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The Fifteenth Av and Yom Kippur
By Nachum Mohl
The last Mishnah in the Tractate of Ta'anit states:
Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says, "There were never happier days for the Jews like the fifteen of Av and Yom Kippur for on those days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out wearing borrowed white clothing so that they should not embarrass those who did not own such. These dresses required immersion in a mikvah. The daughters of Jerusalem would go and dance in the vineyards and say, 'young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose. Do not look for beauty, look for family as it is stated in Proverbs (31) 'grace is deceitful and beauty is vain, a woman that is G-d fearing is to be praised'"
When we consider that this Mishnah was written over two thousand years ago and that the Mishnah in general is the basis of our religious values, it is quite extra-ordinary that Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, who was the recognized leader during his generation should report approvingly that on these two days, the young ladies would dance and the young men who were not married would come to watch. In our time it would seem blasphemous if a religious leader would approve, much less, propose doing this today. How much more this seems strange that it was done even on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, the Day of Judgment!
The Talmud continues from the Mishnah and explains why these two days were so happy. Yom Kippur, the Talmud relates, is obvious: on this day we have our sins forgiven of course it is a joyous day! But what happened on the fifteen of Av? The Talmud related several events that happened, among them was that the twelve tribes would not intermarry for fear that land may be inherited by the daughter and when she died being married to a man from a different tribe, would cause that portion of land to be inherited by a different tribe. It was on the fifteenth of Av that this custom was judged and found to be non-binding, the courts permitted inter-tribal marriage. Also on the fifteenth of Av the tribe of Benjamin was permitted to intermarry. After the brutal killing of the concubine (Judges 21) in Benjamin's area, the other eleven tribes swore not to intermarry with them. On the fifteenth of Av this vow was annulled. We see a pattern of conciliation and coming together on this date, a day seemingly specifically made for love and togetherness.
Still we who live in our times can wonder, dancing of Yom Kippur, is that the type of conduct a nice Jewish girl should be doing on this holy day?
However it is interesting to note that Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel mentions in the Mishnah two important points that we have seemingly overlooked. One is that every girl borrowed a dress from another girl. The Talmud explains that the King's daughter would borrow from the daughter of the high priest; the daughter of the high priest would borrow from the daughter of the second highest priest. Each girl would borrow clothing from someone in a lower station than herself and no one would wear their own clothing. This is to avoid embarrassing someone who did not possess a white dress and that it showed concerned for the poor who were embarrassed not to have a dress that matched the girls in a higher financial status.
The second important point to note in the Mishnah is that all dresses required immersion in a mikva, the ritual bath for spiritual purification. This shows us that the girls were aware of spiritual purity and that it was important to them. In our generation only married women go to the mikva; in their generation even unmarried girls went to the mikva and even their clothing had to be pure, not just their bodies. Couple this with their concern for their fellow girl friends and we begin to see a picture of girls with a highly developed sense of altruism. This was a generation that lived with the Temple, who lived in the holiest city of the world, where the word of G-d was not denied or debased but held sacred. This was a generation who saw open miracles, a generation whose every feeling was directly connected to the Holy G-d of Israel. This was not a generation of overt sinners and scoffers, or a generation who worshipped intellectual mastery while lacking emotional belief. This was a generation who saw with their own eyes the goodness of G-d who had in His benevolence had given them a day to have their sins removed. This was a generation to whom atonement was a much desired commodity; they could dance on this day. But we who hardly understand anything that pertains to holiness, we who have misused our eyes and thereby have darkened our souls by seeing and desiring physical pleasures can not in any manner approach their lofty level of spiritual being; therefore we must abstain from such dancing on the holy days.
Yet when the righteous Messiah shall come, he will open our eyes and hearts to G-d that we may rejoice in purity when we attain atonement for our sins.
from the August 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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