Many Jews are uncomfortable with Valentine’s Day – with its pagan and Christian origins – and refrain from using it to send expressions of love. Happily, Jews have other opportunities to do just that.

The Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:8) relates that one of the two most joyous days in ancient Israel was the 15th day of Av, Tu b’Av. What happened on that day? “The daughters of Jerusalem went out in white garments … dancing in the vineyards. And what did they say? ‘Young men, look up and see what you will choose for yourself. Look not at beauty but at family….'”

A poster from last year’s Love Fest

The Mishnah is worthy of study on a number of counts. For example, all of the women wore borrowed dresses so that wealth – or lack thereof – would not be an issue in a man’s selecting a mate. Further, the emphasis is on family, not beauty, in the selection process. “Looks,” fleeting and superficial, are not what Judaism views as the foundation of a real and loving relationship.

Tu b’Av, which marked the beginning of the annual vintage, was a day to find love. To this day, Shabbat Nahamu, the Shabbat immediately after Tisha b’Av, is a popular singles Shabbat. What more appropriate day than Tu b’Av to send a card, flowers or small token to your beloved – or to introduce a young man and woman to each other?

Rabbi Ronald Roth, religious leader of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Cong. B’nai Israel, points out that in Israel, the holiday – which has not been much marked in recent years – has undergone a kind of rebirth.

Indeed, according to the Website, “In recent decades, Israeli civil culture promotes festivals of singing and dancing on the night of Tu b’Av. The entertainment and beauty industries work overtime on this date.”

Still, Roth pointed out, there is no special liturgy for this occasion or any religious ritual.

In this country, he said, “most Jews are not aware of it, so historically it hasn’t worked out very well.” But, he added, since marriage within the faith is something we are still concerned about, the holiday might be used to raise our consciousness.

“It’s a conceptual reminder that we need to see to it that Jews have an opportunity to meet and marry other Jews,” he said, suggesting, for example that synagogues might purchase JDate memberships for single members.

The Jewish Standard reported in a March 2008 article that Rabbi Kenneth Emert of Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff had done precisely that, using monies from his synagogue’s discretionary fund.

Rabbi Jarah Greenfield of Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel of Bergen County in Maywood said the “day is fertile ground for what could become a contemporary Jewish ritual, but we’re not there yet.”

It “has a lot of resonance,” she said, adding that Tu b’Av, on which women went out to choose their life partners, represents “a reversal of social norms.” Also, she said, “it exists as something to look back on and enjoy – a snapshot of what vibrant Jewish life was like on that special day.”

Greenfield pointed out that the day has “a lot of potentially rich feminist elements.” Even though it is premised on the idea that women need to be married, “there are underpinnings of equality running through the ritual,” such as the requirement that the white garments be borrowed.

The rabbi said we might look on the holiday today as an opportunity to celebrate “unconventional loving relationships” in contemporary Jewish life. “To me, it’s a wonderful opportunity to be creative with ritual,” she said, adding that she will definitely mention the holiday on the Shabbat preceding it. “It’s an opportunity to educate people,” she said.

Rabbi Neal Borovitz of River Edge’s Temple Avodat Shalom – who said he doesn’t know anyone who observes Tu b’Av – pointed out that the day is linked in the sources to Yom Kippur, since the afternoon of that day was also traditionally a time for making matches.

Borovitz suggested that “somehow in medieval times [the day] had a connection with Tisha b’Av, [which began] the countdown to Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.” The rabbi noted that it also came at the end of a period of mourning, during which marriages are prohibited.

“Its only contemporary significance may be as a reminder that there’s a Jewish communal responsibility to facilitate young people meeting other young people,” he said. “To me, if we’re going to do something, it would be to make it a big Jewish singles event. Maybe we should consider this for next year.”