If you were to ask the average person on the street about the religious background to the holiday of Valentine’s Day you will probably get a blank look in response. The greeting-card, overflowing flower-bouquet, chocolate filled holiday has little or no connection nowadays to the Christian roots of the holiday that is actually called Saint Valentine’s Day. With this in mind the question arises of whether it is suitable for Jewish people living in the twenty-first century to be celebrating Valentine’s Day? Should Jewish men be concerned with what to buy their Jewish girlfriends or wives? Well, let’s take a look at the origins of the holiday in order to gain a better understanding of what we’re speaking about.Saint Valentine’s Day was first introduced way back in 496 C.E. and not surprisingly it was in order to commemorate the martyrdom of Saint Valentine. However, Saint Valentine is quite an ambiguous character historically, with scholar knowing not too much about him. It is widely believed that he lived in the late third century C.E. However, the name Valentine was common in the ancient world with over thirty mentions of the name in historical documents dating back to this period.
Stories associated with Saint Valentine are based more on legends than hard historical facts. The legends were written in the sixth and seventh centuries and from them we learn that Saint Valentine was a priest arrested by the Emperor Claudius. There followed a theological debate after which Valentine was ordered to live with a noble called Asterius in what was a kind of house-arrest. Apparently Valentine miraculously restored the sight of the adopted daughter of the house and as a result Asterius and the twenty-four members of his household convert. When Emperor Claudius hears of the whole saga he has Valentine killed in a fury.
There is a similar legend from the same time period but there exist many factual and stylistic problems with both legends that have forced scholars to come to the conclusion that they are not reliable historical sources. It is generally accepted that these legends are better viewed as part of a literary genre that aimed at imparting certain values and morals. Messages such as the power of miracles and unwavering faith in the faith of adversary are just some that can be given over through this legend. The glaring question is how this legend and the popular themes of Valentine’s Day such as fertility and love are connected and this is one of the reasons for the questioning of other origins of Valentine’s Day.
There are those that suggest that Valentine’s Day is actually a Christian reconstruction of a pagan holiday called Lupercalia. Lupercalia was a fertility festival in which the youth would run around stark naked playing sport and smiting those they came across with loin cloths. It was believed that getting hit by one of the loin cloths could help a pregnant woman deliver and a barren woman conceive.
However, the twentieth century literary scholar, Jack B. Orbuch disproves this theory and explains that it was based on a misunderstanding of Church chronology that an English antiquarian had suggested in 1756. Instead, Orbuch claims that the Valentine’s Day themes of love and romance were created by Geoffrey Chaucer in the late fourteenth century in England.
The sending of formal greetings on Valentine’s Day appeared in the 1500s and nowadays greeting-card companies smile smugly in the knowledge that about a billion Valentine cards are sent each year.
Interestingly enough, Rabbi Moshe Isserlis who lived in Poland between 1520 and 1572 lay out four criteria that must be met in order for Jewish people to be able to celebrate rituals of Gentiles;
- Are the origins of the rituals secular?
- Can the ritual be explained rationally separately from the gentile holiday?
- If there were idolatrous origins to the holiday have they disappeared?
- Are the rituals consistent with Jewish tradition?
It is possible to argue that Valentine’s Day does meet these criteria today. The sending of chocolates and the giving of gifts can be seen simply as expressions of love and this can certainly be explained as rational and separated from Christian roots. This is apart from the fact that the Christian roots of the holiday have been questioned by scholars and the Catholic Church. Expressing love and sending gifts is certainly in-line with Jewish traditions and values. Having said that, Tu B’Av, the Jewish ancient day of matchmaking has experienced a revival in modern times and has become, one may say, the Jewish Day of Love.
For those who do wish to celebrate Valentine’s Day, there seems to be what to rely on, with Rabbi Moshe Isserlis providing evidence that there is nothing wrong in doing so. Alternatively, it can be argued that Tu B’Av is the Jewish answer to Valentine’s Day. Either way, spread the love, buy your loves one chocolates, flowers, jewelry, a personalized item, be it Valentine’s Day, Tu B’Av or just plain Monday!