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For the week ending 9 February 2008 / 3 Adar I 5768

Valentine’s Day

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman - www.rabbiullman.com
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

From: Shira in Chicago

Dear Rabbi,

I was wondering if it’s OK to do Valentine’s Day or if there’s anything about the day that is against Judaism?

Dear Shira,

First of all, formally the day is called Saint Valentine’s Day, which clearly shows the Christian, non-Jewish character of the day. Furthermore, like other Christian holidays, the day may have roots in pagan rituals observed by pre-Christian Europeans. Finally, the themes of the day, namely public expression of “love” with erotic under/overtones, centered around indulgent consumption, are antithetical to Judaism.

Allow me to elaborate.

Christianity, in what’s known as The Calendar of Saints, commemorates the martyrdom of its holy ones by declaring a feast on the day the saint was killed. First decreed in 496 by Pope Gelasius I, the feast of Saint Valentine was celebrated on February 14 by the Roman Catholic Church in commemoration of one (or all) of three men named Valentinus, who lived in the late third century and were martyred during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. Accordingly, the day is named and celebrated after either a priest in Rome, a bishop of Interamna (modern Terni) or a martyr in the Roman province of Africa who were all named Valentine, a popular name in those times derived from “valens” (meaning worthy) in approximately 270 C.E. However, in addition to the day being a Christian holiday, it may have pagan origins.

In Ancient Rome, February 14 marked the festival of Lupercalia (lupa meaning wolf) in honor of the she-wolf who legendarily suckled the infant orphans, Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. Priests of the Roman god Faunus sacrificed two male goats and a dog whose blood was wiped off the knife and smeared on the foreheads of two young men. After a feast, the skins of the sacrificed goats were cut into straps to be used in a ceremony that was an omen for marriage and fertility. The nominally Christian Roman populace still observed Lupercalia as late as the end of the fifth century when, after a long contest, it was finally abolished by Pope Gelasius. Interestingly, this is the same Gelasius who first proclaimed February 14 as Valentine’s Day.

How did the day come to be associated with love and romance? If viewed as an originally Christian holiday, legend says that when Claudius II purportedly outlawed marriage for young men hoping to groom better soldiers, Valentine continued to perform marriages in secret. When he was discovered, he was put to death. A feast was proclaimed to commemorate his death. If viewed as an originally pagan holiday, the source of the feast is the meal after the goat sacrifice, while the ceremony that served as an omen for marriage and fertility is the origin of the day’s sentimental nature. Accordingly, these themes may have been “Christainized” by the church to wean the early Europeans away from paganism by supplanting Lupercalia with St. Valentine’s Day. Others posit that the day’s romantic character was introduced much later in the Middle Ages’ lore and literature of “courtly love”.

Either way, the public demonstration connecting indulgence and romance is antithetical to Jewish values. In fact, the icon of Valentine’s Day, Cupid, in Roman mythology is the god of love and intimate relations, which in turn is based on the Greek god Eros. This means that the cupid-love of Valentine’s Day is essentially a modern form of ancient eros. In Judaism, true love and its expression not only on a physical level, but also on an emotional, intellectual and spiritual level as well, is very important and central. However, it is something that is shared privately and intimately between two people in the nurturing and elevating context of marriage. To cheapen it through public, commercialized and hollow expressions of infatuation is indeed against Judaism’s notion of true love and its proper demonstration.

So whether Valentine’s Day is Christian, pagan or immoral, one thing it’s not is Jewish.

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