There is nothing about the contemporary traditions of Valentine’s Day–cards, flowers, chocolate–that seems overtly religious. But the holiday’s full name of St. Valentine’s Day certainly implies that it has Christian roots.
Thus, the question of whether it’s appropriate for Jews to celebrate Valentine’s Day is reasonable. The answer would seemingly be tied to the true origins of the holiday and the history of the saint for whom it’s named.
Who was St. Valentine?
Valentine’s Day was first instituted by Pope Gelasius I in 496 C.E. to commemorate the martyrdom of St. Valentine. Yet scholars know almost nothing about this St. Valentine. Most believe that Valentine lived in the late 3rd century C.E. However, the name Valentine (derived from the Latin word valeo meaning strong) was common in the ancient world. There are at least 30 mentions of the name in historical documents from this time period.
The stories associated with St. Valentine are not historical, but rather originate in a number of polemical legends written during the 6th and 7th centuries. According to these legends, Valentine was a priest who was arrested by the Emperor Claudius. Following a theological debate about the merits of Christianity, Valentine was sentenced to live with a noble by the name of Asterius in a form of house arrest. With the help of God and true faith, Valentine miraculously restores the sight of his master’s adopted daughter and, in doing so, converts Asterius and the 24 members of his house. When Emperor Claudius hears of this miracle and the subsequent conversions, he has Valentine killed.
Another legend from roughly the same time period, The Passion of the Bishop Valentine of Terni, is a longer and more complex version of the same story. These two renditions of the Valentine legend have a number of factual and stylistic problems that have led scholars to agree that they are not reliable sources of historical information. The clearest example of this is the identity of the emperor, as there is no documentation of persecution by Claudius. In this and other ways, these legends must be understood as part of a literary genre focused on imparting specific values.