"TU B'AV:
Jewish Holidays and the Full Moon"

by Yerachmiel Tilles

1. The Fifteenth of Av in Mishna and Talmud

A seemingly minor full moon festive day, the Fifteenth of Av, turns out to be the one that most captures the essence of its Full Moon component. The final mishna of the tractate Taanit states:

"There was never a day as festive (Yom Tov) for the Jewish nation as the Fifteenth of the month of Av and Yom Kippur."

How could it be that unknown Fifteenth of Av and solemn Yom Kippur were more festive than Passover, Sukkot and Purim? The Mishna continues that on these two occasions:

"The daughters of Jerusalem…dressed in white…would go out and dance in the vineyards."

Why did they do that? The Talmud (Taanit 31a) fills in between the lines:"Whoever lacked a wife would go there to [gaze and] find one."

In other words, the Fifteenth of Av was a major matchmaking day, and so was, amazingly, Yom Kippur. Now, the vital importance to Jewish continuity of aiding Jewish man-Jewish woman marriages to happen is as clear as a newborn's eyes. Nevertheless, does that justify claiming that the Fifteenth of Av is a greater holiday than the three Torah-mandated 'pilgrim' festivals, Pesach, Shavuot or Sukkot, with their immense gatherings at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem?

The Talmud itself expresses astonishment. "Yom Kippur is clearly [special]…because it is [a day] of forgiveness and pardon…But what is [the significance of] the Fifteenth of Av?" (Taanit 30b)

The Talmud goes on to answer its own question. Different sages recall five joyous historical events which occurred on the Fifteenth of Av (in counterpoint to the five calamities that occurred on Ninth ('Tisha') of Av and on 17 Tammuz, mentioned earlier in the Mishna), plus one custom that arose in the years of the two Holy Temples in Jerusalem.

 

2. Six More Ancient Reasons for Celebrating the Fifteenth of Av

The fifteenth of Av first became a day of celebration in the year 2487 (1274 BCE), Israel's fortieth year of wandering in the desert. The whole generation of the Exodus had been sentenced to die in the desert (see Num. 13-14), each one on the night of Tisha b'Av after their 60th birthday, because of their mourning about having to go into the Land. On the Ninth of Av in the 40th year (2487 / 1294 BCE), no one died. They thought perhaps they had miscalculated the date. Another night went by and then another. It was not until the 15th, when the moon filled a full circle in the sky, that they were able to fully accept that the dying had truly ceased; and the date of this blessed event, in contrast to the date of annual dying 6 nights earlier, became an occasion for celebration.

[The next four will not to be discussed at length, just in these three paragraphs, having no apparent connection to our full moon theme. Briefly, the second and third occurred in the era of the Book of Judges, the fourth in the period of the kings of Israel, and the fifth after the Bar Kochba rebellion.

They are, respectively, the granting of permission by the Sanhedrin (Supreme Rabbinical Court), in the reign of the judge Othniel to unmarried daughters who inherited land, to marry outside of the tribe and still keep their land inheritance; and to the other eleven tribes to "intermarry" with the men of the tribe of Benyamin in approximately 2545 (1200 BCE), some time after they had been placed under ban because of the incident of "the Concubine at Givah ("Gibeah'--as related in Judges 19-21). Interestingly, the first of these marriages took place also on 15 Av, when the bachelors of Benyamin selected brides from the "Dancing Daughters in White" in Shiloh, which was then the location of the Ark of the Tablets.

In later centuries there were the dismantling in 3187 (574 BCE) of the blockade in Northern Israel that prevented residents from the annual pilgrimages to the Holy Temple; and in 3908 (148 CE). was the release for burial of the dead of Beitar, fifteen years after their massacre that ended the Bar Kochba rebellion. Miraculously, their bodies had not decomposed. ]

Finally, in the centuries of the two Holy Temples in Jerusalem, the Fifteenth of Av was [also] celebrated as "The day of the breaking of the ax." The annual cutting of firewood for the altar was concluded on the 15th of Av. The event was celebrated with feasting and rejoicing (as is the custom upon the conclusion of any holy endeavor) and included a ceremonial breaking of axes, which gave the day its name.

"These six events are all worthy of commemoration and celebration. But how do they explain the Mishna's provocative statement that "there were no greater festive days for Israel"? In what way is the Fifteenth of Av greater than Passover, the day of our Exodus from Egypt, or Shavuot, the day we received the Torah? And perhaps even greater than Yom Kippur, as implied by the word order of the Mishna!

 

3. The Mystical Approach

In Kabbalah and Chasidut, a quite different, more mystical approach is applied: "The greatness of the Fifteenth of Av is that it coincides with the full moon."

Is this statement not strange? Passover Seder night also coincides with the full moon, as do the beginning of Sukkot, Purim (in Jerusalem) and the night of T'u b'Shvat with its 'Seder' of 30 fruits. The question remains, as strong as ever.

However, the mystical answer is based on the concept that it is the Fifteenth of Av more than any other festival that most captures the essence of its Full Moon component. In order to comprehend the intention of this statement, we need to understand: 1) what is a full moon, and 2) what is its relationship to the Jewish people.

In an article entitled "The Breaking of the Ax" R. Yanki Tauber explains this eloquently:

 

4. Moon Cycles *

"The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, in which each month begins on the night the new moon becomes visible, progresses as the moon grows in the nighttime sky, and reaches its full luminescent potential on the fifteenth of the month, the night of the full moon. …This is why so many of the festivals and special days of the Jewish year fall on the fifteenth of the month, this being the day on which the particular month's special quality is most expressed and manifest.

