A Day of Matchmaking

  • Harav Yaakov Medan
 
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: There never were in Israel greater days of joy than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur. On these days, the daughters of Jerusalem would walk out in white garments, which they borrowed in order not to put to shame anyone who had none… The daughters of Jerusalem came out and danced in the vineyards exclaiming at the same time: “Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself.” (Ta'anit 4:8)
 
The mishna asserts that the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur are joyous holidays of matchmaking. Upon what is this assertion based?
 
The Fifteenth of Av
 
The gemara (ad loc.) brings several justifications for the establishment of a holiday on the fifteenth of Av, a holiday that is not mentioned in the Torah:
 
But what happened on the fifteenth of Av?
R. Yehuda said in the name of Shemuel: It is the day on which permission was granted to the tribes to intermarry [after entering the land of Israel]….
R. Yosef said in the name of R. Nachman: It is the day on which the tribe of Binyamin was permitted to reenter the congregation [of Israel], as it is stated: "Now the men of Israel had sworn in Mitzpa, saying: There shall not any of us give his daughter unto Binyamin to wife" (Shofetim 21:1)…
Rabba bar Chana said in the name of R. Yochanan: It is the day on which the generation of the wilderness ceased to die out….
Ulla said: It is the day on which Hoshea ben Ela removed the guards whom Yerovam ben Nevat had placed on the roads to prevent Israel from going [up to Jerusalem] on pilgrimage….
R. Matena said: It is the day when permission was granted for those killed at Beitar to be buried….
Rabba and R. Yosef both said: It is the day on which [every year] they discontinued to fell trees for the altar. (Ta'anit 30b-31a)
 
The gemara brings six different explanations. We will address what seems to be the most persuasive explanation – the view of R. Yosef and Rav Nachman that the fifteenth of Av is the day on which the tribe of Binyamin was permitted to reenter the congregation of Israel. This opinion seems to be closest to the mark owing to the way that the holiday was celebrated according to the mishna – with the daughters of Israel dancing in the vineyards waiting to be sought for marriage. This parallels how the young women of Shilo who danced in the vineyards were permitted to the young men of Binyamin despite the oath banning such unions:[1]
 
Now the men of Israel had sworn in Mitzpa, saying: “There shall not any of us give his daughter unto Binyamin to wife.” And the people came to Bet-El, and sat there till evening before God, and lifted up their voices, and wept sore. And they said: “O Lord, the God of Israel, why is this come to pass in Israel, that there should be today one tribe lacking in Israel?”…
And they said: “Behold, there is the feast of the Lord from year to year in Shilo, which is on the north of Bet-El…” And they commanded the children of Binyamin, saying: “Go and lie in wait in the vineyards; and see, and, behold, if the daughters of Shilo come out to dance in the dances, then come you out of the vineyards, and catch you every man his wife of the daughters of Shilo, and go to the land of Binyamin. And it shall be, when their fathers or their brethren come to strive with us, that we will say unto them: Grant them graciously unto us; because we took not for each man of them his wife in battle; neither did you give them unto them, that you should now be guilty.”
And the children of Binyamin did so, and took them wives, according to their number, of those that danced, whom they carried off; and they went and returned unto their inheritance, and built the cities, and dwelt in them. (Shofetim 21:1-3; 16-23)
 
Despite the similarity, however, it is precisely these verses that imply that it was not the permission that was granted to Binyamin to reenter the congregation of Israel that underlies the holiday of the fifteenth of Av. After all, the verse explicitly states: "Behold, there is the feast of the Lord from year to year in Shilo." From here we see that the holiday in honor of which the daughters of Shilo went out to dance in the vineyards was celebrated before the incident involving the concubine in Giv'a, which led to the restrictive oath. What, then, is the original source of the holiday, even before the tribe of Binyamin was permitted to reenter the congregation of Israel?
 
A Harvest Festival
 
The fifteenth of Av may have been a festival celebrating the grape harvest, paralleling the holiday of Shevuot, the festival celebrating the wheat harvest. The celebration of the vintage festival surpassed the harvest festival, seeing that it was connected to wine, which gladdens the heart of man.[2] Indeed, there are attestations in the Bible to the joy that accompanied the grape harvest and the subsequent treading of the grapes:
 
And gladness and joy is taken away from the fruitful field and from the land of Moav; and I have caused wine to cease from the winepresses; none shall tread with shouting; the shouting shall be no shouting. (Yirmeyahu 48:33)[3]
 
 Alongside its virtues, the problem with wine is that it is liable to lead to light-mindedness and drunkenness. This indeed was the case with the grape harvest in the vineyards of Shechem, which led to senseless bloodshed:
 
And they went out into the field, and gathered their vineyards, and trod the grapes, and held festival, and went into the house of their god, and did eat and drink, and cursed Avimelech. (Shofetim 9:16)
 
It may be, then, that the fifteenth of Av was from time immemorial a holiday marking the harvest of the grape crop and the treading of the grapes. Chazal insisted on giving it historical-moral color in the form of the permission that was granted to the tribe of Binyamin to reenter the congregation of Israel, which took place on that day, because they feared that without assigning it moral significance, it was liable to deteriorate into a drinking party with cursing and frivolity. Thus, the wine and vintage festival was turned into a day of righteous matchmaking, as an extension of the permission granted to the tribe of Binyamin to reenter the congregation of Israel.
 
