Taanit, Chapter Four, Mishnah Eight



Tractate Taanit, a sad tractate which deals with drought and other distressful events and the fasts that Jews take upon themselves to ask for forgiveness from their sins, ends with a mishnah about the two happiest days in the Jewish calendar, the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur.


Mishnah Eight

Section one:  Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel said: There were no days of joy in Israel greater than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur.

Section two:  On these days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white garments in order not to shame any one who had none. All these garments required immersion.  The daughters of Jerusalem come out and dance in the vineyards. What would they say?  Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself. Do not set your eyes on beauty but set your eyes on the family. “Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman that fears the Lord, she shall be praised” (Proverbs 31:30).  And it further says, “Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her works praise her in the gates” (ibid, 31:31).

Section three:  Similarly it says, “O maidens of Zion, go forth and gaze upon King Solomon wearing the crown that his mother gave him on his wedding day, on the day of the gladness of his heart” (Song of Songs 3:11).  “On his wedding day”:  this refers to Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah). “And on the day of the gladness of his heart”: this refers to the building of the Temple; may it be rebuilt speedily in our days, Amen.



Section one:  There are several reasons why the fifteenth of Av became a day of celebration. First of all, as we learned in mishnah five above, this is the date when most families would have made their wood donation.  The Talmud provides several other reasons.  One of these is that on this day people from different tribes were allowed to intermarry.  Another explanation is that on this day the Israelites in the desert who were to die before they entered into the land of Israel stopped dying.  Anyone who made it through this day in the fortieth year in the desert knew that he was going to make it to the land of Canaan.

Yom Kippur is a day of celebration for on it Jews receive atonement for their sins.  Yom Kippur, in sharp contrast with Tisha B’av, is not a day of mourning, but rather a day of celebration. Furthermore, according to tradition, the second set of the Tablets were given to Israel on Yom Kippur, which is in essence collective forgiveness for the sin of the golden calf.

Section two:  These two days were like an ancient Sadie Hawkins day (if you don’t know what this is, you can google it to find out), except instead of the girls chasing the boys, the girls would go out to the field and let the boys come and chase them.  The girls would go out to the field in white clothes and dance and let the boys choose for themselves brides.  These clothes were borrowed so that girls who could not afford a nice white garment would not be embarrassed.  The garments would be immersed before they were worn so that they would be pure.  The whole ceremony seems to be geared towards encouraging the boys to choose their girls not based on their looks or wealth but based on their families and piety.  In mishnaic times, and indeed in many traditional cultures, “yihus”—being from a good family was probably the most important consideration in arranging marriages.

Section three:  Taanit ends with a midrash which which was originally not part of the mishnah as it is missing in manuscripts.  It was probably added to the end of Taanit as a prayer for the restoration of the Temple, and to end a depressing tractate on an upbeat note of hope and consolation.  It connects to the previous section because of its reference to girls going out.  Furthermore, the day under discussion in this midrash is understood to be Yom Kippur, the day on which the second set of Tablets was given.  Yom Kippur commemorates the past, and gives us hope for the future as well, for a time in which the Temple will be rebuilt.


Congratulations!  We have finished Taanit. 

It is a tradition at this point to thank God for helping us finish learning the tractate and to commit ourselves to going back and relearning it, so that we may not forget it and so that its lessons will stay with us for all of our lives.

Taanit is perhaps one of the most “theological” of tractates for it is all about how God responds to our misdeeds and how we respond to God’s rebuking.  One can look at the fasts as a way for Jews to remind themselves that they constantly need to be checking their own behavior, to looking at how we relate to each other and to the rest of the world and that our actions have an effect on our world. While it is probably hard for us to share an overly simplistic theology—we do bad things, God punishes us directly and immediately, we pray and fast and things get better—the deeper message of the tractate seems to be a push for our own atonement and for our own sensitivity to crisis in the world.  According to the tractate there is meaning in history and events and it is up to humans to learn how to respond properly.  There is also a lot in the tractate about the cycles of rejoicing and mourning.

As always, congratulations on learning another tractate of Mishnah.

Tomorrow we begin Megillah.