Every year on February 14th, I’m asked the question, “Rabbi, Can Jews celebrate Valentine’s Day?” If we take away the “Hallmarkization” of this holiday, the challenge of Jews celebrating this holiday comes from its Christian roots. Valentine’s Day is really Saint Valentine’s Day. This holiday began as a liturgical celebration of early Christian saints and became linked to the celebration of love because Saint Valentine was imprisoned for performing weddings for couples who were forbidden from marrying. While the Roman Empire persecuted Christians and thus, forbade certain relationships, Saint Valentine celebrated his own religious beliefs and the love that two individuals had for each other and married them. This basis of a saint marrying individuals and thus celebrating two lovers’ commitment to one another has led to Valentine’s Day in its current state: lovers giving each other cards, candies, chocolate, and flowers. Ultimately, this day is about giving gifts as an expression of one’s love for another.
I was taught as a child that we have no need to celebrate Valentine’s Day because as Jews, we have our ritual celebration of such love, Tu B’Av. What?!? What do you mean you’ve never heard of Tu B’Av? First mentioned in the Mishnah, Tu B’Av was seen as a day of joy and became a matchmaking day for unmarried Jewish women during the Second Temple period. It was like the Jewish version of Sadie Hawkin’s Day! We can say that we do not need to celebrate Valentine’s Day because we have our own Jewish holiday that celebrates love. However, the truth is the vast majority of the Jewish community fails to even pause and acknowledge Tu B’Av, the Fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Av, when it takes place. So, then why can’t we all celebrate Valentine’s Day in its current state?
Do we worry that we would be promoting the celebration of a Christian holiday? Thanks to florists, candy shops, and Hallmark, this has certainly become a commercial holiday. I do not want to promote the celebration of a commercial holiday, but I would encourage the celebration of a holiday that promotes Jewish values. For this reason, regardless of its original religious undertones, we celebrate Thanksgiving. Students often ask me, if the holiday is no longer viewed as a Christian holiday, then can we as Jews celebrate it? My response is always the same: can we find Jewish values in the holiday? With regards to Valentine’s Day, I believe the answer is certainly yes. The holiday centers on the celebration of love, a central theme in Jewish ritual, liturgy, and belief. Jews celebrate commitment and relationships. In fact, the Midrash teaches that it is not just two significant others who are present in a relationship. God is also present. Thus, experiencing the feeling of love, and expressing that feeling, allows us to experience God and brings us closer to the Divine. Our liturgy even focuses on how as Jews we celebrate our love for God (found in the V’Ahavta) as well as God’s love for us (found in the Ahavah Rabbah.) If we celebrate our loving relationship with God, then shouldn’t we also celebrate our loving relationship with each other, especially if each of us is made in God’s image, and exudes a Divine spark?
We live in a world full of chaos, darkness, war, violence, and hate. It is sometimes hard to see the good in the world, to find the beauty, and to recognize God’s presence. The feeling of love, and the celebration of that feeling, allows us to do just that. Truthfully, we should take time to appreciate those that we love – our spouses, our significant others, our siblings, our children, our parents, our family, our friends, and our community – everyday. We know though that the busyness of life gets in the way sometimes and we don’t take the time necessary to appreciate our lot, to appreciate our life. For this reason, we create ritual to help us pause and reflect. If February 14th can be that time, regardless of its origin, then this is a wonderful thing. If this day allows for us to reflect on how blessed we are because of those that love us and those that we love, then it becomes a sacred moment. It becomes a moment to thank God. It becomes a moment to appreciate God. So whatever day we stop to reflect and appreciate the love that we have for one another, whether it is February 14th, the 15th of Av, or any other day, it is a good thing because we do not stop to say “I love you” enough. Maybe if we said “I love you” more and we took the time to speak of that love we had for each other, than this world wouldn’t be such a dark place. Instead, it would be a place in which we were able to celebrate each other, celebrate companionship, celebrate friendship, celebrate harmony, celebrate love, and as a result, celebrate and experience peace as well.
– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky