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On Tu B’Av: Remedying Biblical Trauma

A closer look at the Talmud's description of Tu B'Av reveals a revolutionary, therapeutic recasting of the traumatic biblical story.
©Sergio Yoneda/
©Sergio Yoneda/
Rabbi Dr. Shraga Bar-On is the Vice President and Director of the Kogod Research Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought and the David Hartman Center for Intellectual Excellence in Jerusalem, and a lecturer of Talmud and Jewish Thought at Shalem College. At the David Hartman Center, he is responsible for the advanced training of aspiring public intellectuals through the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis, the David Hartman postdoctoral fellowship, and the Maskilot fellowship for women pursuing their doctorate. His research in

Can a culture rewrite its autobiography to recover from the traumas of its ancient narratives?  If so, how can this be achieved?  Below, I try to trace a bold and revolutionary midrashic interpretation that serves as a therapeutic tool, as it were, for healing from a biblical narrative of national trauma.

A Story that Begins and Ends with Rape

The appendix placed at the end of the Book of Judges, in chapters 17-21, seeks to illustrate the motto which features as its central theme: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (17:6; 18:1; 21:5). The concluding story in chapters 19-21 depicts the moral decline of an Israelite society lacking law and order. The rape of the concubine at Gibeah results in a civil war between the tribe of Benjamin and the other tribes of Israel.

The brutal gang-rape by the Benjaminites at Gibeah leads to the outbreak of a bloody civil war which, in turn, is accompanied by an oath sworn by the other tribes forbidding the taking of wives from the tribe of Benjamin. These tribes subsequently regret their decree of extinction imposed on the men of Benjamin and they find a creative solution [1] – one leading to what is essentially a substitutive, less violent reenactment of the previous rape: They allow the Benjaminites to abduct the daughters of Shiloh dancing in the vineyards. According to the narrative in Chapter 21 of the Book of Judges, the community elders advised the men of Benjamin:

Look, there is the annual festival of the Lord in Shiloh, Go and hide in the vineyards and watch.  When the young women of Shiloh come out to join in the dancing, rush from the vineyards and each of you seize one of them to be your wife. Then return to the land of Benjamin. When their fathers or brothers complain to us, we will say to them, ‘Do us the favor of helping them, because we did not get wives for them during the war. You will not be guilty of breaking your oath because you did not give your daughters to them’” (Judges 21:20-22; New International Version). [2]

Thus, the elders allow the girls to be kidnapped and, essentially, “raped” —ostensibly the reason for the war to begin with—in order to avoid violating an oath or losing a (problematic) tribe.

A Positive Spin on a Disturbing Story

Amazingly, the Mishnah in tractate Ta’anit as interpreted by the amoraim connects a thoroughly positive event with this horrible biblical incident. The last Mishnah in Ta’anit (4:8) states:

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: Israel had no greater days of joy than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur… The daughters of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards. And what would they say? “Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself…  Don’t set your eyes upon beauty; rather, set your eyes upon family… (Soncino translation). [3]

This mishnah is unusual. First, it describes a custom not part of an organized halakhic ritual, but rather a local practice of the sons and daughters of Jerusalem celebrating the fifteenth of Av. Second, and more significantly for this analysis, the figuration of gender in the text is quite remarkable. This is undoubtedly the mishnah with the most significant female presence in the entire mishnaic corpus – even when taking into account the many tractates dealing with women as object of analysis in Seder Nashim. Not only does it describe a practice whereby women actually fulfill a role; it portrays them as dancing and singing in an attempt to attract a mate. The erotic charge of the passage is hard to ignore.

The Talmud’s Interpretation of the Festival

This is a unique testament to an otherwise unknown ancient holiday, celebrated on the 15th of Av, [4] which was essentially a matchmaking feast. Apparently, the rabbis had no historical information regarding the foundation of this holiday, so they attempted to reconstruct its origin by using scripture as their source and a midrashic approach as their method. Some amoraim link the celebration to the concubine of Gibeah story.

What was the Fifteenth of Av?

Rav Yehuda in the name of Shmuel said: “It is the day on which the tribes were permitted to intermarry.”…

Rav Yosef in the name of Rav Nachman said: “It is the day on which the tribe of Benjamin was permitted to reenter the congregation of Israel” (BT Ta’anit 30b). [5]

The Talmud apparently distinguishes between these two sayings, though it seems to me that they both reflect a similar tradition that locates the source of the daughters of Jerusalem’s dancing on the fifteenth of Av in the story of the kidnapping of the daughters of Shiloh. It is easy to imagine the link that these rabbis made between the two stories. They sought a biblical foundation for the colorful scene depicted in the mishnah. Such an event is not actually described anywhere in the Bible, but the image of girls dancing in a vineyard forms the bridge between the biblical account and the Mishnah in Ta’anit.

