Said Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel: There were no greater festivals for Israel than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur (Talmud, Taanit 26b).

The Talmud goes on to list several joyous events which occurred on the fifteenth day of the month of Av:

  1. The dying of the generation of the Exodus ceased. Several months after the people of Israel were freed from Egyptian slavery, the incident of the Spies demonstrated their unpreparedness for the task of conquering the land of Canaan and developing it into the “Holy Land.” G‑d decreed that that entire generation would die out in the desert, and that their children would enter the land in their stead (as recounted in Numbers 13–14). After forty years of wandering through the wilderness, the dying finally ended, and a new generation of Jews stood ready to enter the Holy Land. It was the 15th of Av of the year 2487 from creation (1274 BCE).
  2. The tribes of Israel were permitted to intermarry. In order to ensure the orderly division of the Holy Land among the twelve tribes of Israel, restrictions had been placed on marriages between members of two different tribes. A woman who had inherited tribal lands from her father was forbidden to marry out of her tribe, lest her children—members of their father’s tribe—cause the transfer of land from one tribe to another by inheriting her estate (as recounted in Numbers 36). This ordinance was binding on the generation that conquered and settled the Holy Land; when the restriction was lifted, on the 15th of Av, the event was considered a cause for celebration and festivity.
  3. The tribe of Benjamin was permitted to re-enter the community. The tribe of Benjamin, which had been excommunicated for its behavior in the incident of the “Concubine at Givah,” was readmitted into the community of Israel (as related in Judges 19–21; this occurred during the judgeship of Othniel ben Kenaz, who led the people of Israel in the years 2533–2573 from creation (1228–1188 BCE)).
  4. Hoshea ben Elah opened the roads to Jerusalem. Upon the division of the Holy Land into two kingdoms following the death of King Solomon in the year 2964 from creation (797 BCE), Jeroboam ben Nebat, ruler of the breakaway Northern Kingdom of Israel, set up roadblocks to prevent his citizens from making the thrice-yearly pilgrimage to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, capital of the Southern Kingdom of Judea. These were finally removed more than two hundred years later by Hoshea ben Elah, the last king of the Northern Kingdom, on 15 Av, 3187 (574 BCE).
  5. The dead of Betar were allowed to be buried. The fortress of Betar was the last holdout of the Bar Kochba rebellion. When Betar fell on the 9th of Av 3893 (133 CE), Bar Kochba and many thousands of Jews were killed; the Romans massacred the survivors of the battle with great cruelty, and would not even allow the Jews to bury their dead. When the dead of Betar were finally brought to burial on 15 Av 3908 (148 CE), an additional blessing (“Ha-tov veha-meitiv”) was added to the Grace After Meals in commemoration.
  6. “The day of the breaking of the ax.” When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, the annual cutting of firewood for the altar was concluded on the 15th of Av. The event was celebrated with feasting and rejoicing (as is the custom upon the conclusion of a holy endeavor), and included a ceremonial breaking of the axes, which gave the day its name.

These events may all be worthy of commemoration and celebration. But how do they explain Rabbi Shimon’s amazing statement that “there were no greater festivals for Israel”? In what way is the 15th of Av greater than Passover, the day of our Exodus from Egypt, or Shavuot, the day we received the Torah? Rabbi Shimon even places it before his other “great festival,” Yom Kippur!

Lunar Time

To understand the significance of 15 Av, we must first examine the workings of the Jewish calendar.

The most basic feature of our calendar is that it is primarily a lunar calendar—a calendar whose months are set in accordance with the phases of the moon. The Zohar explains that the people of Israel mark time with the moon because we are the moon of the world: like the moon, we rise and fall through the nights of history, knowing times of growth and diminution, our moments of luminous fullness alternating with moments of obscurity and darkness. And, like the moon, our every regression and defeat is but a prelude to yet another rebirth, yet another renewal.

