On the 15th of the summer month of Av, under a full moon, young Jewish men and women dressed in white would go out and dance in the vineyards of ancient Judea.
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That is practically all we know about this most ancient of holidays.
We know it because of a single passage in the Mishnah, quoting Simeon ben Gamliel: “No days were as good for Israel as the 15th of Av and the Day of Atonement, on which the sons of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white clothes...and the girls of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards” (Ta’anit 10).
The question is why. There are a few clues.
There's something about marriage
What was this dancing about? The sages of the Talmud were evidently somewhat puzzled by this, since the Talmud gives us six different answers.
According to Rabbi Judah bar Ilai, Samuel of Nehardea said that the holiday was an annual celebration of the day the prohibition was lifted on intermarriage among the 12 tribes, which is described in the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad, Numbers 36. Intermarriage among the ancient Israelite tribes was forbidden: "This is the thing which the LORD doth command concerning the daughters of Zelophehad…only to the family of the tribe of their father shall they marry: So shall not the inheritance of the children of Israel remove from tribe to tribe."
Rabbah bar Hana got more specific. He said that Rabbi Johanan bar Nappaha said the 15th of Av marks the end of a prohibition to marrying the daughters of the tribe of Benjamin, as described in the Book of Judges, no doubt due to the passage in that story that reads: “And see, and, behold, if the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in dances, then come ye out of the vineyards, and catch you every man his wife of the daughters of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin.” (21:21)
Forgiven for the Golden Calf
Then there's the theory that Tu B’Av marks the day on which the generation sentenced to die in the desert for the sin of the Golden Calf stopped dying. This view was propounded by Rabbi Dimi bar Yossef, based on Rabbi Nachman.
According to a midrash found in the Jerusalem Talmud (Ta’anit 4) and other rabbinic texts people would die by the thousands on each Tisha B’Av, the 9th of the month. This created a logistical nightmare. To cope with burying the huge numbers of dead, Moses decreed that every person would dig his own grave, and sleep in it on the night of Tisha B’Av. The next day, survivors would just have to cover those that had died during the night.
According to this midrash, when on a certain Tisha B'Av no one died and the punishment seemed to have ended, Moses kept the people sleeping in their graves for another six days - until Tu B’Av, when the full moon indicated to the people that they hadn't miscounted the days and that the punishment was truly over.
Pilgrimages and slaughter
A fourth theory was propounded by a Talmudist called Ulla, who said that Tu B’Av was an anniversary of a decision by King Hoshea, the last Israelite king, voiding the decree of King Jeroboam 50 years earlier that banned pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem.
The fifth idea – quite the anachronism - is from Rabbi Matana, who said that Tu B’Av marks the day the Romans allowed the Jews to bury the thousands of people slaughtered in Beitar at the end of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. According to tradition, the city was taken by Roman soldiers on Tisha B’Av 135 CE and as punishment for the Jews' insubordination, they wouldn’t let the Jews bury the dead for six days. God is said to have miraculously preserved the bodies from rotting during that time.
The last answer given by the Talmud, and most likely of the lot, is that of Rabbi Jacob Bar Acha. He postulates that Tu B’Av marks the Summer Equinox, the point of which the days start getting shorter and the dry season nears its end. According to Bar Acha, Rabbi Yissa said that Tu B’Av was the last day to chop down firewood for the Temple. This tradition – of celebrating the end of the wood-cutting season with song and dance - was still being observed by Syrian peasants in some towns in Syria in the 20th century.
Sun, worship and wine
If this is in fact the case, it seems that Tu B’Av predates Judaism itself, preserving an ancient form of sun worship, possibly coupled with an agricultural holiday celebrating the grape harvest that coincides with the Summer Equinox. We have no direct evidence for this ancient celebration.
Over the generations, Tu B’Av was a minor Jewish holiday. The only tradition that was preserved over the ages was omitting "Tachanun" - a somber part of the daily prayers omitted on other holiday and joyous days.
But come the 19th century, and especially in the 20th century, certain Zionist writers yearned for the rebirth of ancient Jewish and Canaanite traditions and holidays in the reborn Jewish State.
Tu B’Av, which at least in the Mishnah appears to be a celebration of youth, romance and dancing, seemed like a perfect candidate for revival.
The first Hebrew novelist, Prussian-born Abraham Mapu, wrote in his novel “Ayit Tzavua” (which has been translated as "Hypocrite Eagle") about celebrating Tu B’Av on the coast of the Sea of Galilee. The poet Y. L. Gordon wrote a poem describing the celebration of Tu B’Av in the vineyards of Ein Gedi. The author A. L. Levinsky wrote, in a futuristic story taking place in Israel in the year 2040, about celebrations of Tu B’Av, and that's just a few examples.
The Jews settling in Palestine marked the day spasmodically. On Tu B’Av 1925, an annual celebration of the youth in the Jezreel Valley kibbutzim was established, in the spirit of ancient times. But the concept fizzled very quickly. During the 1920s and 30s, parties took place on Tu B’Av in Tel Aviv, with the celebrants wearing white. The holiday didn’t gain traction. There were sporadic parties and events on Tu B’Av during the first four decades of the State of Israel, but they were rare.
Then come the 1990s and mad marketing: retailers, party promoters, restaurateurs, flower growers and chocolate manufacturers saw the light, and started promoting the “Jewish Valentine's Day.” Their efforts have had only moderate success: the “real” Valentine's Day is still far more popular. That said, the holiday seems to get more popular by the year, and why not. There's nothing wrong with another day to celebrate love.