Tu be-Av and the Concubine of Givah

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Tzvi Sinensky

This is first in an occasional series arguing that there are unexpected biblical roots for many Jewish holidays and practices. By exploring these foundations, we gain fresh insight into many well-trodden aspects of the Jewish tradition.

The origins and significance of Tu be-Av are shrouded in mystery. On what basis does the Mishnah declare this obscure holiday, alongside Yom Kippur, one of the two happiest days on the Jewish calendar? What are we to make of these days’ unusual ritual, in which the women danced in the vineyards and made overtures toward the men? Is Tu be-Av merely a Jewish Valentine’s day? A close reading of the Mishnah and Gemara, coupled with the intertextual connection between the Mishnah and the final verses of Sefer Shoftim, lend a fresh perspective to the holiday’s meaning and contemporary relevance.

The Sugya in Ta’anit

After completing its discussion of the laws of Tishah be-Av, the Mishnah (Ta’anit 26b), apparently looking to conclude an otherwise morose tractate on a positive note, shifts gear and declares:

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: There were no days as joyous for the Jewish people as the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, as on them the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white clothes, so as not to embarrass one who did not have. All the garments would require immersion. And the daughters of Jerusalem would go out and form a circle [mahol] in the vineyards. And what would they say? “Young man, please lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself. Do not set your eyes toward beauty, but set your eyes toward family: ‘Grace is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised’ (Mishlei 31:30), and it says: ‘Give her the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates’ (Mishlei 31:31).” And similarly it says: “Go forth, daughters of Zion, and gaze upon King Solomon, upon the crown with which his mother crowned him on the day of his wedding, and on the day of the gladness of his heart” (Shir Ha-Shirim 3:11): “On the day of his wedding” – this is the giving of the Torah. “And on the day of the gladness of his heart” – this is the building of the Temple, may it be rebuilt speedily in our days.

If the Mishnah’s primary motivation is to end with “words of consolation,” a number of its details seem problematic. Of what relevance is Yom Kippur to our discussion? And, as many commentators (e.g., Tiferet Yisrael, Yakhin 63) note, such revelry, to say the least, seems inappropriate for Yom Kippur. What is more, if the Mishnah’s interest lies primarily in the celebratory aspect of these holidays, why does it emphasize the ways in which the young ladies cared for one another by loaning clothing to the needy? Finally, the very fact that the women took initiative by seeking out men is also striking, and not necessarily what we might have expected from members of a traditional society some 2,000 years ago. This impression is strengthened by the second verse the women invoke, “Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her own works praise her in the gates,” which underscores a woman’s individual creative contributions.

The Talmud’s (30b-31a) treatment of the mishnah is no less curious. While claiming that the reason for Yom Kippur’s joy is obvious (“because it has pardon and forgiveness, the day on which the last pair of tablets were given”), the Gemara is unsure why Tu be-Av is celebrated with such exuberance. The Gemara proposes no less than six explanations:

  • On this day the tribes were permitted to marry one another.
  • On this day the tribe of Benjamin, previously foreswarn from marrying members of the other tribes, was permitted to rejoin the nation.
  • On this day the Jews stopped dying in the desert.
  • On this day Hoshea ben Elah removed the guards that Yerovam had erected to bar Israelites from traveling to the Judean Temple for the holidays.
  • On this day the dead of Beitar were released for burial.
  • On this day they finished cutting logs for the sacrifice pyre. (Commentaries debate whether the joy stemmed from the completion of a mitzvah or the time that was now available for extended Torah study.)

The range of bases for Tu be-Av is curious in its own right. If this holiday is so joyous and, by implication, of particular importance, why are we so unsure as to what it commemorates? Interestingly, Rashbam Bava Batra 121a s.v. yom and others claim that the views cited in the Gemara don’t disagree with one another, but simply represent varied traditions that rabbis reported in their teachers’ names. Even on this view, the question as to the sheer variety of possibilities remains.

The continuation of the Gemara raises further difficulties. The Gemara details the precise hierarchy of clothing sharing among the maidens:

The daughter of the king borrows from the daughter of the High Priest; the daughter of the High Priest from the daughter of the Deputy High Priest; the daughter of the Deputy High Priest from the daughter of the Priest Anointed for War; the daughter of the Priest Anointed for War from the daughter of a common priest; and all the Jewish people borrow from each other, so as not to embarrass one who did not have.

The laws concerning the priests are no longer applicable. So why does the Gemara, compiled long after the Second Temple’s destruction, see fit to elaborate?