The Joy of Yom Kippur
 
What remains to be explained is the connection between Yom Kippur and matchmaking dances in the vineyards. It would seem that there is no day less appropriate than Yom Kippur – a day of prayer, repentance, and crying out to God – for watching young women dancing in the vineyards!
 
Indeed, Yom Kippur as it developed in Jewish tradition in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple is not at all appropriate for the aforementioned rejoicing. But the joy described in the mishna was indeed appropriate for Yom Kippur during the period that the Temple stood, when the essence of that holy day was the service performed by the High Priest in the Temple. The eyes of all of Israel were directed at the thread of crimson wool that hung at the entrance to the Sanctuary, in hopeful anticipation of its turning to white when the scapegoat would be cast off the cliff to Azazel. R. Yishmael attests:
 
A thread of crimson wool was tied to the door of the Temple, and when the he-goat reached the wilderness, the thread turned white, as it is written: "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow" (Yeshayahu 1:18). (Mishna, Yoma 6:8)[4]
 
In the final years of the Second Temple, the crimson thread regularly did not turn white (Yerushalmi, Yoma 6:3). During the time of the First Temple as well, it is reasonable to assume that there were years during which it did not whiten.[5] It may be surmised that in many of those years, the fast ended in mourning and frustration. From here it follows that in good years, when the thread of crimson wool turned white, the hours that followed were marked by an almost incontrollable eruption of mass joy and sense of relief from the spiritual tension connected to the question whether God would favorably receive the people's offering, service, and prayers. These celebrations burst forth from the Temple to the city streets, and in the wake of the whitening of the crimson thread the daughters of Jerusalem, decked in white garments, went out to dance in the vineyards.[6] The Sages attempted to ensure that the dancing continued in the atmosphere of the joy of a mitzva. Thus, the conclusion of Yom Kippur – in the years when the crimson thread whitened – turned into a holiday of the joy of matchmaking, similar to the fifteenth of Av.
 
A Holiday of the Anullment of Bans
 
According to what we have said thus far, turning Yom Kippur into a festival of matchmaking was done by Chazal after the fact, with the objective of hallowing the joyous dancing that broke out after the crimson thread whitened. Alternatively, it is possible that the dancing festival that was celebrated on Yom Kippur was the product of deliberate intention deriving from the very essence of the holy day.
 
We discussed above the dance festival in Shilo as it appears in the story concerning the concubine in Giv'a. That festival was celebrated on the fifteenth of Av – the vintage festival and the day that the tribe of Binyamin was permitted to reenter the congregation of Israel. On that day, there was a celebration of the matchmaking that prevented the extinction of the tribe of Binyamin.
 
The permission granted to the tribe of Binyamin to reenter the congregation of Israel was connected to another action: the lifting of the ban that had been placed on that tribe. The gemara (Ta'anit 30b) relates that the elders of the court ruled that the ban applied only to that same generation, and they permitted giving the women of Israel to the next generation of the children of Binyamin. It is possible that this exposition was taught on the very day that the people of Binyamin were granted permission to grab wives for themselves. With this, the severe ban was emptied of its contents.
 
According to what we have suggested, there is a strong connection between the dance festival in Shilo and Yom Kippur. After all, Yom Kippur is "a day of enhancing love and friendship, a day of abandoning jealousy and competition" (Selichot, Musaf of Yom Kippur). The annulment of the ban directly connects to the prayer of Kol Nidrei, with which the Yom Kippur prayers open.
 
Much ink has been spilled to explain the custom of opening the Yom Kippur prayers, at that lofty moment when the emotional charge of entering the holy is particularly heavy, with the technical matter of annulling vows, which ostensibly could be done any other day of the year.[7] One possibility is that the annulment of vows is a continuation of the statement found immediately before the Kol Nidrei passage according to the Ashkenazi rite, a statement through which we permit prayer together with the transgressors:
 
With authority of the court on high and the court here on earth, with God's consent and the consent of the congregation, we declare it permissible to pray with transgressors.[8]
 
The "transgressors" with whom we declare it permissible to pray are primarily those who transgressed communal enactments and were therefore placed under a ban. On Yom Kippur, we permit them to join the congregation. This is explicitly stated by the Mordechai (no. 725):
 
And we permit the ban to pray together with any person who transgressed a communal decree.
 
