Tag Archives: Kiddush

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

A New Theory of Shabbat HaGadol

This Saturday is Shabbat HaGadol, the “Great Sabbath” before Pesach. One of the big mysteries surrounding the holiday is the origin of this term. Why is the Shabbat preceding Pesach described as being gadol? Why aren’t the Sabbaths before other big holidays described the same way? What makes this Shabbat so special? Over the centuries, many different explanations have been given.

Perhaps the most famous explanation is that on the Shabbat before the Exodus, the Egyptians got word of the impending Tenth Plague and Death of the Firstborn so, naturally, all the Egyptian firstborn rose up in protest. They revolted against Pharaoh and pressured him to free the Israelites so that their lives would be spared. A civil war ensued and many Egyptians were struck down. This is why we read in Psalms (136:10) that God “struck down the Egyptians through their firstborn”. The verse can be read to mean that God struck down the Egyptian firstborn, or that He struck down the Egyptians at the hands of their own firstborn! This great civil war (a mini-plague in its own right) gave Shabbat HaGadol its name.


Another explanation is that on (or just prior to) the Sabbath before the Exodus the Israelites had been commanded to prepare the sheep for the paschal sacrifice. Since this was in the month of Nisan, the astrological sign for which is a sheep or ram, the Egyptians were in the midst of worshipping their ram-headed sheep god Khnum. To the Egyptians, the sacrifice of a sheep at that time would have been appalling and sacrilegious. Yet, in great dread of the Israelites and their God, the Egyptians stayed silent and did not protest what they knew was about to happen. This was a mini-miracle and yet another display of God’s greatness, hence Shabbat HaGadol.

A more pragmatic explanation for Shabbat HaGadol is that, since it is the Sabbath before Pesach, rabbis in all synagogues give an extra-long sermon in preparation for the holiday. There are a lot of halakhot to go over, and there is also a need for some words of inspiration. Because of the long speeches, it became known as Shabbat HaGadol. Finally, some hold that the name comes from the Haftarah typically read on the Shabbat before Pesach (Malachi 3), and its concluding prophesy about the return of Eliyahu before the “Great [Gadol] and Awesome Day of Hashem”. After all, we had finished last year’s seder by praying and hoping that next year we will be redeemed and in Jerusalem. So, the Shabbat right before the upcoming Pesach is our final wish that the Great Day of God will come now so that this year’s seder can be in Jerusalem as we hoped.

All of the above are wonderful explanations. I believe there might also be one more coming out of an oft-forgotten historical detail from the end of the Second Temple era.

The Great Calendar Debate

As is well-known, at the end of the Second Temple era Jewish life in the Holy Land was dominated by two major groups: the Perushim (“Pharisees”) and the Tzdukim (“Sadducees”). The latter held only to the strict observance of the Written Torah, with no particular reverence for oral tradition or oral law. For this reason, the Sadducees famously did not believe in an afterlife, since the Torah never explicitly mentions it, nor did they allow any use of an existing flame on Shabbat, based on their straight-forward reading of Exodus 35:3.

Another major debate between the Sadducees and Pharisees was regarding Sefirat haOmer. The Torah states that we must start counting the Omer from the day after the Sabbath (Leviticus 23:11, 15). The Sadducees took this literally, and began the Omer count from the day after the Shabbat of Pesach. This meant that they always began counting on Sunday and always celebrated Shavuot on Sunday. The Pharisees, meanwhile, based on oral tradition, held that the count must begin from the day after the first yom tov of Pesach, since the Torah often refers to holidays themselves as “Shabbats”, too. The count would always begin on the 16th of Nisan, making Shavuot always land around the 6th or 7th of Sivan (depending on lunar month lengths). The Pharisees insisted this was the correct way going back to Sinai, as taught by Moses.

Intriguingly, there was a third up-and-coming group of Jews at the time, the mysterious Essenes. They were originally a small break-away sect of Sadducees that also had beliefs similar to the Pharisees and did maintain certain binding oral traditions. The Essenes would have a large impact on the development of Rabbinic Judaism as we know it (which came mostly out of Pharisee Judaism) following the destruction of the Second Temple. Unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees, which held by a lunisolar calendar that used lunar months but aligned with solar years (as we still do today), the Essenes believed such a calendar was inaccurate and too flexible. They did not like it one bit that the lunar months were proclaimed by the Sanhedrin based on eyewitnesses who might be mistaken. Instead, the Essenes held only to a finely-tuned solar calendar which they thought was perfect.

