Ritual for Tu b'Av 5764/Aug. 2, 2004

Rabbi Jill Hammer is a poet, author, teacher and ritual-maker, as well as a senior associate at Ma'yan: the Jewish Women's Project of the JCC in Manhattan. She is the founder of Tel Shemesh. Her book is entitled Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women.

Opening song:

She is a tree, is a tree of life
She is a tree of life

She is a tree, is a tree of life
She is a tree of life

Geela Rayzel Raphael, Juliet Spitzer, and Margot Stein, of Miraj, 'www.shechinah.org/miraj/miraj.html

Alternate opening song:

We are a circle within a circle
With no beginning and never ending


I. Welcome

The ceremony takes place in a field or darkened room, preferably at night. Participants come wearing white and bringing blankets to lie down on. Someone has brought instruments, a dry branch or stick for each person (it should be brittle enough to break easily), a bowl of grapes, and a goblet of wine. Everyone in the group introduces herself or himself, and, if the group feels comfortable, names one thing that has died for him or her that year, and/or one thing that has been joyful.

If the group wishes, someone may invoke the elements:

Life is born and life moves on
and the earth has held and will hold it all.


The sun rises and the sun sets
and returns again to rise and fall.


The wind turns north and the wind turns south
turning, turning, returning still.


The rivers run from the clouds to the sea
and become the rain, and the sea is never filled.

Up/Down/Shekinah/Holy One:

So the beginning flows to the end
and the end flows on to begin again.

The One at the end is the One who begins
and the breath of breaths is within all things.

(based on Ecclesiastes 1:4-7, last line from the poet Nelly Sachs)

II. Invocation of the Full Moon of Av


Drumming and voiceless chanting can introduce this segment of the ritual, which consists of brief quotes from modern Jewish poetry and ritual. (One way to experience this part is to have everyone read once, and then have the first reader begin again. The first reader then repeats his or her part quietly beneath the second reader, the first and second readers beneath the third reader, and so on until there is a jumble of voices. The readers should go on reading their parts for a moment, then they should fade away and the last reader should read alone at the end.)

First voice:

Pale moon,
Ever coming and going,
Lighting and fading
Rhythmic flowing...
Awaken in us
The mystery of beginnings and endings,
Of lives renewed.
Nancy Lee Gossels

Second voice:

Shekhinah, foundation of the world,
Shekhinah, mother of all being,
send forth your strength,
make this our nest and altar
for dying and rebirth.
We invoke you and call you
to help us find our place
in the great cycle of life and death
and transformation…

Melissa Weintraub

Third voice:

Speak, O my soul, change is God.
The cycle is all: the cycle of blood in the body, the cycle of water,
of prayers for the holy days. Speak, O my soul, sing
O my soul, to the God who is Himself part of the cycle
of praise and lament, curse and blessing.
Speak O my soul, sing O my soul, change is God
and death is His prophet.

Yehuda Amichai, from Open Closed Open, p. 122
Translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld

Fourth voice:

Either you will go through this door,
Or you will not go through…
The door itself promises nothing.
It is only a door.

Adrienne Rich, from “Prospective Immigrants Please Note”


Following the end of the previous poetic section, a reader reads:

We are under the full moon of Av,
day of the breaking of the axe,
when the tree of life
shatters the blade of death,
and end flows to beginning.

We are the circle of rising
and falling, of grain and seed and grain,
bird and egg and bird, belly and child.
We dance in borrowed clothes to know
the lights of our lives are not ours,
but are part of the one who rolls away night
and rolls out morning.

This is a day of death, for today
our ancestors mourned the ones who could not keep walking.
This is a marrying day, for as the spiral moves
we all meet one another.
This is a day of conception, for in forty days
at the waning moon of autumn
a new world will be reborn.
This is a day of wine, for the grape
is a sign of the holiness of time.

We dance on our own graves.
Reborn into life’s vineyard,
we choose what we will love.

III. Offering of the Earth

Hand each person a grape. Ask them to imagine that they are children of the Israelites, who have wandered in the desert their whole lives. This grape was brought back by scouts who entered the promised land. It is the first grape they have ever eaten. It represents a future they do not know. Ask each person who wants to speak to say what the grape tastes like. At the end, place a bunch of grapes at the center of the circle as a sign of the abundant future.


Place bunches of grapes on a tray. Ask each person to offer the grapes to the center of the circle. Ask each of them to offer the grapes in a way that embodies their interpretation of the word “offering,” with gratitude, fear, joy, anger, etc. When all the participants have offered grapes, you may want to ask people to name some of the emotions they saw and say which emotions they related to.

