The special significance of Tu b’Av in light of COVID.
Slowly but surely, the lives we enjoyed B.C. (Before COVID) are beginning to return. We’re beginning to have Shabbos guests again, and schools are planning on returning to (almost) normal in the fall. Shuls are slowly returning to normal, planning full in-person High Holiday services and even bringing back their Kiddushes.
As we return to these parts of our lives, we can now better appreciate what we previously took for granted. After living our lives apart, we find new joy in reconnecting. These causes for celebration enable us to find new meaning in the upcoming “minor” holiday of Tu b’Av (the 15th of the month of Av).
Although seemingly minor, the Mishnah (Taanit 26b) describes it as one of the two happiest days of the Jewish calendar (the other is Yom Kippur, though that’s for another discussion). Those somewhat familiar with it know it as the Jewish Valentine’s Day. When the Temple still stood, single women would borrow each other’s white dresses (so as to not embarrass those whose dresses weren’t as beautiful) and dance in the fields. Single men would see the women dancing, approach them and, eventually, get married.
The Gemara (Ta’anit 30b) asks why Tu b’Av is such a happy day and provides six explanations (30b-31a). Each of them can be better appreciated in light of our year and a half of COVID and our return to normalcy.
The first is that it celebrates the end of the Israelites’ dying in the desert. The spies came back with their report about the Promised Land on the night of Tisha b’Av. According to the Midrash, as part of the Israelites’ punishment for accepting the spies’ defamation, they had to dig their own graves and lie in them the night of Tisha b’Av not knowing if they would wake up the next morning. That morning, those who lived that year got up, while those who died would remain in the graves they had dug for themselves.
In their 40th year, the Israelites dug their own graves again, but, the next morning, they were surprised to discover that no one had died the previous night. They assumed that they must have miscalculated the date, so they lied in their graves the next night. And then the next. And then the next. Finally, by the 15th of Av, they noticed the full moon, and realized that they had not erred after all, and that G-d had finally ended the annual plague.
Right now, we are finally beginning to climb out of our self-dug graves. Over the past year and a half, we were confining ourselves to our homes whenever possible, unsure when the plague would end. Despite remaining mostly homebound and masked outside, we were still anxious about whether we may have somehow caught it from a delivery person or someone in a store. Those of us who had to work in person were terrified of catching COVID from a coworker, and even more terrified should we see them cough. Those living by themselves couldn’t receive visitors or help other than deliver meal packages and feared dying alone with no one able to help. With COVID finally ebbing, we have finally seen the full moon signifying the end to this plague.
Time to Marry
Two other reasons given relate to marriage. Shmuel of Nehardea of third-century Babylonia teaches that, in the desert, the Israelites of each tribe weren’t allowed to intermarry with those of other tribes. It was on Tu b’Av that they were given permission to do so.
The third- to fourth-century Babylonian sage Rav Nachman answers that Tu b’Av was the day when the rest of Israel found a way to intermarry with the tribe of Benjamin. At the end of Judges, the rest of Israel wages war against and routs the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 20:14-48). Right after the war, the men of Israel swear that they will never let their daughters marry them (Judges 21:1). Soon afterward, their feelings toward Benjamin change; they regret making the vow, but they are nonetheless constrained by it (Judges 21:3-18). It is on Tu b’Av that they figure out a loophole enabling Benjamin to marry into the rest of Israel (Judges 21:19-23).
Because of COVID, weddings have either been put on hold or held outdoors with a limited number of guests. While there were certainly dates, many single people, especially those who are immunocompromised, did not, making them undoubtedly feel very lonely. For those unable to date or marry due to COVID, Tu b’Av symbolizes and expresses their renewed ability to date and marry again.
Even for those of us who were already married, COVID has also prevented us from connecting with others. Friends had been unable to meet other than over Zoom or socially distanced and masked outside. Rav Nachman’s and Shmuel’s answers also speak to a larger re-ability to connect after over a year of living apart.
The third- and fourth-century rabbinic sage Ulla answers that the wicked king of Northern Israel, Yeravam ben Navat, stationed guards at the roads to prevent his subjects from traveling to the Temple in Jerusalem for the festivals. It was on a Tu b’Av that a later king of Israel, Hosea, removed those guards, enabling all who wanted to travel to the Temple to do so again.
