Tu b’Av, which falls today, is probably the least-known festival on the Jewish calendar. Probably only regular daveners of shacharit will notice because the prayers of supplication which would normally be said that morning are omitted.
After the Three Weeks of mourning for the Temple, it is an ostensibly happy occasion, a kind of ancient Valentine’s Day (see right). It could also be said to be a day of Jewish unity.
The Talmud offers a number of explanations of its origin. During the wilderness, for example, Moses prohibited Jewish women marrying into a different tribe — a measure designed to prevent one tribe’s allotted portion of the Land of Israel passing to another through marriage. But on Tu b’Av, according to the rabbis, the tribes were permitted to intermarry again.
There is also a darker story behind the day — one of the most disturbing in the Bible — which goes back to the final chapter of the book of Judges. There was a Levite who had a concubine; she deserts him and goes back to her home. But he follows her and persuades her to return.
During the journey home, they rest for the night in Gibeah, which is part of the territory of the tribe of Benjamin. But outside their lodging, a crowd of “base fellows” gather and demand that the man come out where they intend to sexually abuse him. Instead, he sends out his concubine, who is then gang-raped through the night until she collapses in the doorway.
In the morning the Levite approaches her to resume the journey, but when he speaks, the Bible says, “none answered”. He brings her lifeless body home and then “he took a knife and divided her, limb by limb, into 12 pieces, and sent her throughout all the borders of Israel”.
When the Benjamites refuse to surrender the “base fellows” who carried out the brutal deed to justice, the other tribes of Israel go to war with them. They also place a ban on marriage with the tribe of Benjamin. .
But Tu b’Av brought national reconciliation, according to the rabbis, and the Benjamites were once again able to intermarry with the other tribes.