Cantor’s Column – February 2020

Jewish Valentine’s Day?

Cantor Ilan Davidson

As we enter into the month of February, it seems appropriate to discuss a little known holiday, the Jewish Valentine’s Day, Tu B’Av. Often, I’m asked if and how Jews celebrate Valentine’s Day. It’s right up there with Halloween on everybody’s list of questions regarding whether or not Jews should celebrate. For Halloween, I normally point out that we have our own holiday for dressing up, Purim, which falls roughly five months after Halloween. Roughly five to six months after Valentine’s Day, we also amazingly have a holiday to celebrate love and romance, Tu B’Av. Of course, I always remind everybody that there is really nothing wrong with enjoying these relatively benign, albeit non-Jewish holidays, as a cultural celebration in the United States.

So why don’t Jews traditionally celebrate Valentine’s Day? Perhaps the most obvious reason may be found in the holiday’s full name, St. Valentine’s Day. This holiday, named for a third century priest in Rome, was originally a feast celebrating his martyrdom, as he was killed for ignoring the laws of Claudius II, forbidding young men to marry. Additionally, its timing in the year and celebration of love may have come from a Roman pagan holiday, Lupercalia, a Roman fertility rite, which would also explain the holiday’s relationship to Cupid, the son of Venus who, himself, is the god of erotic love. For all these reasons, there is a significant portion of the Jewish community, especially more traditional Jews, who today do not celebrate this primarily secular holiday.

In Jewish tradition, we have a little known celebration of Tu B’Av, the fifteenth day of the month of Av, just six days after the most tragic day of the Jewish year. On Tishah B’Av, the 9th of Av, we’re taught that both the First and Second Temples were destroyed in Jerusalem, some 300 years apart. There is also the belief that this was the date of the famous Bar Kochba revolt, during which the Romans massacred our great Jewish martyrs for religious freedom. It is considered to be a day of mourning and fasting, but six days and many years later, the Romans lifted the ban on burying our martyrs and another miracle was discovered; our martyrs’ bodies had not decomposed and we were able to bury them with all of their dignity intact, making this a minor festival. But this still does not explain what it has to do with love. In two other tragic stories in Jewish history, restrictions were made on certain marriages within the Jewish people. Both of these restrictions were lifted on Tu B’Av, making this a celebrated day for marriage and love.

Far be it for me to suggest that you don’t celebrate your love any time you can, even if it’s on Valentine’s Day, but hopefully you now know that, as Jews in America, we have two opportunities, one secular and one religious, to celebrate our love. Just as most of us dress our children in costumes for Purim, as well as that October pagan holiday, so too may we celebrate our loves, once on Tu B’Ave, the 5th of August this year, and the other on that greeting-card holiday in February. Why not just celebrate those you love every day that you have them? For love is one of the greatest gifts and we should be thankful for it every day.