Next, Rabbi Elazar extends the point, emphasizing that “even clothing stored in a box” requires immersion. Why should such an item, which in all likelihood was not rendered impure, require immersion? R. Gershom and R. Hananel claim that immersion is required on the off chance that the woman had indeed rendered the clothing impure. The Yerushalmi (Ta’anit 4:7) argues that while technically such clothing does not require immersion, once the woman removes the item from the box to immerse it, she is more likely to lend it to her neighbor. Rashi (31a s.v. tzerikhin) and Meiri (ibid., s.v. ve-amar), however, contend that the reasoning is the same as that of the Mishnah’s general principle, namely to avoid embarrassing one who lacks clothing. Similarly, all clothing must be immersed equally. Particularly according to Rashi and Meiri’s reading, Rabbi Elazar’s ruling reinforces an observation we made regarding the mishnah: if the goal is merely to shift Masekhet Ta’anit from mourning to joy, why the emphasis on the women’s sensitive generosity and the temporary dismantling of economic and social-religious hierarchies?

The Gemara then cites a tradition that different girls would woo their prospective partners by emphasizing their unique qualities:

What would the beautiful women among them say? Set your eyes toward beauty, as a wife is only for beauty. What would those of distinguished lineage among them say? Set your eyes toward family, as a wife is only for children. What would the ugly ones among them say? Acquire your purchase for the sake of Heaven, provided that you adorn us with golden jewelry.

The Gemara, in other words, continues the mishnah’s emphasis on the women’s independence and individual initiative, even suggesting that some women would demand jewelry for themselves!

Finally, the sugya (and masekhet) concludes with a classic aggadah:

In the future, the Holy One, Blessed be He, will arrange a dance [mahol] of the righteous, and He will be sitting among them in the Garden of Eden, and each one will point with his finger, as it is stated: “And it shall be said on that day: Behold, this is our God, for whom we waited, that He might save us. This is the Lord for whom we waited. We will be glad and rejoice in His salvation” (Yeshayah 25:9).

While this concluding section hearkens back to the mishnah’s terminology of “mahol,” a circle, this mere textual analogue seems to provide inadequate grounds for the Gemara’s choice of this passage to conclude Masekhet Ta’anit. Is there a deeper connection between Tu be-Av and this teaching regarding the messianic era?

Finally, it is worth noting a debate among the halakhic authorities concerning the contemporary relevance of Tu be-Av. The aforementioned passage regarding the “daughter of the priest” seems to suggest that this holiday was limited specifically to the Temple period. Indeed, Shibolei Ha-leket (30) follows the Geonim in ruling that one may recite tahanun on Tu be-Av due to the nullification of Megilat Ta’anit, which lists dates on which fasting is impermissible. Yet Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 131:6) lists this holiday among the days on which tahanun is omitted, and Magen Avraham (Orah Hayyim 573:1) rules that even today one may not fast on Tu be-av. (See also Gevurat Ari to Ta’anit 31a.) Given the Gemara’s implicit linkage of the celebration to the era of priestly service, on what basis do these latter authorities rule against Shibolei Ha-leket that Tu be-Av remains in force?

Pilegesh be-Givah

To properly understand the holiday of Tu be-Av, we cannot examine this sugya in isolation. Instead, Ta’anit must be read in light of an episode which picks up on the Gemara’s second explanation for Tu be-Av: the conclusion of the larger tragedy of pilegesh be-Givah, the grisly story of the concubine who was murdered by members of the tribe of Benjamin (Shoftim 19-21).

To review briefly, the final chapters of Sefer Shoftim tell the story of a man and his concubine who, upon traveling from her father’s home in Beit Lehem to their house in the mountain of Ephraim, spend a night in the Benjaminite town of Givah. Despite being put up by a hospitable man, the hosts and guests find themselves surrounded by a Sodom-esque mob. The husband sacrifices his concubine by pushing her outside the door so as to satisfy the hordes, who violate and leave the woman to die overnight. Upon recovering her body in the morning and returning home, the husband carves up the corpse into twelve segments and disseminates them to the tribes of Israel. Horrified by witnessing such barbarism in their midst, the rest of the nation demands of the tribe of Benjamin that they hand over the perpetrators to be killed, yet the tribe refuses. The Israelites therefore take up arms against Shevet Binyamin. While the Benjaminites are victorious on the first two days of battle, ultimately the rest of the nation wins the civil war, killing at least 25,000 males from Benjamin, and then wiping out all their towns, including all the women. The nation gathers at Mitzpah and swears that no one will marry off his daughter to a Benjaminite.