From here we see that the power of Yom Kippur as "a day of assembly" is greater than the power of communal bans. It is therefore possible that this is why the rite of annulling vows was instituted at the beginning of the Yom Kippur service – because the annulment includes communal bans and the like. After those bans are lifted, those who had been placed under a ban can pray together with the rest of the congregation.[9] Accordingly, it is fitting to end Yom Kippur with a reenactment of the day on which the daughters of Israel danced in the vineyards of Shilo and the ban that had been placed on the tribe of Binyamin was lifted.[10]
 
 
Translated by David Strauss
 

[1] The gemara explains that the elders of the people expounded that the oath, "There shall not any of us give his daughter to Binyamin to wife" (Shofetim 21:1), applied to those who took the oath, but not to their descendants. Ostensibly, in light of this exposition, there was no longer any need for the dancing in the vineyards; it was thereafter possible to permit the daughters of Israel to the members of the tribe of Binyamin. Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the connection between the dancing in the vineyards mentioned in the mishna and the dancing of the daughters of Israel in the vineyards of Shilo. Apparently, in that generation they allowed the men of Binyamin to seize the young women in the vineyards "with the permission of the court." The exposition was needed to permit the people of Binyamin in later generations to marry the daughters of Israel in the ordinary manner.
[2] Although the wine produced from the grapes that were just now harvested would only be ready after many months and even years, it stands to reason that on the day of the vintage festival they also celebrated a wine festival and drank wine from previous years.  
[3] This "shouting" (heidad) refers to shouts of joy that people sounded while treading the grapes.
[4] For the history of this practice, see Yoma 67a; Yerushalmi, Yoma 6:5; Rambam, Hilkhot Avodat Yom Ha-Kippurim 3:7.
[5] This also follows from the words of the prophet Yeshayahu (1:18): "Come now and let us reason together, says the Lord; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool." In our opinion, the year that this prophecy was delivered, the thread of crimson wool did not whiten, despite the fact that the Temple service was being conducted in the proper manner. Yeshayahu taught the people of Israel that the thread will not whiten until justice and righteousness are returned to Jerusalem. This prophecy serves as the haftara that is read on Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat before Tish'a Be-Av, and it stands to reason that the general feeling on Yom Kippur that year was similar to that which is felt on Tish'a Be-Av. It is further possible that the question posed by the people, "Why have we fasted, and You see not? Why have we afflicted our soul, and You take no knowledge?" (Yeshayahu 58:3), alludes to the fact that the crimson thread did not whiten that year. The context of that chapter suggests that it was the Yom Kippur of the Jubilee year, and the people did not free their slaves as required, and therefore the crimson thread did not whiten. Therefore, the prophet rebukes them: "Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke?" (ibid. v. 6).
[6] It is possible that in the wake of this the Sages enacted to read at the Mincha service of Yom Kippur, a short time after the crimson thread would whiten, the Torah section dealing with forbidden sexual relationships – in order to warn the young men against being carried away by the young women. This caution was important precisely in the wake of the great joy, which was liable to turn into wanton joy. In fact, there are three different sources in Chazal that speak of people who had sexual relations with a betrothed woman on Yom Kippur; see Kalla Rabbati 2:9; Gittin 57a; Bava Metzia 83b.
[7] See Nedarim 23b, Tosafot, s.v. ve-at darashta leh, and the other commentators, ad loc. The conventional explanation is that the entire congregation assembles together on Yom Kippur, and therefore the rite of annulling vows was assigned to that day. The Yom Kippur service opens with this rite because the vows must be annulled before sunset, as vows may not be annulled on Shabbat or festivals.
[8] The custom of reciting this sentence is brought by the Tur, Orach Chayim, beginning of 619. The practice apparently originated with the Maharam of Rotenburg and it is cited by his disciple, R. Shimshon, in Tashbetz Katan, no. 131.
[9] One possible proof for the claim that the main purpose of annulling vows at the beginning of Yom Kippur is to permit the communal bans that had been pronounced on sinners who violated communal ordinances is found in the Tur (ibid.), who cites in the name of R. Saadya Gaon that Kol Nidrei annuls communal vows, but not individual vows. This also follows from the words of the Rema (Darkhei Moshe, ad loc., 3), who writes that two communal leaders would stand together with the prayer leader while he said, "With authority of the court on high, etc.," so that the three could constitute a court that can permit praying with the transgressors. The Rema does not explain why the two stand alongside the prayer leader also during the recitation of Kol Nidrei. According to what we have said, however, this is understandable; permitting the transgressors to pray with the congregation and annulling the vows constitutes a single unit, which requires a “court” that will lift the communal ban and permit the transgressors to join the congregation for prayer.
[10] The Torah section dealing with vows (Bamidbar 30:2-17) differs from other sections in that it was conveyed to the "heads of the tribes." Perhaps this indicates that the Torah does not discuss the oaths of individuals, but only with the oaths of tribes and the oaths of the entire community, oaths similar to those taken by the sons of Gad and the sons of Reuven to go armed before the rest of the people of Israel to conquer the land (Bamidbar 32:17) and similar to the oath taken by the tribes of Israel not to marry off their daughters to the sons of Binyamin. In the first case, the heads of the tribes had to ensure that the vow was fulfilled, in order that the oath taken by the heads of the other tribes to give the people of Gad and Reuven their portion on the east bank of the Jordan could also be fulfilled. In the second case, the heads of the tribes had to see to it that the oath would be annulled, after it became clear that observing it would bring about the destruction of the tribe of Binyamin.