Valentine's Day and Judaism

To Send or Not to Send--Is that the Question?

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Some have suggested that Valentine's Day is a Christian reconstruction of a pagan holiday known as Lupercalia. Lupercalia was a fertility festival described by Plutarch, the Greek biographer and neo-Platonist philosopher, as a time when noble youths ran through the city naked for sport, striking those they met with loin cloths. It was widely believed that getting struck with one of these loin cloths could help a pregnant woman deliver and a barren woman conceive.

However, in his paper St. Valentine, Chaucer and Spring in February, 20th century literary scholar Jack B. Oruch debunks this theory, showing that it was based on a mistaken understanding of Church chronology put forth by the English antiquarian Alban Butler in 1756 and propagated by other scholars in the 19th century.

Oruch suggests that Valentine's Day's themes of love and romance were actually a creation of Geoffrey Chaucer and a number of his contemporaries in late 14th century England. In fact, the first literary reference to Valentine’s Day in this context is Chaucer's Parlement of Foules published in 1382 in honor of the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England and Anne Bohemia.

The ritual of sending formal greetings seems to have appeared in the 1500s. Today, the custom has grown so widespread that the U.S. Greeting Card Association estimates that roughly one billion valentines are sent each year worldwide. Despite this popularity, the source for the custom seems to have evolved out of an embellishment to the apocryphal legend of St. Valentine. In this telling, Valentine falls in love with the daughter of his jailer and on the night before his execution, he writes her a parting note signed "from your Valentine."

Academics aren't the only ones who have recognized the dubious historical basis for Valentine’s Day. Vatican II, the landmark set of reforms adopted by the Catholic Church in 1969, removed Valentine's Day from the Catholic church's calendar, asserting that "though the memorial of St. Valentine is ancient… apart from his name nothing is known…. Except that he was buried on the Via Flaminia on 14 February."

Jewish Considerations

A number of halakhic rulings have been written in response to questions of whether or not Jewish law allows for the celebration of holidays such as Valentine's Day. The most relevant is from the Rama (Rabbi Moshe Isserlis, Poland, 1520-1572) who explains that there are four criteria that must be met in order to permit Jewish celebration of rituals initiated by Gentiles (Rama Y.D. 178:1 as interpreted by Rabbi Michael Broyde).

1)      Does the debated activity have a secular origin or value?

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Rabbi Mike Uram

Rabbi Mike Uram is the Director and Campus Rabbi for the Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania. A major focus of his work is creating and experimenting with new models of Jewish community and Jewish education in order to meet the need of the next generation of Jewish leaders. He writes a monthly column at philly.com. He is also glad that he can celebrate Valentine's Day as his wife always loves flowers.