The final chapter of Shoftim then turns to the question of the continuity of the tribe of Benjamin. Was an entire tribe to be lost to Israel? After all, before setting out to battle, the nation had vowed not to marry off any of their daughters to men from the tribe of Benjamin. Yet no Benjaminite women survived, seemingly condemning the tribe to extinction. To resolve this problem, they begin by identifying 400 virgins from the town of Yavesh Gilad, whose residents had not been present when the nation accepted the oath at Mitzpah. Arrangements are made for the 400 women to marry men of Benjamin. Yet many Benjaminite males remain unmarried. To fully resolve the issue and ensure the tribe’s continuity, the elders of the nation develop another plan, with which Sefer Shoftim concludes (21:19-25):

They said, “The annual feast of the Lord is now being held at Shiloh.” It lies north of Bethel, east of the highway that runs from Bethel to Shechem, and south of Lebonah.

So they instructed the Benjaminites as follows: “Go and lie in wait in the vineyards.

As soon as you see the girls of Shiloh coming out to join in the dances, come out from the vineyards; let each of you seize a wife from among the girls of Shiloh, and be off for the land of Benjamin.

And if their fathers or brothers come to us to complain, we shall say to them, ‘Be generous to them for our sake! We could not provide any of them with a wife on account of the war, and you would have incurred guilt if you yourselves had given them [wives].’”

The Benjaminites did so. They took as wives, from the dancers whom they carried off, as many as they themselves numbered. Then they went back to their own territory, and rebuilt their towns and settled in them.

Thereupon the Israelites dispersed, each to his own tribe and clan; everyone departed for his own territory.

In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did as he pleased.

What are we to make of this final episode? To begin, the parallels to the ritual described in Ta’anit are unmistakable: the girls dancing in vineyards in the location of a Temple (Shiloh or Yerushalayim) during a holiday, and the matchmaking that takes place during the festival. Reinforcing these striking similarities, the verses use turns of phrase such as “yotzot ve-holot ba-keramim,” which closely parallels the mishnah’s formulation of “benot yisrael yotzot ve-holot ba-keramim.” It seems clear, as Radak (Shoftim 21:19) notes, that the Mishnah Ta’anit intentionally draws upon the verses in Shoftim.[1]

What is more, these parallels are reinforced by the Gemara’s second explanation of the unique joy associated with Tu be-Av, namely that the ban against marrying members of the tribe of Benjamin expired on that day. The Gemara even goes so far as to cite a verse from pilegesh be-Givah, “ish mimenu” (Shoftim 21:1) – “mimenu ve-lo mi-baneinu,” “from us but not from our children” – in support of this derivation.

What is the significance of this compelling connection between Shoftim 21:19-23 and Ta’anit 4:7? To begin, let us analyze the elders’ decision to encourage Benjaminite men to “snatch” women from the festival at Shiloh. Does the text judge the elders positively or negatively? It is hard to know for sure. On one hand, their motivation seems to be positive: they seek to salvage Shevet Binyamin. On the other hand, the verses’ language carries numerous negative associations. Terms such as “va’aravtem” (“you shall ambush”), “va-hatafkhem” (“you shall grab”), and “asher gazalu” (“which they stole”) carry negative associations. What is more, broadly speaking, it seems clear that the story is not intended exclusively as a negative commentary on the tribe of Benjamin; Benjamin’s despicable behavior is simply indicative of the larger moral breakdown in Israelite society. This certainly includes the husband himself, who sacrifices his concubine, but presumably is meant even more broadly. As the book concludes (and reiterates at key junctures throughout Sefer Shoftim), “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did as he pleased.” It therefore seems highly plausible that the text means to criticize the elders’ decision to ensure a tribe’s survival on the back of women who were kidnapped and coerced into unwanted marriages. At best, as R. Moshe Alshikh puts it, the elders’ decision was a non-ideal one that they “did not perform in accordance with the letter of the law… [but only because] the moment necessitated such measures.” Just as the tragedy of the concubine’s rape features the brutalization of a vulnerable woman, so too the original biblical recording of the dancing festival involves the problematic (either due to the act itself or the larger circumstances) “snatching” of vulnerable women who had gathered for the Shiloh festival.

Bearing in mind the theme of vulnerability, we may return to the sugya in Ta’anit. As we noted earlier, by sharp contrast to the events of pilegesh be-Givah, the mishnah emphasizes that on Tu be-Av and Yom Kippur, the women seize initiative in soliciting the men. Moreover, as opposed to the incident in Shoftim, in which women were taken en masse, the Gemara Ta’anit emphasizes that different women emphasized their unique qualities. If pilegesh be-Givah features females who are treated as vulnerable, faceless objects, Ta’anit, as R. Tzadok of Lublin observes (Dover Tzedek pg. 209), offers a vision of self-assured young women who take initiative and distinguish themselves as individuals.

