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What’s the Deal with Jews and Valentine’s Day?

Ah, Valentine’s Day. The Hallmark holiday in which red roses and heart-shaped balloons leave many singles bitter, and overpriced prix fixe meals leave many couples feeling less than satisfied.

As kids, those of us attending public schools long awaited the day that accompanied shoeboxes full of cartoon Valentines from our classmates; those in Jewish day schools grew up without this annual tradition.

So what’s the deal?  Are Jews not allowed to celebrate Valentine’s Day?

Some calendars still refer to the holiday as St. Valentine’s Day and February 14th has traditionally been associated with Christianity. But is it actually a religious holiday?  

One of the most universally accepted explanations of where the holiday was derived is the legend of a holy priest and 3rd-century romantic named Valentine, who continued to perform wedding ceremonies for young soldiers and their sweethearts even after the Roman emperor Claudius II forbid them to be betrothed. Valentine was imprisoned and sentenced for execution on February 14th, whereupon he penned a farewell letter to his own sweetheart and signed it, “From your Valentine.”

A-ha!  So that explains the cards. And Valentine was once memorialized as a saint.  But in 1969, the Catholic Church removed Valentine’s Day from its calendar as all they could historically corroborate about him was his burial date—February 14th.  Thus, although it evokes the legend of a saint, Valentine’s Day is not officially recognized as a religious holiday—but that doesn’t mean you’ll find a synagogue decorated in red hearts and Cupid’s arrows any time soon.

A quick Internet search on Jews and Valentine’s Day yielded the following:  Orthodox rabbis advised not to participate in Valentine’s Day traditions because of the holiday’s association with the saint (as well as some less-than-savory pagan rituals), while Conservative and Reformed rabbis leaned towards, “Sure, it’s okay to buy your significant other flowers and chocolates in celebration of your love—on February 14th and any other day of the year.”  

But most often, the rabbis I found online re-directed the conversation to a Jewish holiday that’s become associated with the same sentiments of love of romance:  Tu B’Av.  Held each year on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Av (this year falling on July 21st), this Day of Love is mentioned in the Talmud as a celebration at the beginning of the grape harvest, in which all the unmarried girls in Jerusalem would dress in white and dance in the vineyards awaiting male suitors.  

Though this ritual didn’t quite survive the destruction of the Second Temple, many modern-day Israeli Jews treat the holiday as, for lack of a better term, a Jewish Valentine’s Day, sharing flowers, romantic dinners and even proposing marriage on Tu B’Av.

So where does this leave us?  As for me, I’m probably still going to go out and buy my guilty-pleasure candy hearts, much to my dentist’s chagrin.  But maybe I’ll take a hint from those rabbis whose advice I found online and mark my calendar for July 21st, when the price of roses and chocolates won’t be marked up, and when I can offer a genuine profession of love to my husband—minus the cheesy greeting card.

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