After either of these two activities, lift and bless the goblet of wine:

Feminine: Beruchah at shekhinah, eloteinu ruach ha’olam, boreit peri hagafen.


Masculine: Baruch ata adonai, eloheinu melekh ha’olam, borei pri hagafen.

Pass around the goblet and ask each person to say one offering or sacrifice they have made this year, before sipping the wine.

To drum and/or other music, ask the group to dance their hoped-for entry into the land—what the land of goodness looks, feels, and tastes like to them.

IV. Burial

Bring the dancing to a close. Remind everyone that the decree in the wilderness was that the people must wander for forty years, until every adult born in Egypt had died. Read the following text:

"R. Levi said: On every eve of the 9th of Av Moses used to send a herald through the camp and announce: Go out to dig graves. They would go out and dig graves and sleep in them. In the morning he would send a herald and say: Separate the dead from the living.” They would arise and find their number diminished. In the last of the forty years, they did this but found themselves undiminished. They said; we must have made a mistake in counting. They did the same thing on the tenth, eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth, but still no one died. When the moon was full, they said; it seems that the Holy One has annulled the decree from all of us, so they made the fifteenth a holiday." (Lamentations Rabbah, Prologue 13)

Ask people, using motion and sound and whatever other things are around, to create a grave for themselves. They should end by lying in the grave if they feel able to do so. People may mime walking around graves, digging graves, sitting by graves, lying down in them. They can use blankets or scarves to lie down on or to put over them (it may be helpful to bring squares of black gauze or other cloth.). You can let people know the grave-building is coming to an end by beating on a drum slowly or playing another kind of instrument, then ringing a bell.

The leader or leaders should go and help each person out of his or her grave. The music should change from mournful to joyful, and the leader should pull the others into a circle or spiral dance.

IV. Breaking of the Axe

Give each person in the dance a stick (you can also use any other breakable long object). The leader of the circle should go to the center of the circle, pretend to strike the bowl of grapes and then break the stick, shouting something like: “The axe is broken! The tree of life has broken it!” Then invite everyone to break their own “axe” against the “tree of life.”

After this you can drum, sing, and eat grapes for as long as you like.

V. Farewell

Ask the group to stand in a circle.

First reader:

Press, oh press in the day of destruction
the listening ear to the earth
and you will hear, through your sleep
you will hear,
how in death
life begins.
--Nelly Sachs

Second reader:

In my hands, the tree,
in my hands, the leaf,
in my hands, the blossom,
and in my hands, the earth…

--Malka Heifetz Tussman

Third reader:

Sow in me your living breath
as you sow a seed in the earth.
--Kadya Molodowsky

Closing Song:

Od yavo shalom aleinu ve’al kulam
Salaam, aleinu ve’al kol ha’olam, salaam, salaam.

Peace will still come upon us, and on everyone,
Peace on us and all the world, peace, peace.


We are a circle within a circle
With no beginning and never ending

Tu B’Av, the full moon and fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Av, was the grape harvest in ancient Israel. Women would go out to the fields to dance, wearing white clothing borrowed from someone else so that no one would feel poor. The women would dance with men and choose their spouses. Tu B’Av also ended the wood harvest and was known as the Breaking of the Axe. One legend of Tu B’Av was that throughout the forty years of wandering in the wilderness, once a year, on the ninth of Av, the Israelites would lie down in graves they dug themselves. In the morning, they would rise up and know whose death had been decreed that year. One year they lay down but no one died, so they though they had miscalculated the date. They tried the next night and the next. On the fifteenth day of the fortieth year, when the full moon rose the people learned that the decree had ended and that they could now enter the Promised Land. Through this story, Tu b’Av represents the rebirth of life out of death.

This year Tu B’Av falls on Aug. 1, the same day as Lammas. Lammas, meaning loaf-mass, was the time when people in the British Isles offered bread in gratitude for the harvest, gathered at fairs, and celebrated many weddings. Spiritually, Lammas is the wake of the grain-god who, at harvest-time, dies in sacrifice to life. The loaf of bread symbolizes the new seed that comes out of the harvest, and, like Tu B’Av, is a festival of life rising out of death. Just as Lammas marks the halfway point between the height of summer and the darkening of autumn, the Talmud reports: “From the fifteenth of Av onward the strength of the sun grows less.” (Babylonian Talmud, 31a)

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