The Festival of Dancing in the Vineyards
At the end of the Book of Judges it is told of a quarrel between the tribes of , in wake of which all the tribes of Israel declare a boycott on the Tribe of Benjamin: “Not one of us will give his daughter in marriage to a Benjamite”! However, after a while the eleven tribes experience regret, for fear that one of the twelve would be wiped out. The vow to ban Benjamin must not be broken; however, eventually the solution of turning a sort of ‘blind eye’ is found. “So they instructed the Benjamites, saying, 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.
The difficult question that arises from this story is—“the annual festival of the Lord in Shiloh”—why is it neither mentioned in the Torah nor marked on the calendar? The answer to this question emerges about a thousand years later when, by the way, in a ‘remote corner’ at the end of Mishnah Ta’anit, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, head of the Sanhedrin of Beit Hillel in his generation (he lived in the 2nd century AD) and still remembered Temple procedures: There were never happier days for the Jews like the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur, on which the young girls of Jerusalem would go out... And dance in the vineyards. And what did they say: “Young men, look and observe well whom you are about to choose [as a spouse]; regard not beauty [alone], but rather look to a virtuous family...” At face value, this memory bears no hint of the religious significance of this appointed time, as opposed to Yom Kippur; hence, its meaning must necessarily be sought in the word ‘vineyards’; in other words, the date is connected with end of the grape harvest and that season. Some scholars compare Tu B’Av with Tu B’Shvat: Midsummer versus midwinter and, as usual with ancient seasonal times, they lasted a whole week, beginning with the somberness of fasting and self-denial, and ending with a burst of joy and permissiveness.
Thus, even the ancient 9th of Av assumes a different character than that historically presented in Jewish tradition. Rabbi Shimon’s words reveal the great affinity the people had for this holiday. It would be reasonable to assume that the religious scholars did not have the same regard for it. The frivolous meeting of young men and women would certainly have been abhorrent to them – ‘dancers’ offering themselves as spouses, perhaps just for that time... A point of interest is the elaboration of this detail in the Talmud – ‘what would they say’: What would the beautiful women among them say? Set your eyes toward beauty, as a wife is only for her 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 / as a precept. Either way, the efforts of traditional interpretation are evident, to try and give this occasion a more respectable image, a kind of annual holiday of matchmaking in accordance with law and custom. The seasonal aspect too is known to the sources, and of this date it says in the Talmud: “From the fifteenth of Av onward, the strength of the sun grows weaker, and from this date they would not cut additional wood for the arrangement/for the burning of sacrifices on the altar in the Temple, as they would not be properly dry.... And they called it the day of the breaking of the scythe.” It is no wonder that over time the validity of this beautiful holiday expired, and was forgotten over the long generations of exile, during which the Jews had no vineyards and, in general, hearts were not inclined to the ‘bold’ dances in which the daughters of Israel would capture the heart of the young men.