A Roman Parallel

The Roman foundation myth of the abduction of the Sabine women is highly reminiscent of the biblical account of the planned Benjaminite abduction of the dancing girls at Shiloh. According to an ancient tradition, Rome experienced a shortage of women similar to that of the tribe of Benjamin. Following the Sabine’s refusal to enter a marriage covenant, Romulus, the founder of Rome, invites them and their families to summer games held in honor of Neptune Equester. When the signal is given, the Romans abduct and subsequently marry the Sabine women. Like the biblical rape story, this incident also ends with the tribes being permitted to marry each other. As Livy, a historian of the first century tells it, the Sabines had decreed war on Rome but the hostilities were finally brought to an end through the abduction of Sabine women:

They went boldly into the midst of the flying missiles with disheveled hair and rent garments. Running across the space between the two armies they tried to stop any further fighting and calm the excited passions by appealing to their fathers in the one army and their husbands in the other not to bring upon themselves a curse by staining their hands with the blood of a father-in-law or a son-in-law, nor upon their posterity the taint of parricide.

“If,” they cried, “you are weary of these ties of kindred, these marriage-bonds, then turn your anger upon us; it is we who are the cause of the war, it is we who have wounded and slain our husbands and fathers. Better for us to perish rather than live without one or the other of you, as widows or as orphans.” (Livy, History of Rome 1:13; Roberts translation)

Quite like the biblical narrative, as a result of the women’s role as daughters and partners of the warring parties, the Romans and Sabines forge a political covenant of joint rule. [6]

The story of the Sabine women made its mark on the historical consciousness of the Western culture – both the trauma of the abduction of women and the futileness of war. The women – tragically, the ultimate victims of many tribal conflicts –bring about an end to the men’s wars based on “family values”, thereby heralding inter-tribal unification.

In light of the great similarity to the biblical story, it is worthwhile to examine the differences between Livy’s version of the Roman tradition and the account of the Rabbis in the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud. The main difference is rooted in the stories’ different approaches to gender. Livy’s account hints at forgiveness vis-à-vis the women’s abduction and their forced marriage. In contrast, the rabbinic midrash deals with recovery and repair of the wrongdoings arising from the biblical story. In the Bible, the story of the abduction of the women of Shiloh is apparently “solved” once and for all – we do not hear of it again. However, according to the explanation in the Talmud, the memory of the abduction of the women of Shiloh is expressed by the Tu B’Av celebrations in Jerusalem. Every year on this day the young women of Jerusalem go out to dance in the vineyards. The story of abduction is replaced by a ceremony of seduction and courtship, in which it is the women who take the initiative. The mishnah describes the scene in which the women say to the men: “Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself. Don’t set your eyes upon beauty; rather, set your eyes upon family.”

According to this narrative, the young women were proud of their lineage and their families. It is perhaps because of this that the verse attached to this saying – “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised” (New International Version) – emphasizes fear of God as the dominant attribute.

On the other hand, it is clear that the courtship dances do not stress any of these qualities. A broader picture can be seen in a baraita from the Babylonian Talmud:

The Rabbis taught:

The beautiful among them said – “Set your eyes on beauty, for the quality of a woman is in her beauty.”

Those of noble lineage among them said – “Set your eyes on the family, for the quality of a woman is for her children.”

The ugly ones among them said – “Carry off your purchase in the name of Heaven, on condition that you adorn us with gold jewels” (BT Ta’anit 31a; adapted from the Soncino translation).

According to these traditions, Tu B’Av is celebrated as a festival of love, that is, a celebration of mutual courtship in which the women assume the central role, emphasize their comparative advantages, thereby directing the men’s choices.

Although today many may have reservations about the gender-relations here, the mishnah is still a rare example from the world of the sages that depicts women’s strength and empowerment. It can also be related to one of the sages’ most profound halakhic innovations. Specifically, while according to the Torah, it is the father who betroths his daughter, the rabbinic halakhah empowers a woman to marry solely in accordance with her own free will. [7]

This is also a great example of the manner in which the Sages tried to shape historical consciousness via creative reinterpretation. One might have imagined that upon the conclusion of the civil war with the tribe of Benjamin Jewish leaders would have established another Tisha B’Av to mourn this terrible civil war and even its problematic “solution” of kidnapping the women of Shiloh. Instead, they took Tu B’Av and established it as a festival of love in which the tribes join together in matrimony. In this way, they turned enemies into lovers. The rabbis described Tu B’Av as an erotic holiday in which the daughters and sons of Israel go out to the vineyards and have a dance party – and then go home, as one people, as a mixed mosaic of tribes, to marry one another.

The origins of Tu B’Av in the Talmud’s view present us with a revolutionary model of ritual creation from the perspective of “myth and ritual” theory, a theory predominant in the mid-twentieth century that suggested that myths and rituals were deeply intertwined and needed to be studied together—the myth was in some sense the libretto for the ritual. In this case, the ritual as interpreted by the amoraim is not simply intertwined with the biblical myth but arecovery from that myth. In the Talmud’s reading, the traumatic rape stories from the end of the Book of Judges hover in the background of the Tu B’Av festival, with the ritual of Tu B’Av functioning as a form of therapy achieved through the creation of new relationships.

