World of the Sages: L'haim

Have you ever noticed that at every Jewish gathering a glass is charged and the blessing over wine is said?

By LEVI COOPER
September 11, 2007 12:04

 
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Have you ever noticed that at every Jewish gathering a glass is charged and the blessing over wine is said? Whether it is a life-cycle event or a festival or just the weekly Shabbat dinner, there always seems to be a bottle of wine on the table. Sometimes the ritual opens with a glass of wine - as in the case of a wedding ceremony - while at other times the wine concludes the rite - like at the redeeming of a firstborn son. Every week, Shabbat is ushered in with a silver cup filled with wine, and as the holy day departs we once again fill a cup of wine. On Pessah evening when the family sits down to the Seder, we open the proceedings with the blessing over wine and then proceed to drink another three cups. The wine is poured even on Rosh Hashana - more a time of introspection and self-appraisal than a celebratory feast. The centrality of wine to our tradition, its ritual uses in society and its intoxicating properties lead our sages to pronounce a ban on wine produced by non-Jews. Why is wine so central to our rituals? Perhaps it would be more appropriate to welcome such momentous occasions and spiritual junctures with a short prayer, a psalm of thanks or commemoration or a quick review of the pertinent laws. Certainly this would set a more pious atmosphere than drinking an alcoholic beverage! Why the earthly drink wine, a beverage that comes from grapes grown in the ground, a drink that has reached its current state due to human effort? A popular Yiddish quip notes that the Hebrew word for water - mayim - is written with one "yid" (the letter yud as popularly pronounced in Poland). The Hebrew word for wine - yayin - is written with two "yidden." Thus when a Jew - a Yid - sits alone he drinks mayim; when two Jews are together - two Yidden - the beverage of choice should be yayin. We always celebrate Jewish occasions of note with our friends and family, and hence the wine is appropriately poured. Rabbi Shlomo Shapira (1831-1893), chief rabbi of Munkatch, then in Hungary and today in Ukraine, raised this very question. While he did not publish his writings, his grandson, Rabbi Haim Elazar Shapira (1871-1937), who also served in the Munkatch rabbinate, recorded the explanation of his grandfather. The Talmud discusses the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, wondering what type of fruit it was (B. Berachot 40a; B. Sanhedrin 70a-b). Three opinions are presented. According to one opinion, the forbidden fruit was wheat. This suggestion is innovative since wheat stalks are not normally considered trees. According to this line, children only begin to call their parents once they have tasted grain. The meaning of this cryptic statement may be that people only recognize their independence once they have experienced this material world. It is only after interaction with physicality that a person sees an unified world and has the autonomy to transgress against the will of the Almighty. A further opinion suggests that the forbidden fruit was a fig, for it was a fig leaf that was later used to cover Adam and Eve's nudity (see Genesis 3:7). According to this approach, the very item that brought about the spiritual downfall of this first couple was cobbled together to cover up their embarrassing state. As the root of this approach is the idea that the same object can be used to wreak destruction as well as to repair all that is wrong. It is in this vein that the prophet tells us that in the messianic era the sharp metal of the deadly sword will be made into plows for preparing the land to provide sustenance to all (see Isaiah 2:4). According to the first opinion cited and the one most relevant to our discussion, the fruit was none other than a grape vine, since it is always wine that is the source of misery. To buttress this contention, the Talmud cites the passage where Noah partook of wine (see Genesis 9:20ff). Noah and his family came out of the ark to a new, idyllic world. All evil had been destroyed and what remained was pure. Noah quickly began life anew by working the cleansed land and planting a vineyard. The produce of this vineyard was made into wine and when Noah drank and became intoxicated, his behavior and that of his son Ham was inappropriate. Thus the new beginning - just like the Almighty's initial program - was sullied by wine. While the Talmud doesn't quote this, another biblical episode provides a similar lesson (see Genesis 19:30-36). After Lot and his daughters escape the destruction of Sodom, they reach the safety of a cave. The two girls mistakenly believe that the entire world has been destroyed. In a desperate move, they conclude that they must have children by their father to ensure the continuation of humanity. Yet how could a father agree to such a depraved act? The solution suggested by the older daughter and implemented by the two women is to get Lot so drunk on wine that he would be oblivious to any misdeeds committed. This decadent plan succeeded. In an attempt to reverse this troubling trend, at each festive occasion we seek to repair the initial damage from the Garden of Eden. Wine should no longer be a tool that brings about grief, a means for impropriety. Wine should be used in the service of spiritual growth. The Almighty's creations are tools for bringing godliness into this physical world. Despite the woeful history of wine, we do not abstain from this hazardous beverage. We seek to sanctify it at moments of spiritual potential. Instead of relegating wine to the annals of vice, it is elevated to open each Jewish ritual, proudly announcing that physical objects have neutral valence. We choose how to employ God's creations and write their history; will they be recorded as tools of corruption and sin or as objects of holiness that repair this broken world? The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.

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