The mishnah and gemara then go further in counteracting the tragic episode in Shoftim. Not only does the sugya empower the women in their choosing of mates, but it also flattens the socio-economic differences among the maidens of Israel. The tragedy of pilegesh be-Givah features a powerful group (city residents) taking advantage of a vulnerable family (the guests, which include a concubine, who occupies a lower social status than a full wife), leading to civil war and massive devastation. By contrast, the women in Ta’anit go out of their way to significantly diminish dangerous hierarchies and ensure the dignity of vulnerable women who might otherwise be embarrassed.[2] This resolves the question we raised earlier: the exchange of clothing, including among members of the priestly families, is not an aside but essential to the theme of our sugya, which is intended to remedy the tragedy of pilegesh be-Givah. It is for this reason that the mishnah and Gemara lay so much emphasis on this point.

Our mishnah, moreover, extends the motif one step further. “Sheker ha-hen ve-hevel ha-yofi,” “Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain,” declare the women.[3] Do not judge a woman by her appearance, nor any individual by his outward characteristics. The Jewish girls go out in borrowed clothing, so as not to embarrass one another. We can no longer distinguish the poor from the rich, the ugly from the beautiful. Their garments are all immersed in the mikvah; they too, we can suggest, are all now equally pure. The ladies call out to the men who have gathered: don’t look at beauty; beauty is deceptive. Look instead at the family and the God-fearing character the young lady represents. The key to ensuring respect for the vulnerable in society is to begin by reminding ourselves that for all the externalities that divide us, fundamentally we share a common human dignity and ought not be measured by artificial yardsticks.

Indeed, this might be reflected in the story of pilegesh be-Givah. Upon first blush, we might be inclined to cast blame exclusively on the tribe of Binyamin. Yet upon closer analysis, as noted, the other tribes are not to be entirely absolved of all responsibility. The moral depravity of some members of Shevet Binyamin is a mere extreme manifestation of the larger breakdown in Israelite society during the period of the Judges.

We may now return to the plethora of interpretations the Gemara offers for the unique joy associated with Tu be-Av. Of course, the Gemara’s second answer, namely that on this date the tribe of Benjamin was again permitted to marry into the Jewish nation, fits perfectly with the pilegesh be-Givah connection. But beyond that, many if not all of the other explanations cited by the Gemara underscore these selfsame themes. The permissibility of the tribes to marry one another, like the reintegration of the tribe of Benjamin, explicitly celebrates communal unity. Hoshea ben Elah’s removal of the sentries enabled all Jews once again to travel to Jerusalem. The cessation of death in the desert signaled the entire community’s ability to move beyond Tishah be-Av’s sin of the spies and be reunited with God and His land. The respect accorded by the burial of the dead, such as those of Beitar, is perhaps the greatest symbol of the essential dignity of all people. And the completion of the wood cutting allowed students to join together in Torah study as the nights began to shorten.

It is in this sense that we can understand the linkage between Tishah be-Av and Tu be-Av, beyond their chronological proximity. The opening mishnah of the fourth chapter discusses three fasts that, at first glance, appear similar: Tishah be-Av, the ma’amadot (fasts of Israelites, Levites, and priests who represent the community at the Temple) and Yom Kippur. All three share a common denominator: on only these three occasions it was customary to recite Birkhat Kohanim during all four daytime prayers, including Neilah.

The chapter goes on to demonstrate, however, that Tishah be-Av and Yom Kippur are in fact opposites. Tishah be-Av is a day of mourning, Yom Kippur of joy. Like Tu be-Av, Yom Kippur features joyous dancing. Appearances are deceiving. Two people can be dressed up in black; one attends a funeral and the other a wedding.

The tragedies detailed in the mishnah capture the same theme. The sin of the Golden Calf, for which the Jews were forgiven on Yom Kippur, was due to the people’s inability to look beyond the concrete. They failed to conjure a God that did not require physical manifestation, and so they built the Calf. Idolatry, which was rampant during the waning years of the First Temple period, was born of a similar inability to forsake an emotional dependency on icons. On the original Tishah be-Av, the Jews took the spies’ report at face value. They gave up hope instead of looking beyond the surface and digging deeper. As the prophets stressed time and again, the First Temple was destroyed in large measure due to the higher echelons’ refusal to look beyond shallow class differences and care for the vulnerable in society. And according to the Rabbis (Yoma 9b), it was due to sinat hinam (baseless hatred), the inability to look beyond our friends’ actions and empathize with their inner righteousness, that the Second Temple was destroyed.[4]

The Circles of the Righteous

Mashekhet Ta’anit concludes with the same message. The verse from Shir Ha-Shirim refers to “the day of his engagement and the day of his joyous heart.” This verse, explains the mishnah, is not to be taken literally. The betrothal is the Revelation at Sinai; the day of joy is when the Temple was built. As the Rabbis read Shir Ha-Shirim as a whole, not everything is as it seems. The words of the verse – like the young Jews themselves – carry far deeper layers of meaning than any cursory once-over could reveal.

