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Cantor's Corner: Valentine's Day

02/13/2019 05:55:43 PM


Cantors Corner February 14


Valentine’s Day Is Not A Jewish Holiday….


But we can’t escape it, can we? Valentine’s Day has both pagan and Christian origins. Just as Judaism took a pagan holiday such as the fall harvest festival, overlaid it with Jewish historical and spiritual content and created Sukkot – the Christians similarly transformed popular pagan holidays. The legend of St. Valentine is of a Christian priest who defied a decree of the Roman Emperor Claudius II. Claudius had outlawed marriage for young men, as he believed unmarried men made better soldiers for the far-flung Roman legions. St. Valentine continued to perform marriages in secret, was discovered and executed.


There was both an ancient Roman and a northern European fertility festival in mid-February. One tradition was to put the names of all the young single women in a container, out of which the young men would pick a name at random, and they would be paired with that woman for a period of a year. Many of these temporary relationships became marriages. A fifth century Pope outlawed the pagan festival and declared February 14th as St. Valentine’s Day. It became popular in France and England, and is observed today in France, Mexico, the U.S. and U.K. The paper Valentine as we know it is an invention of Victorian England.


Despite its foreign origin, most American non-orthodox Jews have expectations that their loved ones should observe Valentine’s Day. Rabbi Joe Black, an American Jewish singer-songwriter sings:


“Valentine’s Day is not a Jewish holiday, that’s why I didn’t bring you flowers!

I was thinking just of you, I know you’re proud to be a Jew…

It’s a most confusing twenty-four hours…..”


The holiday also leaves a lot of people out. What about other non-Christians, those who are LGBTQ, the widowed, the divorced, those who just aren’t in a romantic relationship? Jewish traditions are criticized for this reason at times, as the emphasis on a traditional family home seems to exclude anyone without one.


The answer is always to expand a tradition that seems exclusive and make it universal. For example, I strongly encourage single people of all genders to observe Shabbat alone. Everyone deserves to enjoy the beauty and warmth of Shabbat candles and challah!


It makes sense to me that ancient people would have a fertility festival during the dreary late-winter days of February, to distract from cold and fear and give hope for the spring and new life to come. Valentine’s Day can be expanded into a day to celebrate love in all forms. Love of children, friends, family, nature, community. Whether or not you observe Valentine’s Day, think about putting a little more love into the world today. Be kind or loving to someone who doesn’t expect it – you will be fulfilling the mitzvah of gemilut chasadim – acts of loving-kindness – a proper thing for a Jew to do any day of the year!


Mon, May 20 2019 15 Iyyar 5779