Valentine's Day and Judaism

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

Print this page Print this page

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 There are at least 30 mentions of the name in historical documents from this time period.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. valentine card

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.

In the case of the legends of St. Valentine, the message highlights the miraculous power and importance of true and unwavering faith even when facing persecution or martyrdom. The fact that these legends do not connect the martyrdom of St. Valentine and the themes of love and fertility have raised questions about the origins of the themes of Valentine's Day.

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?

2)      Can one rationally explain the behavior or ritual apart from the gentile holiday or event?

3)      If there are idolatrous origins, have they disappeared?

4)      Are the activities actually consistent with Jewish tradition? 

In the case of Valentine's Day, one may certainly argue that the rituals performed today do meet these criteria. Sending cards and chocolates and giving gifts can be explained as rational expressions of love and appreciation independent of possible Christian roots. In addition, these Christian roots have been questioned by scholars, as well as the Catholic church.

The academic work of Oruch and other scholars further proves that Valentine's Day is not derived from the pagan holiday Lupercalia. Finally, the desire to express love and to offer gifts as a symbol of those feeling is certainly in line with Jewish tradition and values. The idea of a special day set aside to encourage coupledom is also well rooted in the Jewish tradition: Tu B'Av, the 15th day of the Jewish month of Av, was an ancient day of matchmaking that has experienced something of a revival in modern times.

While it does not represent every opinion in Jewish literature, the source from the Rama does provide the most salient criteria for making this decision according to Jewish law and it is the basis upon which many rabbis allow Jewish participation in Valentine's Day rituals.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.