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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Tetzaveh – The Rosh Yeshiva Responds – Helping Secular Israelis Celebrate Valentine’s Day

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on February 21, 2024)
Topics: Rosh Yeshiva Responds, Sefer Shemot, Tetzaveh, Torah

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וְנָשָׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּחֹשֶׁן הַמִּשְׁפָּט עַל לִבּוֹ בְּבֹאוֹ אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ לְזִכָּרֹן לִפְנֵי ה’ תָּמִיד:

“And Aharon shall bear the names of the children of Israel in the breastplate of judgment upon his heart, when he goes into the holy place, for a remembrance before the Lord continually.” (Shemot 28:29)

QUESTION-Jerusalem, Israel, Nov. 13, 2024

In the community where I grew up it was very clear that Valentine’s Day was a Christian holiday that Jews did not celebrate. However, here in Israel the commercial influence is great and the 14th of February is now celebrated by many chiloni Jews as יום אהבה, a Day of Love. I would wager that most do not know anything about the origins of the day. Since the war broke out, I have at times volunteered to provide things for the southern refugees that are housed in Jerusalem hotels. The social worker has told me that it would lift up their spirts to have a Valentine’s Day party and requested we buy things along that theme (roses, heart shaped chocolate etc). Is this permitted?

ANSWER

Given that we are dealing with people who have suffered trauma and for whom morale and lifting their spirits is a real issue of psychological health, I feel pushed to find a path to permits this.

The halakhic issue at stake here is that prohibition of bi’chukoteihem, following in the ways of the Gentiles. The position of Rema (YD 178:1), following Maharik (responsa 88), is that this prohibition applies only to something that is practiced among the non-Jews and (a) has an element of sexual promiscuity or (b) a practice that is done for no obvious reason (a chok). Maharik stresses that the problem with this second category is that since the practice serves no purpose, the only reason a Jew would be adopting it is because he wants to be like the Gentiles, and would not be a problem if the practice was serving a purpose and was not being adopted for the purpose of mimicking. In contrast, Rema writes that the problem here is that such a practice might originally have come from something avoda zara related, and that that, in itself, makes it a violation, regardless of the reason it is being practiced.

That being said, many poskim cite Maharik’s reason, even in cases that are connected to religious practice—for example, Rivash (responsa 188) permits going out to the graves to pray every morning of shiva, even while acknowledging that was adopted from Muslim practice. Similarly, the practice of spreading branches in the shul on Shavuot is permitted because it can be connected to the theme of the day, despite the parallels to (and possible origin in) the practices of Palm Sunday (see SA OH 494:3 and MB 10).

All of this would be good reason to permit in our case, but we must acknowledge that a Valentine’s Day party is not just a matter of cultural borrowing, but of actually celebrating the day itself, which is a much more serious concern. But I do think that the realities in Israel make a big difference. As you note, in Israel, it not at all experienced as participating in a Christian, but rather a Jewish/Israeli one. Israelis have certainly “made it their own”—with a Hebrew name giving it a totally different identity—and it can be seen as cultural borrowing, not mimicking, just like the other cases which the poskim allow.

Given the circumstances, then, it would be permitted to help these people celebrate Yom Ahavah.

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