Finally, it is no mere association that leads the Gemara to conclude with the aggadah of the circle of the righteous. The “mahol” of the tzadikim echoes not only the dances of the girls in Jerusalem but those in Shiloh as well. The circle is the ultimate equalizer. All the tzadikim sit equidistant from God. Clear revelation, as manifest in the ability to “point to God” and see His presence clearly, begins with the recognition that we must look beyond surface differences, which must in turn inspire us to instill dignity among those in society who are most vulnerable.[5]

The sugya, then, strongly implies that Tu be-Av’s significance is not limited to the time of the Temple or Megilat Ta’anit, nor is it only realized in the messianic era, but, following the rulings of Shulkhan Aruch and Magen Avraham, represents an ongoing religious charge for us to look beyond surface differences and treat all people with dignity and sensitivity. Only in doing so can we actualize the deeper significance of Tu be-Av and begin to repair the travesty of pilegesh be-Givah.

[1] For an analysis of the precise historical relationship between the two festivals, as well as the seasonal-agricultural occasions they marked, see Hayim Gilad, “Al Ha-Meholot,” in Beit Mikra 4:589-91.

[2] Ritva Bava Batra 121a accents this theme, inquiring: doesn’t the Mishnah Sukkah declare that one who did not witness the simhat beit ha-shoeivah did not witness joy in his life? How, then, can the Gemara Ta’anit assert that Tu be-Av and Yom Kippur were the most joyous days on the Jewish calendar? He answers by explaining that regarding Sukkot, “the joy was limited to the Temple and specifically to the giants of Israel and the priests and Levites;” here, however, the joy permeated throughout the entire nation.

[3] The commentaries note that the Gemara, which cites a berayta in which the attractive women draw attention to their beauty, appears to contradict the mishnah, in which the women insist that “beauty is vain.” Eliyah Rabbah (Orah Hayyim 480:10) contends that while the mishnah appears to be describing only one set of women, in fact the various statements in the mishnah are distributed among the Gemara’s three sets of women: the beautiful women say “lift up your eyes and see,” those with lineage urge the men to ignore beauty, and those lacking both declare that “beauty is vanity.” This interpretation of the mishnah, however, is quite forced, as it seems to be describing a single group, not three. What is more, on Eliyah Rabbah’s interpretation, it is particularly difficult to distinguish between the lines “Do not set your eyes toward beauty, but set your eyes toward family” and “Grace is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised,” as the mishnah appears to cite the latter as a proof text for the former. Maharsha (31a s.v. yefeifiyot), on the other hand, suggests that whereas the Gemara describes all three groups of women, the mishnah addresses the most praiseworthy among them. While this interpretation also carries difficulties, it seems to be the most reasonable resolution of the mishnah and Gemara. In any event, while the Gemara does appear to appeal to some differences among different sets of women, even the Gemara’s presentation fits our theme, inasmuch as it seems to emphasize the inclusive notion that there are a variety of legitimate characteristics that distinguish individuals from one another.

[4] See Keren Orah 30b s.v. amar Rashbag for a different suggestion linking Shiva Asar be-Tamuz to Yom Kippur and Tishah be-Av to Tu be-Av.

[5] Sfat Emet (s.v. ve-khol) goes further, suggesting that “each righteous individual has unique insight, which he conveys to his friend, as it states, ‘and they receive from one another.’” On this reading, not only does the circle represent equality, but also that each individual possesses distinctive qualities and perspectives.


Tzvi Sinensky is Director of Judaic Studies and Upper School Principal at Main Line Classical Academy, and Director of the Lamm Heritage Archives at Yeshiva University. He earned his PhD in Jewish Philosophy on the subject of rabbinic conceptions of manhood at Yeshiva University's Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. A popular lecturer and author, Tzvi completed three book-length series published by Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash, is editor of a forthcoming posthumous edition of Rabbi Lamm's halakhic writings, and is writing a book on the overarching themes in Rabbi Lamm's oeuvre. He has served as Lehrhaus editor for over four years, and lives in Lower Merion, PA, with his wife and three children.