During spring 2020, our synagogues were closed due to COVID. Afterwards, most of those that reopened had limited capacity and/or were outdoors. Non-Orthodox synagogues had all of their services — including High Holiday services — over Zoom. Even shuls with indoor services incorporated social distancing mechanisms like distant seating, multiple minyanim, and even barriers between the ba’al kriah (Torah reader) and oleh (one who recites the blessings).
Despite these safety mechanisms, many older and immunocompromised congregants still didn’t feel safe attending. Even the Ukrainian city of Uman, the resting place of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, was unavailable for the traditional Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage last year. Shuls are finally able to start relaxing their restrictions and enable us to return to shul as (almost) normal.
COVID had also prevented us from traveling in general. Passover 2020 was the first year I’ve ever celebrated the Passover sedarim away from my parents. For the past year and a half, many others have also avoided visiting family. This is aside from the many family vacations that were canceled or never planned in the first place. Now that we are beginning to travel again, Tu b’Av serves as a celebration of our ability to visit family again and restore these spiritual and emotional connections.
The third-century Babylonian sage Rav Matanah explains that when the Beitar rebellion against Rome was put down, the Romans tried to make them into an example by refusing the Jews permission to bury the bodies. It was on Tu b’Av that the Romans finally permitted burials. In fact, Matanah teaches, G-d created a miracle, preventing the bodies from rotting. This light within the darkness is what led the rabbis to compose and institute the fourth blessing of the Grace after Meals.
At the worst point of COVID in New York, morgues ran out of space to hold onto bodies. Over the past year and a half, few if any family members were able to attend the funeral. Instead, funerals and shivah visits were held over Zoom. As helpful as Zoom has been over this time, Zoom funerals and shivah visits could not possibly offer mourners the same degree of closure and comfort as being together with the deceased and others in person.
Only now, with Tu b’Av approaching, are mourners mostly comfortable with attending funerals and accepting shivah visits in person. This return toward closure and comfort enables us in this generation to thank G-d as the One Who is good and does good.
Finally, Rabbah and Rav Yosef (of fourth-century Babylonia) explain that Tu b’Av celebrates the end of the summer. In the days of the Temple, they would use summer wood for fires on the Altar (since summer wood is dryer, it burns better). By Tu b’Av, they would stop cutting firewood, since the sun doesn’t beat down as hard after that point. Similarly, by Tu b’Av, the days begin to grow shorter and the nights grow longer. As Rashi notes, since the nights are longer, people have more time to study Torah, as the workdays become shorter.
Back to School
We parents of young children know that learning over spring and summer 2020 greatly suffered. Most children (including mine) had trouble learning online. Even older students with access to computers and wi-fi found it difficult to learn effectively from home.
By the fall, schools were more prepared, and most yeshivah students learned in person. At the same time, students and teachers would doubtless say that COVID and social distancing requirements hanging over their heads made learning more difficult.
Clearly, over the past year, most of our children learned much less than they would have otherwise. Tu b’Av, therefore, expresses anticipation for a school year more or less back to normal.
Even for adults, COVID has limited the amount we’ve been able to teach and/or study Torah. Speaking for myself, most of the shiurim and d’vrei Torah I give are in person and over Shabbos and yom tov.
From last March until a few weeks ago, I had greatly missed giving them. Even those giving and attending shiurim over Zoom during the week would mostly agree that they simply don’t replace learning in person. Those of us happy about regaining in-person Torah study identify with this dimension of Tu b’Av.
Before COVID, I was familiar with this Gemara (I’ve given shiurim on it), but I could never emotionally get why the restoration from loss found in these examples should really add up to making Tu b’Av one of the happiest days of the year. I can now understand.
After such a long time of our lives being disrupted, returning to these seemingly small aspects of normalcy make us much happier.
Indeed, after facing such loss in these profound ways, returning to life “B.C.” fills us with similar joy to that which previous generations felt on Tu b’Av.
Rabbi David Polsky is a rabbi, educator and kashrut professional living in Southfield with his wife and two daughters. He can be reached at email@example.com.