At a certain point in its 29.5-day circuit of the earth (the point at which it is closest to the sun), the moon “disappears” from the nighttime sky. The night on which the moon is first visible to the earthly observer after its concealment marks the beginning of a new month on the Jewish calendar. For the next two weeks, the Jewish month grows with the moon, reaching its apex on its fifteenth night—the night of the full moon. There then follow two weeks of decreasing moonlight, until the night when the moon falls completely dark and the month dwindles to a close. The rebirth of the moon, 29 or 30 nights after its previous birth, ushers in the next month: a new climb to fullness, followed by another descent to oblivion, followed by yet another rebirth.

Accordingly, the 15th of the Jewish month marks the high point of that month’s particular contribution to Jewish life. For example: Nissan is the month of redemption, and it was on the first day of Nissan that the process of our liberation from Egypt began; but the results of this process were fully manifest only on the 15th of Nissan, with our actual exodus from Egypt. So it is on the 15th of Nissan that we celebrate the festival of Passover and experience the divine gift of freedom through the observances of the Seder.

Another example is the month of Tishrei. On the first of Tishrei (Rosh Hashanah) we crown G‑d as king of the universe, rededicating the entirety of creation to the purpose for which it was created and evoking in G‑d the desire to continue to create and sustain it. But the celebration of the divine coronation is eclipsed by the days of solemnity and awe which occupy the first part of Tishrei, and comes out in the open in the joyous festival of Sukkot, which commences on the 15th of the month. [This the Talmud interprets as the meaning of the verse (Psalms 81:4), “Sound the shofar on the moon’s renewal, which is concealed until the day of our festival.” The shofar, whose trumpet-like blast signifies our “coronation” of the Almighty, is sounded on the first of Tishrei, the day of the moon’s renewal; but like the moon itself, the experience remains “concealed” and largely unexpressed until “the day of our festival”—Sukkot, on the 15th of Tishrei.]

The same is true of each of the twelve months of the Jewish year. Each month possesses a character and quality uniquely its own, which undergoes a cycle of diminution and growth, concealment and expression, reaching its climax on the 15th of the month.

The Rebound

Therein lies the specialty of the 15th of Av.

The greater an object’s plunge down a mountainside, the greater the momentum that carries it up the next mountain; the further an arrow is pulled back on the bow, the greater the force that will carry it forward when it is let fly. This basic law of physical nature also governs the flow of lunar time and the spiritual qualities it enfolds: the lower the descent, the loftier the ascent to follow.

Hence, the month of Av must indeed possess the greatest 15th of them all. For what darker eclipse is there than the one preceding the full moon of Av?

The latter half of Tammuz and the first days of Av mark a breakdown in the very heart of the universe, and the onset of a spiritual winter from which we have yet to emerge. On the 17th of Tammuz in the year 3829 from creation (69 CE), the lunar orbit of Jewish life swung into the steepest decline of its four-thousand-year history. On that day the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Roman armies; for the next three weeks, from 17 Tammuz to 9 Av (observed to this day as “Three Weeks” of mourning), the enemy steadily advanced through Jerusalem, invaded the Holy Temple, and, on the 9th of Av, set it aflame. The 9th of Av is also the date of the destruction of the First Temple in the year 3338 (423 BCE), and numerous other calamities in Jewish history (see below).

The destruction of the Temple was but the physical counterpart of a deeper, spiritual loss. The Holy Temple in Jerusalem was the seat of G‑d’s manifest presence in our world—the source of everything spiritual and G‑dly in our lives, and the focus of our efforts to implement the divine purpose in creation of “making a dwelling place for G‑d in the physical world.” Its destruction marked the withdrawal of the direct and open relationship between G‑d and His creation, and the onset of a state of galut—a hiding of the divine face, a shrouding of the true, underlying reality of creation behind the mask of the corporeal and fragmented world we experience today.

And yet, the greater the descent, the greater the ascent which springs from it. The great darkness of the latter days of Tammuz and the first days of Av carries the seeds for an equally great “full moon” on the 15th of Av—a full moon that represents the perfect and harmonious world of Moshiach, which is the product and outgrowth of our long and bitter galut.