The Essene calendar (as described in the apocryphal but hugely important Book of Jubilees, ch. 6, among other sources) went as follows: There were 52 weeks divided up into 4 seasons, each with exactly 13 weeks totalling 91 days. The result was that holidays would always fall on the exact same weekday all the time. Shavuot was always celebrated on a Sunday, the 15th of Sivan. (They argued that Shavuot should be on a 15th just like the other regalim, Pesach and Sukkot.) The Essenes interpreted that verse in Leviticus to mean that the Omer count must start from the day after Shabbat after Pesach is over. So, the Essenes always celebrated Shavuot a week after the Sadducees! (Depending on when Pesach would fall in a given year, the Sadducees and Pharisees might celebrate Shavuot on the same day, or a day or two apart. In a year like this year, when Pesach falls on Shabbat, the Pharisees and Sadducees would have begun counting the Omer on the same Sunday and celebrated Shavuot on the same day.) The problem with the Essene calendar is that it had a year of 364 days, and it isn’t clear how they intercalated to stay aligned with the solar year of 365.24 days.

After the Temple was destroyed, Sadducee and Essene Judaism both disappeared (along with numerous other, smaller sects). Pharisee Judaism continued and evolved into “Rabbinic” Judaism. It was precisely the richness and fluidity of the oral tradition that allowed Judaism to survive and flourish. And we still have many remnants of our ancient Sages instituting practices partly to counter the mistaken Sadducee claims. Lighting Shabbat candles and eating warm chamin (like cholent) was a direct assault on Sadducee Judaism which kept the lights out and ate cold food to avoid making use of a flame. With this in mind, I believe we can posit another hypothesis for the origin of Shabbat HaGadol:

Unlike the Sadducees (and Essenes), our Sages held that the Omer count must start from the second day of Pesach since the first day of Pesach is itself like Shabbat. When the Torah says to count from the day after “Shabbat”, it means the day after the first yom tov of Pesach. In that case, if we insist on calling the first day of Pesach a Shabbat, what does that make the actual Shabbat preceding it? It’s like we have two Shabbats in a single week! So, perhaps it became customary to refer to the actual Shabbat as Shabbat haGadol, both to distinguish it from the Pesach mini-Shabbat and to emphasize the wrongness of the Sadducees and Essenes.

This leads us to an even bigger question: why did our Sages insist that Pesach is the Shabbat in question? Isn’t the Torah quite clear that the count should start from the Sabbath after Pesach? What is so important about tying Pesach to Shabbat?

Purpose of Creation

Rashi begins his commentary on the Torah by pointing out that Beresheet means that God created “for resheet”, and what is resheet? Proverbs 8:22 calls the Torah resheet darko, “the first of His way”, while Jeremiah 2:3 calls Israel resheet tevuato, “the first of His grain”. Therefore, God created the cosmos with the intention to eventually forge Israel and give His Torah. If not for this, He would have never created to begin with, as we read in Jeremiah 33:25-26 that “If not for My covenant day and night, I would have never established the laws of Heaven and Earth, so I will never reject the offspring of Jacob…”

The ‘Pillars of Creation’ in the Eagle Nebula (Courtesy: NASA)

Therefore, there is a deep, intrinsic connection between Creation and Pesach: Without a Genesis, there would be no Exodus, and without an Exodus God would have never bothered with a Genesis! This is why, when reciting Kiddush every Friday evening to welcome Shabbat, we say zekher l’yetziat Mitzrayim, “in memory of the Exodus from Egypt”. And it is why, when the Torah gives the Ten Commandments twice (in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5), the first time it says Shabbat is in order to commemorate Genesis, while the second time it says Shabbat is in order to commemorate the Exodus! In the former, we are told to keep Shabbat because God rested on the Seventh Day of Creation, while in the latter we are told to keep Shabbat because we were once slaves working around the clock and we are no longer slaves so we should celebrate our freedom with a day of rest and divine service.

