AB, FIFTEENTH DAY OF:
By: Kaufmann Kohler
Popular festival in Judea during the time of the Second Temple, corresponding approximately to the fifteenth day of August. According to a tradition preserved in the Mishnah (Ta'anit, iv. 9, 10; Gem. pp. 26, 31), on that day, as well as on the Day of Atonement, the maidens of Jerusalem, rich and poor, without exception, dressed in white, went out to dance in the vineyards with the young men, asking them to make their choice of a partner for life. The fair ones sang: "Young men, turn your eyes to beauty; for woman stands for beauty." The patricians' daughters sang: "Young men, turn your eyes to noble parentage; for woman is the preserver of family pride." Those possessing neither beauty nor noble birth sang: "Grace is beautiful and beauty is vain; but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised." Of the many reasons given in the Talmud for the celebration of this day, that attested by the oldest authority, R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus of the first century (Megillat Ta'anit, v.) is thatit was the great day of wood-offering, when both priests and people brought kindling-wood in large quantities to the altar, for use in the burning of sacrifices during the whole year. This day being Mid-summer Day, when the solar heat reached its climax, the people stopped hewing wood in the forest, probably until the Fifteenth Day of Shebaṭ (February), the so-called New-year's Day of the trees (see R. H. i. 1), because the new sap of spring entered vegetation on that day.
Various reasons are given in the Talmud for this celebration. One is that the tribes were allowed to intermarry (Num. xxxvi.) on that day; another, that the interdict on the tribe of Benjamin was removed on that day (Judges, xxi. 15 et seq.); again another, that the death penalty following the bad report of the spies (Num. xv. 32) had ceased; or that the interference with the pilgrimage to Jerusalem at the festal season by Jeroboam I. (I Kings, xii. 32) was removed by Hosea on that day. Others, by a strange anachronism, maintain that those slain on the battle-field in the war of Bar Kokba received the customary burial rites on this day. The actual explanation is given in Meg. Ta'anit, v. and Mishnah, iv. 5, according to which nine families of Judah brought at certain times during the year the wood for the burning of the sacrifices on the altar, in accordance with Neh. x. 34; on the Fifteenth Day of Ab, however, all the people, the priests as well as the Levites, took part in the wood-offering.
Josephus ("B. J." ii. 17, § 6) also mentions this festival, and calls it the Feast of Xylophory ("Wood-bearing"), but places it on the Fourteenth of Ab (Lous), saying that "it was the custom for every one to bring wood for the altar on that day so that there should never be any lack of fuel for the eternal fire." Zipser suggested that the day, called also the Day of the Breaking of the Ax, was celebrated by bonfires in the same fashion that the Syrians, according to Lucian, celebrated Midsummer Day ("De Syria Dea"). The festival had a purely secular character, like the Fifteenth Day of Shebaṭ (February), the one being an ancient midwinter, the other a midsummer, festival of pagan origin; while the various explanations and stories given in Megillat Ta'anit and the Talmud show that in the course of time the main reason was forgotten. Compare the St. Valentine's Day celebrations and the bonfires on the hills among the various nations in connection with marriage, and the St. John's Day festivities, in Mannhardt's "Baumkultus," pp. 449-552.
- Bab. Talmud Ta'anit, pp. 26b, 30b, 31a;
- Herzfeld, Gesch. d. Volkes Israel, i. 67, 68, 144; ii. 126, 182;
- Grätz, Gesch. d. Juden, 3d ed., p. 612;
- Zipser, Des Flavius Josephus Werk, Ueber das Hohe Alter des Jüdischen Volkes (nach Hebr. Originalquellen, etc.), ed. A. Jellinek, 1871, p. 127;
- Ha-Teḥiyyah, i. Nos. 43, 45, 49, Chicago, 1900.