A Catholic Holiday?
For starters, the
full name of the holiday is “Saint Valentine’s Day.” You are
probably familiar with St. Patrick’s Day. Similarly, many
Catholic saints have feast days. These days commemorate their
deaths (or martyrdom) and are intended to celebrate their lives
and to reflect upon their teachings. So, right off the bat, it’s
just not Jewish.
So who was Saint
Valentine? There were actually at least three saints by that
name, all of whom were martyred. The Valentine for whom the day
is named is believed to have been a priest in the third century
Rome. Legend says that when Claudius II outlawed marriage for
young men, hoping to groom better soldiers, Valentine continued
to perform marriages in secret. When he was discovered, he was
put to death.
Of course, it’s
never that simple. As we discuss in greater length in our
Halloween section, in the 800s, the Church adapted many
pagan holidays into Christian holidays. Samhain became All
Hallows Eve (or “Halloween”). Yule became Christmas and Eostre
became Easter. Similarly, a holiday called Lupercalia became
Valentine’s Day. Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated
to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture.
The Luperci, an
order of Roman priests, would gather at the cave where Romulus
and Remus, the founders of Rome, were believed to have been
suckled by a wolf (or “lupa”). The priests would sacrifice a
goat for fertility and a dog for purification.
Two naked young men would be smeared with
the blood, which was then wiped off.
The goat's hide would be
torn into strips and dipped in the blood. The two young men
would put on
loincloths made from the
and run around
slapping women and crops with the blood-stained goatskin strips
as a fortuitous omen for fertility. The young women would place
their names in an urn. Bachelors would choose a name from the
urn and be paired with his woman for the year. Pope Gelasius
declared February 14 to be St. Valentine's Day in the year 498
and the Roman “lottery” system was outlawed.
Given its Roman
roots, it’s not surprising that the icon of Valentine’s Day is
Cupid. Cupid is the son of Venus, the Roman goddess of love. (In
Greek mythology, Venus is Aphrodite and Cupid is Eros, from
which we get words like “erotic”).
Day is either the celebration of a Catholic saint’s martyrdom or
a Roman fertility rite – or possibly both. Either way, it’s just
not a Jewish idea to send Valentine’s Day cards and gifts to
your bf or gf.
Day is also infamous as the name of a massacre in which seven
criminals were eliminated in a gang war in Prohibition-era
On Valentine’s Day
1929, six members and an associate of Bugs Moran’s Irish/German
North Side gang were lined up against the wall of a garage in
Lincoln Park, IL. There, they were shot by five members of Al
Capone’s Italian South Side gang, two of whom were dressed as
policemen. (Capone himself was conveniently “on vacation” at the
The infamy of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre has no real
bearing on the celebration of Valentine’s Day, just as the Yom
Kippur War has no real bearing on the Jewish observance of Yom
Kippur. It’s just an interesting piece of trivia. If you’re ever
playing Password and your partner says “Valentine’s…” you would
reasonably be expected to answer “Massacre.”
Valentine's Day is
marked by several features, not the least of which is
materialism and conspicuous consumption. ("Conspicuous
consumption" refers to buying a lot of stuff in order to show
off or because of societal pressures to do so.) Don't believe
it? Just ask the guy who didn't give his girl flowers. For a day
ostensibly dedicated to love, there is a tremendous emphasis on
candy, flowers, stuffed animals, greeting cards and lingerie.
(Lingerie, by the way, whether given as a gift or purchased by
the woman to wear "for her man," sends a message of "sex" rather
than one of "love." The two may be related, but they are hardly
On the other hand,
there's a tremendous peer pressure to have a date for
Valentine's Day. For some reason, one's entire worth is deemed
to hinge upon whether or not he or she has a date for this
arbitrarily-chosen day of the year. (Again, don't believe it?
Ask the girl without a date.)
These are not
values encouraged in the Jewish holidays. Can our holidays get
expensive? Sure. But tzedaka (charitable acts) are always in the
forefront. On the "High Holidays" of Rosh Hashana and Yom
Kippur, the message is "teshuvah, tefillah and
tzedaka" (repentance, prayer and giving charity). Purim has
a festive meal, but the day is spent giving shalach manos
and matanos l'evyonim (gifts of food to others and money
to the poor). Even the Passover seder begins with the paragraph
called "Ha lachma anya," in which we invite anyone who
needs a place to stay to join us for Passover. Charity, yes.
Inclusion, yes. Conspicuous consumption and exclusion? No.
(This contrast of
moral messages doesn't even address the sexual aspect inherent
in Valentine's Day, which certainly flies in the face of the
Jewish ideals of not objectifying and dehumanizing people in
general and woman in particular.)
The Talmud (Chulin
109b) teaches us that for everything the Torah does not permit,
there is something comparable that is permitted. Trick or
treating not appropriate for Jews? You can put on your Purim
costume and deliver shalach manos door to door! (That’s
also a mitzvah, which is a much more preferable way to
spend your time than chucking eggs at people’s houses.) So
what’s the Torah’s kosher alternative to Valentine’s Day?
The Gemara tells
us (Taanis 26b) that one of the most important and
happiest days in the Jewish calendar is the 15th of Av (or “Tu
B’Av”). Why? What happened on that day? A number of joyous
things occurred on Tu B’Av, in stark contrast to the tragedies
of Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, which is commemorated a
mere week earlier. Two of these joyous occurrences relate to
love and marriage:
1) In the Torah
portion of Pinchas, we are told that the daughters of a man
named Tzelafchad complained to Moshe that the daughters of a man
with no sons did not appear to have inheritance rights. Hashem
replied to Moshe that the daughters would have inheritance
rights, provided that they only married men from the same Tribe.
(This ensured that land belonging to one Tribe of Israel would
not be inherited by another Tribe.) This restriction on the
dating pool was lifted after the Jews were settled in Israel.
The date it was lifted was the 15th of Av.
2) In the time of
the Judges, a man and a woman traveling in the area occupied by
the Tribe of Benjamin were accosted by the locals in a manner
identical to the way the inhabitants of had Sodom acted (see
Genesis 19). The woman was abused and killed by men from the
Tribe of Benjamin, resulting in a civil war. The other Tribes of
Israel did not permit their daughters to marry men from the
Tribe of Benjamin. But the matter was settled and the ban was
lifted on the 15th of Av.
How was the 15th
of Av celebrated? On that day, the unmarried girls would put on
white dresses. All of these dresses were borrowed from one
another. This way, people would not to focus on the girls’
financial means, as nobody knew whose dress belong to whom. The
girls would dance and they would call out to the young men not
to look at physical beauty, but at their character and
upbringing. They would quote the verse from Proverbs (31:30),
“Grace is false and beauty is meaningless; a woman who is
dedicated to G-d is the one to praise.” (This verse may be
familiar to you as part of the Eishes Chayil - "Woman of Valor"
- which is recited on Friday nights.) Even though Tu B’Av may
not be on many people’s Jewish radars, it is still a holiday
today. (For example, we do not say the Tachanun prayer, which is
omitted on holidays.)
Day? Not for Jews. That’s for ancient Romans, Catholics and
greeting card companies. If you want a holiday that celebrates
authentic Jewish concepts of love, learn more about Tu B’Av –
part of your authentic Jewish heritage!