Category Archives: Midrash

Why Kiddush on Wine?

In this week’s parasha, Nasso, the Torah commands that a nazir is to abstain from wine and any other grape products. Wine appears frequently in the Torah, and plays a huge role in Judaism. Every Shabbat and holiday is ushered in with kiddush on wine, and concludes with a wine havdallah. Every wedding has a blessing on wine under the chuppah, as does a brit milah, and in ancient times wine libations were brought in the Temple. What makes wine so special?

The numerical value of “wine” (יין) is 70, a most significant number. It reminds us of the seventy names of God, of the seventy root nations of the world, and the seventy “faces” of Torah understanding. Our Sages famously stated that nichnas yayin, yatza sod, “when wine enters, secrets come out”. More than a simple proverb, it is a mathematical equation since the value of “secret” (סוד) is also 70. So, as seventy comes in, seventy comes out. On the surface level, the statement means that alcohol makes a person more likely to spill their secrets. On the deeper level, though, the Sages meant that one who drinks wine may be able to enter a mental state where they can uncover the secrets of Torah, and see it through all seventy faces. Wine can make “a man’s mind more receptive” (Yoma 76a).

Our Sages taught that wine is unique in that it defies the natural order: whereas other things degrade over time (as encapsulated in the second law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy, that the universe always tends towards disorder), wine improves and gets more valuable over time. Wine has another incredible scientific quirk: Japanese scientists researching electrical superconductors had a party in their lab and ended up accidentally discovering that wine makes certain metals superconductive!

Superconductivity refers to the property of being able to transmit electricity perfectly with no resistance and no energy loss. Generally, superconductivity requires cooling substances to near absolute zero (-273ºC). Some substances are able to superconduct at higher temperatures, around -90ºC, but even this is far too cold to be practical. Scientists around the world are therefore on the hunt for a room-temperature superconductor which, if found, would completely revolutionize the world. It would result in dramatic energy savings, and would allow for other cool phenomena like “quantum levitation”.

The Japanese scientists found that wine makes some things superconductive, especially iron-based compounds. And red wine especially was up to seven times more effective than other alcoholic beverages. No explanation for this has yet been found. It is all the more significant when we consider the central role that electricity plays in Jewish mysticism, and that our brains literally run on electrical signalling (suggesting how wine might make our brains more receptive to Torah secrets!) and that our bodies are full of iron, which makes our blood red, too.

While all of the above is fascinating, it does not explain why wine is so prevalent in Jewish rituals, especially in the recitation of every kiddush. What is the reason for wine? Continue reading

The Genius of Mishnah

This week’s parasha (outside of Israel) is Emor, which begins with God commanding Moses to speak to the kohanim and to teach them. This is one of the key verses having a clear reference to the Oral Torah. Moses relayed not just the five books of the Written Torah, but also many more oral teachings and explanations that were passed down over the millennia. Another source for the Oral Law is Exodus 34:27, where God tells Moses to write down the words of Torah, and then adds that al pi—literally meaning “orally” or “on the mouth”—of these words of Torah, God is making a covenant with us. The Sages point out that this is another major allusion to the Torah sh’b’al peh, the Oral Torah (see Gittin 60b).

The necessity of an Oral Torah is actually self-evident since Torah laws are very brief and usually come with no explanations or details. For instance, we are told numerous times to bind certain signs upon our arms and to tie fringes on our clothes, but there is no description of what these things should look like. Another classic example is Deuteronomy 12:21 where we are told to slaughter animals for consumption “as I have instructed you”, yet no instructions or slaughtering procedures are written anywhere in the Torah. The obvious implication is that Moses relayed many teachings and instructions that were not recorded.

Eventually, those teachings did come to be recorded in the Mishnah. The term Mishnah comes from the verb lishnot (לשנות), “to repeat”, since these laws and teachings were originally learned through constant repetition, to reinforce the knowledge and memorize it crystal clear. Less known is that, since the same exact verb is leshanot (לשנות), meaning “to change”, the Oral Law was not meant to be written down in order to keep it fluid and flexible.* Judaism is always evolving, and halakhah must change under varying circumstances and as new problems emerge. The central idea behind having an Oral Law was so that it would not come to be “set in stone” like the written law. The Torah thus remains fresh in every generation, and open to new ideas, applications, and chiddushim. This is really the beauty of the Oral Torah. (In fact, when the Arizal relates the different aspects of Torah to the mystical Sefirot, he points out that the Mishnah specifically is in Tiferet, “Beauty”, see Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh.)

On a more mystical level, Mishnah (משנה) has the same letters and numerical value as Neshamah (נשמה), “soul”, for while the Written Torah is the “body” of Judaism, the Oral Torah is its inner dimension and true essence. (This is also why it is customary to recite Mishnayot in honour of the dead, to elevate their souls.) It is important to clarify that while the Mishnah is certainly not the entire Oral Torah, it is the first text of the Oral Torah and the foundation for the rest. Continue reading

10 New Things in the Messianic Age

For Jews in Israel, Pesach will end this Friday, and on Shabbat the Torah reading will be the next parasha, Acharei. For us in the diaspora, Pesach will extend an extra day to Shabbat, meaning we will be reading more holiday-related passages, and continue with Acharei the following Shabbat. It will take quite a while until the Torah readings in Israel and in the diaspora will re-synchronize (at parashat Massei)!

