, Nature in Our Biblical Heritage (Neot Kedumim, 1980), author Nogah Hareuuveni notes that Tu B’Av is a “festival of the land, forgotten in the Diaspora” (p. 91). However, it was once much more important.
Said Rabban Shimon Ben-Gamliel [in the second century C.E.]: There were no better festive days in Israel than the fifteenth of the month of Av and Yom Kippur.
Hareuuveni notes that both holidays were celebrated with “dances in the groves” rather than at the Temple. It is the dancing (and match-making) connection that has led to some revival of Tu B’Av in Israel as an alternative to Valentine’s Day–caution sexy link about “phallic carrots and the fig’s juicy sweetness”!*
OK, what was that about agricultural-religious connections? Oh, yes… I am not about to try to summarize Hareuuveni’s very rich contextual discussion of the ancient observance of Tu B’Av, but the upshot is that Hareuuveni notes it is the day (on average) when the white squill blooms all over Israel and this flower has a special place in Middle Eastern folklore because its bloom coincides with
the season in which morning mists gather, clouds appear in the sky and once again farmers begin to be concerned with the amount and distribution of rainfall in the coming year.
Moreover, it is also the time when the olives on the tree begin to fill with oil. Hareuuveni says that,
According to Arab olive growers, white squill flowers emerge from their large bulbs on “olive day”: “Take an olive between your fingers on the day the white squill blossoms, and you will be able to squeeze oil from it. Before that there is no oil in it.”
Ah, ha! Tu B’Av marks another of those seasonal transitions that would be important to farmers in the Mediterranean climate, but would be of little significance to Diaspora communities (unless, like Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah or Pesach, it was tied to a more sacred religious event as well).
The connection to olives is significant, given the central place of the olive and its oil not only in Eastern Mediterranean cuisine, but also in another of the seasonal Jewish holidays. After all, it just happens that midwinter is when the newly pressed olive oil is finally ready. Chanukah, which occurs at the darkest time of the year and commemorates the end of what was up to that time one of the darkest periods in Jewish history, is celebrated traditionally with oil–with which the lamps burn (before most of us moderns switched to candles) and with various oil-fried foods.
So, the reasons Tu B’Av has faded over the centuries (with some comeback of the dancing and romancing aspects in modern Israel) is the absence of a religious connection to give it meaning outside of its ancient agricultural roots. But why no religious connection in the first place? It seems to me that some of it has to do with the same reasons why there is no Jewish festival around the summer solstice: for an ancient monotheistic agricultural society being weaned off paganism, there are no significant “other gods” temptations at this time of year, as there are in fall, winter, and spring.
Nonetheless, it is a seasonal transition–as quoted above, when the farmers “begin to be concerned” about the coming rainfall. That suggests that Tu B’Av is, like Yom Kippur only without the deep religious significance, a time for reflection on what has passed and on the possibilities ahead. Summer is dwindling, but daylight and warmth remain abundant. Fall is not here yet, but it is coming soon, as the shortening of the days remind us. (Here at Ladera Frutal, which is about the same latitude as Israel, the day will be 31 minutes shorter than it was at the solstice.)
Tu B’Av also is exactly six months ahead of Tu Bi-Sh’vat, the point at which trees begin to “wake up” for the coming spring. Here on Tu B’Av we are at about the point that the trees will begin to shut down for the coming winter. It really is the beginning of fall, even if it won’t feel much like it for a while. The days are getting shorter, the nights will be getting a bit cooler (and soon the days, too). Leaves will begin to wilt, change color, and get ready to fall, and most of our harvest from deciduous fruit trees is behind us.
Enjoy what remains of your summer. And, maybe go dancing in a grove near you.
* The idea of dancing in groves on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is certainly a long lost aspect of High Holy Days observance, but as Hareuuveni notes (p. 92): “the Talmudic sages had no difficulty in reconciling a joyful activity with the solemnity of Yom Kippur…” and he quotes Ta’anit 30b: “Yom Kippur–because it is a day of forgiveness–the day on which the second Tablets were given,” and hence a day of joy for our being forgiven (provided we have atoned to those we wronged). It was the dancing on Tu B’Av that the sages could not provide a religious connection to!