Tag Archives: Forbidden Fruit

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 Secret of HaMotzi Lechem

This week’s parasha is Balak, named after the Moabite king who sought to curse Israel. The Zohar spends a significant amount of time on the mysteries of this parasha. Included within it is a distinct mystical text known as the Yenuka, the “Child”, describing some fateful encounters between the Sages and an angelic youth, who reveals to them profound Torah secrets. (The identity of this child and some of his teachings were explored in the second edition of Secrets of the Last Waters.) In the first encounter (Zohar III, 186a), Rabbi Yitzchak and Rabbi Yehudah are travelling and make a stop at the home of the famous mystic Rav Hamnuna Saba. They meet the Rav’s wife and child, then settle down to rest and eat. This sets the stage for the youth to reveal the secrets of things like netilat yadayim, mayim achronim, and zimun.

In another encounter (III, 188a), Rabbis Elazar, Abba, and Yose make a stop at the same home. The Yenuka senses that the Sages are perplexed by an issue regarding Ammon and Moav (which ties to this week’s parasha, Balak being the king of Moav). The youth segues into a discussion of the mystical secrets of grains and breads. These teachings help us understand why the hamotzi blessing is so powerful and “covers” all other foods. It also explains why the Sages described bread as the most wholesome food, and one that can save a person from many illnesses: In Bava Metzia 107b, for instance, we read that the gematria of “illness” (מחלה) is 83, while “bread” (לחמה) is its anagram, with the same value. This is to teach that eating a simple meal of bread and water—with the right blessings and meditations in mind—can cure a person of 83 illnesses. Continue reading

Origins and Mysteries of Shabbat Candles

1723 Illustration of Shabbat Candle-Lighting

This week’s parasha, Tetzave, begins with the command to take “pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually.” (Exodus 27:20) This refers to lighting the “eternal flame”, ner tamid, of the Temple Menorah. Since the destruction of the Temple, we are no longer able to fulfil this mitzvah exactly. However, the Sages say we can still fulfil this mitzvah through the lighting of Shabbat candles. The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343) presents some mathematical proof for this as well: the gematria of ner tamid (נר תמיד) is 704, equal to “on the Sabbath” (בשבת), while the gematria of tetzave (תצוה) is 501, equal to “[God] commanded the women” (נשים צוה). In other words, God commanded women to light Shabbat candles as a way to keep the Temple’s eternal flame going.

This beautiful teaching actually helps us pinpoint the origins of lighting Shabbat candles, since the mitzvah is not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the Torah. Where exactly did it come from, why was it instituted, and why is it women specifically that are instructed to light these candles? Continue reading