"….For example: Nissan is the month of redemption, and it was on the first day of Nissan that the process of our liberation from Egypt began; but the results of this process were fully manifest only on the 15th of Nissan, with our actual exodus from Egypt. So it is on the 15th of Nissan that we celebrate the festival of Passover and experience the divine gift of freedom through the observances of the Seder.

"Another example is the month of Tishrei. On the first of Tishrei (Rosh Hashanah) we crown G d as king of the universe, rededicating the entirety of creation to the purpose for which it was created and evoking in G d the desire to continue to create and sustain it. But the celebration of the divine coronation is eclipsed by the days of solemnity and awe which occupy the first part of Tishrei, and comes out in the open in the joyous festival of Sukkot, which commences on the 15th of the month.

"The same is true of each of the twelve months of the Jewish year. Each month possesses a character and quality uniquely its own, which undergoes a cycle of diminution and growth, concealment and expression, reaching its climax on the 15th of the month."

 

5. Fifteenth of Av vs. the Major Festivals

So now we know that the confluence of a holiday with the full moon indicates an occasion of special power. But what makes the full moon of the Fifteenth of Av more special than all the others, including those that coincide with other, seemingly more important holidays?

There are other holidays (i.e. Pesach, Sukkot), which occur when the moon is full, but only the full moon of the Fifteenth of Av is preceded by a great darkness. The Beit Hamikdash was destroyed in the first half of month of Av, a time associated with an extreme descent. Thusthe full moon of Av is seen as greater than that of any of the other months, due to the contrast between its brightness and the deep darkness of the Ninth (Tisha b'Av) that precedes it. The greater the descent the greater the ascent, and "greater is the light that emerges from darkness." (see Tanya ch.26 -- based on Prov. 14:23 and Eccl. 2:13.)

The other holidays that occur when the moon is full are not preceded by a steep decline. When the Jewish nation was taken out of Egypt, we were already liberated and elevated by G-d's promise two weeks earlier [see Appendix A]. On Sukkot, we enjoy the benefits from the favorable outcome of Yom Kippur. Tu B'Av, on the other hand, stretches from the lowest depths of the day of the Temple's destruction, reaching the supreme heights of appreciating the greatness of redemption. The Fifteenth of Av, therefore, is on a higher level because one arrives there from a lower place.

 

6. The Fifteenth of Av Today

By this point everyone must be wondering: if the Fifteenth of Av is so great, why today is there virtually no celebration of it? The Ritvah, one of the great early commentators on the Gemara, opined that since the date usually falls so close to Shabbat Nachamu ("the Shabbos of Consolation") -the first Shabbat after Tisha b'Av, when the passage "Console (nachamu), console my people" (Isaiah 40:1) is read - the food and drank aspects of a holiday celebration are combined with those of Shabbat Nachamu.

Although there is no halachic recognition of the joy of the Fifteenth of Av other than not saying certain petitionary sections of the weekday prayers, and no Dancing Daughters dressed in white, there are a number of customs associated with the date.
In Temple times, the last wood offering was chopped on that day because after the Fifteenth of Av the heat of the summer sun begins to diminish, so doubt sets in whether any wood chopped thereafter would be completely dry inside.

Together with the lessening of the heat comes the shortening of the day and the lengthening of the night, and so our sages teach that starting on the Fifteenth of Av every Jew should add to the amount of time that he studies Torah at night. How interesting that this increasing importance of nighttime begins on the night of a full moon!

 

7. A Month and a Half Before Rosh Hashana
The fifteenth of Av, 45 days in advance of Rosh Hashanah, is considered the date to begin blessing each other for a sweet New Year, especially in correspondence. This is surprising, since in general the time officially allotted for preparation for a festival is 30 days; thus one would expect the mutual blessing to begin on the New Moon day of Elul 30 days before Rosh Hashanah.

One reason could be as the Bnai Yissachar (and other Chasidic masters) pointed out: "15" spelled out in Hebrew is chamisha asar. The letters of Chamisha Asar b'Av are numerically equivalent to the letters of ketivah vechatimah tovah, the classic Jewish blessing, "May you be inscribed and sealed [in the Book of Life this year] for good." This indicates that the Fifteenth of Av is an auspicious date to initiate the season of Teshuvah that culminates in Yom Kippur, the Day of Divine Forgiveness.

Perhaps this is also the reason that many sages, including the Lubavitcher Rebbe of our generation, were particular to refer to the 15th in writing and speech fully spelled out, Chamisha Asar b'Av, rather than the Hebrew two-letter abbreviation for 15, t'u.

 

8. The Future Fifteenth of Av *

"[In truth,] 15 Av is today a relatively minor event in our experience of the yearly cycle. We mark the day, but without the grandeur of Passover, the joy of Sukkot or the exultation of Purim. For unlike these festivals, whose "full moon" we have already experienced, the luminance of 15 Av has yet to shine forth. We are still in galut, still in the dark stretch of this cycle, still climbing out of the descent in which we have been plunged by the events of 17 Tammuz-9 Av.

"But the date is already fixed in our calendar as the greatest "15th" of them all. The 15 of Av provides us the first glimmers of the full moon of Moshiach. And with the revealed arrival of Moshiach, …the 15th of Av will be truly revealed as our greatest festival."

 

May you and yours be inscribed and sealed for a good and sweet year.
Yerachmiel Tilles
Fifteenth of Av, 5778 (July 2018)

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Based on my essay for an appendix in "FESTIVALS OF THE FULL MOON: Wondrous Stories for Every Jewish Holiday" (available here at Ascent, online at kabbalaonline-shop.com, koren.com, amazon.com, and better Jewish bookstores worldwide.

 

* See "The Breaking of the Ax," an article by Yanki Tauber in the 3rd volume of his magnificent three-volume work, INSIDE TIME: A Chasidic Perspective on the Jewish Calendar.


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