First cultivated anywhere from 6,000-8,000 years ago in the Middle East, generally acknowledged as their homeland, grapes and Judaism have a centuries old connection. As one of the seven species noted in the torah, there are many purported meanings behind this ubiquitous fruit and their special symbolism on the holiday of Tu B’Av.
The mention of grapes in the torah are plentiful: Josephus details a magnificent golden vine hanging over the inner portal of the Second Temple; Noah planted a vineyard after the flood to bring joy back into the world (he himself partook of a little too much joy and got in some trouble, but bravo to him for discovering wine); Hasmonean and Bar Kochba followers stuck a cluster of grapes on their victory coins as a symbol of the fertility of the country, and this same emblem later appeared in mosaic floors adorning synagogues. The torah itself is likened to an aging wine, and grapes are also a symbol of the fruitfulness of the Jewish people and the land of Israel. Grapes, in their role as one of the seven species, correspond to tiferet (beauty) and represent the balance between kindness and restraint. In Jewish life, grapes are one of the many symbols for the circle of life- they begin as fruit and are turned into wine- one could look to Tu B’Av as a day which honors and celebrates that transformation and, by extension, our own.
Why are grapes particularly associated with Tu B’Av? Well, celebrated as the beginning of the harvest (it ends at Yom Kippur), the grapes picked on this day would have been especially sanctified as only the first fruits of the seven species were accepted as offerings in the Temple. But this holiday is also intrinsically linked to the Kiddush- the prayer over wine long spoken by the Jewish people to bless and sanctify holy days and joyful occasions. And while Tu B’Av is not an obvious day for celebration (coming as it does directly following Tishah B’Av, the day of mourning when the Temple was destroyed), it marks a bridge between grief and joy; a day of rebirth when the vine, which was cut back, once again yields sweet, ripened fruit.
It is said in the Mishna that “a man who marries his daughter to a scholar (‘talmid ḥacham’) is like one who mingles vine grapes with vine grapes, but he who marries his daughter to an ignorant man (‘am ha-arez’) is like one who mingles vine grapes with the berries of the thorn-bush” (Mishna – Pes. 49a). Both on Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur, eligible women would wear borrowed white dresses and go into the vineyards to dance and be chosen by a mate. The tradition of borrowed white dresses centers around equality in that the men were unable to tell who was rich and who was poor. In addition, women who did not own dresses would not feel shame at their poverty. To this day, Tu B’Av is an auspicious day to hold a wedding.
In temple times, Tu B’Av was the last day to harvest wood for the sacred fires in the temple, as wood harvested later would be too wet and not burn as well. And as the days began getting shorter, this day also marked the time when work in the fields came to a close and the season of study and introspection began- perhaps with a nice glass of wine on the side.