In short, Pesach and Shabbat are inseparable and represent two sides of the same coin. Our Sages insisted on commemorating Pesach itself as a Shabbat, for it cannot be any other way. Pesach is a Shabbat, the very reason for the existence not only of the Jewish people, but of the whole universe. And before the Pesach-Shabbat of Exodus comes the Great Shabbat of Genesis.

Shabbat Shalom!

The Spiritual Power of Bread and Challah

This week’s Torah reading is Shlach, most famous for recounting the incident of the spies. One distinguished member of each of Israel’s twelve tribes was appointed to scout the land of Israel in preparation for the Jewish people’s conquest and habitation of the Holy Land. After forty days, the twelve returned, with ten of them giving over a less-than-positive report that frightened the nation. Despite God’s promise that Israel belonged to the Jewish people and they would be able to settle it effortlessly, the people’s faithlessness caused them to fear and err, resulting in their own banishment from the Holy Land. They were condemned to forty years in the wilderness, over which time all of the adult males that came out of Egypt (and participated in the sin of the spies) would pass away.

"Return of the Spies from the Land of Promise" by Gustave Dore

“Return of the Spies from the Land of Promise” by Gustave Doré

Following this account, a number of Torah laws are introduced. One of these is that of challah, the portion of every large quantity of prepared dough that was separated and donated to the priests (Numbers 15:20). Rashi tells us that this was a portion equivalent to an omer. An omer was a tenth of an ephah (Exodus 16:36), which is defined by Chazal as equal to the weight and volume of 432 eggs. So, whenever a Jew prepares around 43 eggs’ worth of dough (or more), they must separate a small portion as a donation. The exact mass and volume of an egg are in dispute. Today, it is customary to separate challah when preparing about 8 cups of flour or more. Because of the uncertainty of the measurements, however, a blessing is only recited when preparing at least 12 cups, and some say at least 16 cups. Rashi tells us that a person at home should separate 1/24th, while a baker separates 1/48th of the total amount.

Challah and Shabbat

Although challah strictly refers to the separated portion that was donated to the priests, today it is associated with the special loaves of bread baked for Shabbat and holidays. Some connect challah to the Sabbath by the fact that it typically has seven ingredients: flour, water, yeast, eggs, sugar, salt, and sesame seeds sprinkled on top. Others point out that the mispar katan mispari, the “reduced” numerical value, of the word challah (חלה) in Hebrew is seven: ח is 8, ל is 30, and ה is 5. Together, that makes 43, where the digits themselves add up to 7 (ie. 4 + 3).


This happens to be a peculiar pattern with a number of other Shabbat-related things. The meal starts with Kiddush wine, yayin (יין), where each י is 10 and ן is 50, making a total of 70, which once again sums to 7. After the challah, the first course is fish, dag (דג), where ד is 4 and ג is 3, making 7. The main course is meat, bassar (בשר), where ב is 2, ש is 300, and ר is 200, totalling 502, with the digits again adding up to 7.

One important question to ask is: why must the entire Sabbath meal start with challah? Moreover, why does any meal typically start with bread? In Jewish law, the blessing on the bread covers all the other foods on the table. This isn’t so when one eats other things, in which case the person would have to say a separate blessing for each type of food. Yet bread somehow includes all the foods within it. What is so special about bread?

The Quintessential Human Food

Before the modern industrial age, food was quite simple. People typically ate fruits and nuts, legumes and vegetables, meat, milk, and bread. One will notice that all of these are also consumed by animals – except for bread. Producing bread is a long and complicated process, starting with hard, inedible stalks of wheat. These have to be harvested, threshed, winnowed, milled, carefully combined with other ingredients, and baked. Such a complex procedure requires a higher intellect; no other organism is capable of such a feat.

For this reason, bread is a potent symbol of humanity as a whole. It is symbolic of man’s higher spiritual condition, and greater intelligence. Bread represents our divine mission in this world: taking the raw material that God has prepared for us, and perfecting it into an elevated state. It reminds us that we are not just animals eating to satisfy a physical need. Bread is human food, and carries a far more powerful spiritual potential, including within it all other “lesser” forms of food. And so, we begin each meal with bread, and every Sabbath meal with challah.