Here outside of Israel, we get to read a special Haftarah for the eighth day of Pesach which centres on Isaiah 11. Fittingly, it is all about the coming Final Redemption and end of the exile, which we in the diaspora are particularly eager for. We read about the miraculous Messianic Age, when “the wolf will dwell with the lamb… the cow and the bear shall graze, with their young lying down together…” Some of our Sages understood this verse metaphorically, symbolizing a time of great peace, and a return to an ecological balance. Others took it literally, that even carnivorous animals will become vegan, and there shall be no death of any kind anymore. One Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 15:21) takes the latter approach, and enumerates this miracle as one of ten “new” things that God will do in the Messianic Age. This comes as a response to Kohelet who had stated that there is currently “nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

The first of the ten is that the world will be newly illuminated, as it is written: “No longer shall you need the sun for light by day, nor the shining of the moon for radiance [by night]; for God shall be your light everlasting, your God shall be your glory.” (Isaiah 60:19) It is interesting to note that if we take this verse literally, it has already come true that we no longer need the sun and moon for light, thanks to electricity! Of course, the verse is primarily metaphorical, saying that God will be our light. The Midrash asks how this is possible, since we know man is incapable of gazing at God. It answers based on Isaiah 30:26, that “The light of the moon will be like the light of the sun, while the light of the sun will be sevenfold, like the light of the seven days [of Creation].” The verse continues to suggest that this special light will have healing properties. The Midrash adds a quote from Malachi (3:20) that “for you who revere My name a sun of victory shall rise to bring healing…”

Intriguingly, the Midrash says that this new light will shine with 49 parts (based on the seven-by-seven wording of the Isaiah verse). That number always alludes to the 49 aspects of the lower Sefirot, particularly relevant to us now during Sefirat HaOmer when we count the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot. As is well-known (and recorded in most siddurim), each day corresponds to a particular quality tied to the Sefirot. In turn, these relate to the Nun Sha’arei Binah, the “Fifty Gates of Understanding”. The 50th gate is far too lofty, and even Moses was unable to attain it, though he did grasp all the remaining 49, as we hope to do, too (see Rosh Hashanah 21b). Perhaps the Midrash is teaching us in that in the Messianic Age we will finally be able to grasp the 49 levels, and make full use of light’s mysteries to repair the world.

We might see something of an analogy to this in the fact that the world is turning to more and more solar power for our energy needs, which has the potential to significantly improve the health of our planet. While water- and wind-powered machines have been around for centuries (in various mills, for instance), solar power really is a new phenomenon. The sun bathes us with essentially unlimited energy, and can easily satisfy all of the world’s energy needs many times over. The clunky and rudimentary stuff we have today is only just the beginning. There are some truly incredible solar-based and light-based technologies in the works, including artificial photosynthesis and lightning-fast, radiation-free “Li-Fi” internet. And who knows what other secrets are contained within light, of which we still have quite a minimal understanding.

The second new development in the Messianic Age is that healing waters shall go forth from Jerusalem, as prophesied in places like Zechariah 14:8. The Midrash specifically cites Ezekiel: “Every living creature that swarms will be able to go to the streams and be revived…” (47:9) These waters will heal all illnesses. A few verses later, Ezekiel says that “All kinds of trees for food will grow on both banks of the stream… they will yield new fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the Temple. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.” This is the third miracle of the Messianic Age: special Jerusalem trees that will perpetually give healing produce every month. (On another related scientific note, researchers have already been able to genetically engineer certain medicines directly into fruits and plants!)

Canada-based SemBioSys developed a safflower plant that can produce human insulin for diabetics, while back in 1996 scientists had already begun work on a banana carrying an edible Hepatitis B vaccine. These technologies never broke into the commercial market and it remains to be seen whether they are even safe or effective. However, they might provide a model or analogy as to how plant produce might directly treat human illness.

The fourth development of the Messianic Age is the rebuilding of all the ruined cities in Israel, and perhaps elsewhere around the world. As prophesied by Ezekiel (16:55), even Sodom and Gomorrah will be restored! Again, we are already living in a reality where this prophesy has been partly realized, as many ancient towns have now been rebuilt in modern Israel, including Modi’in (of Chanukah fame), Caesarea, Be’er Sheva, Rehovot (not at the same site as the Biblical one), numerous settlements in Judea and Samaria, as well as Jerusalem itself. This leads to the next miracle of the Messianic Age, which is that Jerusalem will be overlain with sapphire stones and other precious gems, and will “shine like the sun” (based on Isaiah 54:11-2).

The sixth miracle is the one with which we started: the restoration of an ecological equilibrium, where all living organisms will be at peace. Related to this is the following development, that all people, animals, and living things on the planet will form a new covenant with God, as it is written: “In that day, I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground…” (Hoshea 2:20) The verse continues to say how there will be no more wars, with Earth entirely at peace, idolatry will be eliminated, and all will know God. This is the true, divine “new world order” which we await.

With this new order come the final three developments, all based on verses in Isaiah (65:19, 25:8, 35:10). The first is that there will be no more sadness or wailing. The second, that there will be no more death. Some take this to mean not that people will live eternally, but simply that people will live very long lives (as Isaiah says in 65:20 that the youngest shall die at 100). Perhaps it means there will be no more tragic, untimely deaths, and that all people will live to a ripe old age and die of natural causes. Whatever the case, the final new development in the Messianic Age is that there will be no more sorrow, but only real joy for all humanity.

Chag sameach!

From the Archives: ‘Did the Patriarchs Celebrate Passover?’