While forging a route for the rehabilitation of the Tribe of Benjamin, the festival of the women in Shiloh ends in personal tragedy for the newly kidnapped. By the rabbis presenting the opposite model, the moral condemnation of the rape is intensified. Moreover, in contrast to the underlying political assumption at the foundation of the biblical story, the ritual reflects a reality absent of king and temple—the main loci of biblical rituals – yet still enabling the harmonious relations between men and women. Unlike the biblical story in which the women’s voice is not heard, the ritual of Tu B’av as interpreted by the rabbis grants status, beauty, character, and a face to the daughters of Jerusalem as they go out to dance in the vineyards.


[1] This is actually not their first but their second solution. Their first solution is to slaughter all of the men of Jabesh-Gilead (the only community which did not join the fight against Benjamin). After destroying the city, they bring the women as booty for the men of Benjamin who are forbidden from marrying with any of the other tribes of Israel. Only when the number of women captured proves insufficient do they turn to the kidnapping solution outlined above.

[2] ? ?ַ?ְ?ַ?ּ֕?ּ ?ֶ?־?ְּ?ֵ֥? ?ִ?ְ?ָ?ִ֖? ?ֵ??ֹ֑? ?ְ?֖?ּ ?ַ?ֲ?ַ?ְ?ֶּ֥? ?ַּ?ְּ?ָ?ִֽ??: ?? ?ּ?ְ?ִ??ֶ֗? ?ְ֠?ִ?ֵּ? ?ִ?־?ֵ֨?ְ?֥?ּ ?ְ??ֹ?־?ִׁ???ֹ֘ ?ָ?֣?ּ? ?ַּ?ְּ?ֹ??ֹ?֒ ?ִֽ??ָ??ֶ?֙ ?ִ?־?ַ?ְּ?ָ?ִ֔?? ?ַ?ֲ?ַ?ְ?ֶּ֥? ?ָ?ֶ֛? ?ִ֥??ׁ ?ִ?ְׁ?ּ֖?ֹ ?ִ?ְּ?֣?ֹ? ?ִׁ??֑?ֹ ?ַ?ֲ?ַ?ְ?ֶּ֖? ?ֶ֥?ֶ? ?ִּ?ְ?ָ?ִֽ?: ?? ?ְ?ָ?ָ֡? ?ִּֽ?־?ָ?ֹ֣??ּ ?ֲ??ֹ?ָ?֩ ?֨?ֹ ?ֲ?ֵ??ֶ֜? ???? ?ָ?ִ֣??׀ ?ֵ?ֵ֗???ּ ?ְ?ָ?ַ֤?ְ??ּ ?ֲ?ֵ??ֶ?֙ ?ָ?ּ֣?ּ??ּ ??ֹ?ָ֔? ?ִּ֣? ?ֹ֥? ?ָ?ַ֛?ְ??ּ ?ִ֥??ׁ ?ִ?ְׁ?ּ֖?ֹ ?ַּ?ִּ?ְ?ָ?ָ֑? ?ִּ֣? ?ֹ֥? ?ַ?ֶּ֛? ?ְ?ַ?ֶּ֥? ?ָ?ֶ֖? ?ָּ?ֵ֥? ?ֶּ?ְ?ָֽׁ??ּ

[3] ??? ??? ????? ?? ?????? ?? ??? ???? ????? ?????? ????? ??? ??? ????? ???????… ????? ??????? ?????? ?????? ?????? ??? ??? ?????? ???? ?? ?? ????? ???? ?? ??? ???? ?? ?? ??? ????? ???? ?? ????? ??????

[4] It seems that the 15th of Av was initially connected to vintage celebrations. In the calendars found at Qumra,n the vine first fruits was celebrated at the beginning of the fifth month. See the TABS essay ”The Law of Fourth-Year Fruit: Restraining the Ancient Vintage Celebration.”  As for how the ritual fits into the Mishnah’s reference to Yom Kippur, see the TABS essay, “Yom Kippur: A Festival of Dancing Maidens.”

[5] ??? ???? ??? ??? ??? ???? – ??? ?? ????? ??? ?????: ??? ?????? ????? ???? ?? ???…. ??? ?? ???? ??? ?? ????: ??? ????? ??? ?????? ???? ????…

[6]  For more discussion of the similarities and connections between the stories, see Robert Gnuse, “Abducted Wives: a Hellenistic narrative in Judges 21?,” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 21,2 (2007) 228-240.

[7]  For a detailed discussion see Moshe Halbertal, Interpretative Revolutions in the Making: Values as Interpretative Considerations in Midrashei Halakhah (Hebrew; Jerusalem, 1997), pp. 74-83.

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