Friday, August 3, 2012

A Less-Known Reason for Tu B'Av Rejoicing

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If you ask a secular Israel on the street what is Tu B’av (a mini-holiday which falls on Aug 3, 2012), he will inevitably answer, “The Holiday of Love.” And, in fact, there is an aspect of love in the holiday, because it was today that the tribe of Binyamin, some 2900 years ago, was allowed entry back into the Jewish People in an unusual, mass-engagement ceremony.  

The bachelors of Binyamin hid in the vineyards of the town of Shiloh, and as the young maidens of Israel came out to dance in the vineyards, each man came out of hiding and selected for himself a bride.  

Because of this historic event, which saved the tribe of Binyamin from extinction, Israelis today call this holiday the holiday of love.

The Talmud in the tractate of Taanit page 30 folio B, tells of seven historic events which occurred on Tu B’av, and each one is reason enough to establish Tu B’av as a day of rejoicing. I will explore one of the less known reasons.

The Talmud calls this day “Tever Magal” which means the day of “breaking the axe.” What axes is the Talmud talking about and why is breaking them a reason for celebration? Let’s try and answer this by understanding the historical background

When the Jewish People returned to build the second temple under the leadership of Ezra and Nechemia, they needed a steady supply of wood to burn the fire on the mizbeach (alter) which consumed the burned parts of the temple sacrifices. But there was a dire lack of trees in Israel since the goyim had cut down all the forests.

It became a major issue to find wood for the alter, and the elders of Israel decided to turn donations of wood (nidvat etzim) into a central and important offering brought with the same pomp and circumstance as the Bikurim fruits offering.

In the temple, they accepted wood offerings until the 15th of Av, and then they wouldn’t accept anymore wood for the mizbeach (alter) until the following year. Why did they stop chopping down trees for wood on the alter on Tu B’av?

Tu B’av falls towards the end of the summer months when the sun begins to lose its strength. Wood chopped down at a time that the sun isn’t strong enough would remain moist and attract worms, thereby disqualifying it from being used on the alter. So, the Rabbis sought a cut-off date as summer nears its end after which they didn’t want to risk accepting wood which might have worms in it. They chose the 15th of Av as the cut-off date.

Since the axes used for this task were stored away on Tu B’av, the day took on the name as “breaking the ax day,” which can really mean placing them in storage. The completion of the mitzvah of preparing wood for the alter for the entire year was, in itself, a reason for joy. But there’s more to the joy.

The enemies of Israel in the time of the Second Temple sought ways to disrupt the Temple service. They issued a decree forbidding Jews to bring wood for the Temple alter and established roadblocks outside of Jerusalem to catch those who dared defy the decree.

What did the Jews do to keep the Temple service going? How could they possibly get wood through the roadblocks?

The Talmud tells that Jewish ingenuity kicked in as the Jewish pilgrims made ladders out of the wood and told the roadblock guards that they were on their way to collect chicks out from birds nests near Jerusalem, a common task at the time. Once they passed the roadblock, they dismantled the ladders and brought the wood to the Temple.

These Jews risked their lives defying the decree. Part of the joy of Tu B’av is a salute to these heroes whose Jewish ingenuity combined with readiness to sacrifice enabled the Temple service to continue.

Let’s review the two reasons for joy on Tu B’av that we stated:

1)      It is the last day of the important mitzvah of bringing wood for the alter, and we always rejoice upon completion o f a mitzvah.

2)      We salute and praise those Jews who endangered themselves to supply wood for the alter.

Rabbi Mordchai Eliyahu, of blessed memory, would emphasize another joyous aspect of the day we “break the ax.” Since the arduous task of cutting down trees and chopping the wood ended on Tu B’av, much time freed up from this day onward for Torah study. We increase our study both in quantity and quality on Tu B’av. Thus, the joy on this day is the joy of increased Torah study.

The study of Torah is the replaces the wood on the alter, as our Rabbis said: One who engages in Torah study on the long winter nights with candlelight, is as though the temple is rebuilt in his days, and the wood on the alter rages in flames providing light for him to continue his study.

The above is my son Tovia's Bar Mitzvah Speech which was delivered last night at his Bar Mitzvah celebration in Bet El. The two of us studied together about Tu B'av to enable him to write his speech. Below are some pics and highlights from the "Thank you's" part of the speech.

Tovia leading the Maariv prayer service for the first time in his life. The proud father (me) looks on.

Highlights from end of speech:

Now I reach the cherry on top of the whipped cream that everyone likes. The Thank you’s.
First of all, thank you to G-d for all the good which surrounds me, my family, my friends, my grandparents and parents.

And to you my good friends, thank you for participating in my simcha!

Bar Mitzvah boy Tovia on top of the pyramid

To my family – I remind you that I am the youngest Bar Mitzvah of this generation. I am the youngest grandchild on both sides. So take advantage of this event, and remember it for the rest of your life, because in it we are sealing off the generation.

I hope that your gifts to me reflect this added importance.

To my Uncles and Aunts, you are the greatest. You have watched me grow from the side. From now on, I am responsible for my own deeds.

As I reflect on my own extensive experience as an uncle to many nephews and nieces, I can say that being an uncle is not always an easy task. Uncles and Aunts have a lot of work, and for this I thank you.

To my brothers and sisters, thank you for all you have given me and done for me. Your brotherly love will stay with me for my entire life. Thank for being by my side, for supporting me, and for criticizing me, both constructive and non-constructive criticism.

And last but not least my parents who have brought me to this stage in my life. To Ima who carried me for nine months in her stomach, and to Abba who helped her and prayed for my success. For the giving of all these years, and the education. Thank you.

Thank you for the times you said “no,” and thank you even more for the times you said, “yes.” Thank you for the merit to grow up in your home.

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