The Events

Therein lies the significance of the various joyful events recounted by the Talmud as having occurred on the 15th of Av: they each mark a step in the climb out of the descent of 9 Av.

The destruction of the Temple on 9 Av was preceded by another tragic event on the very same day, many centuries earlier. It was on the eve of 9 Av that the twelve spies sent by Moses returned from their reconnaissance of the Holy Land and dissuaded the people of Israel from settling and sanctifying the land, causing G‑d to decree that the generation of the Exodus would die out in the desert.

Indeed, the two events are deeply interrelated: our sages tell us that if Moses’ generation had merited to enter the Land of Israel and to build the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, it would have been an eternal edifice, inviolable and indestructible. The goal of a “dwelling place for G‑d in the physical world” would have been fully and perfectly realized, avoiding the need for any subsequent regressions or descents. Thus, the events of that 9 Av in the desert were the source and harbinger of the destruction and galut which the day eventually wrought.

So when the dying of the generation of the Exodus ceased on 15 Av,1 this also marked the beginnings of the “ascent” of Av. A new generation stood poised to enter the Land and lay the foundations for renewal and reconstruction.

And when the barriers between the tribes were removed, allowing their members to unite in marriage with one another, another element of the “descent” was being rectified. Our sages tell us that the primary cause for the destruction of the Temple was divisiveness within the community of Israel. Accordingly, the key to the ascent of the redemption is the fostering of unity and harmony amongst us. Such is also the significance of another two of the special events associated with the 15th of Av: the reacceptance of the errant tribe of Benjamin into the community, and the removal of the roadblocks which had rent the people of Israel into two nations and had prevented the Holy Temple from serving as the unifying force between brothers torn apart by political strife.

The fall of Betar on 9 Av, which spelled the end of the last significant effort to free the land of Israel from Roman rule, was the culmination of the tragedy of the destruction of the Holy Temple and the exile of Israel on that same date a generation earlier. The first respite from this crushing blow to the Jewish people—the bringing to burial of the dead of Betar on the 15th of Av fifteen years later—is another example of how the 15th of Av achieves the redemption and rectification of the 9th of Av.

Shattered Irons

The manner in which the conclusion of the wood-cutting for the Temple service was celebrated on 15 Av is yet another manifestation of the significance of the day. For the breaking of axes expresses the ultimate purpose of the Holy Temple, whose destruction we mourn on the 9th of Av and whose rebuilding will herald the harmonious world of Moshiach.

Why break the axes? Why not store them for next year’s cutting? Because the ax represents the very antithesis of what the altar, and the Temple as a whole, stood for.

Regarding the making of the altar, G‑d had instructed: “When you build a stone altar for Me, do not build it of cut stone; for if your sword has been lifted upon it, you have profaned it” (Exodus 20:22). “Do not lift iron upon it . . . The altar of G‑d shall be built of whole stones” (Deuteronomy 27:5–6). If any metal implement so much as touched a stone, that stone was rendered unfit for use in the making of the altar.

Our sages explain: “Iron was created to shorten the life of man, and the altar was created to lengthen the life of man; so it is not fitting that that which shortens should be lifted upon that which lengthens” (Talmud, Middot 3:4). Iron, the instrument of war and destruction, has no place in the making of the instrument whose function is to bring eternal peace and harmony to the world.

Awaiting the Light

Of course, these events were only first glimmers of the full moon of Moshiach—a full moon which has yet to emerge from the darkness that envelops it. So today, 15 Av is a relatively minor event in our experience of the yearly cycle. We mark the day, but without the grandeur of Passover, the joy of Sukkot or the exultation of Purim. For unlike these festivals, whose “full moon” we have already experienced, the luminance of 15 Av has yet to shine forth. We are still in galut, still in the dark stretch of this cycle, still climbing out of the descent in which we have been plunged by the events of 17 Tammuz–9 Av.

But the date is already fixed in our calendar as the greatest “15th” of them all. And with the imminent coming of Moshiach, the true import of the “Day of the Breaking of the Ax” shall come to glorious light, and the 15th of Av will be truly revealed as our greatest festival.