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?
Tree of Knowledge
The Zohar on this week’s parasha identifies the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden with the grapevine (this identification is also made in the Talmud in multiple places). Previously, the Zohar (I, 36b) had already suggested that what Eve actually did was make wine and serve it to Adam. So, it was the misuse of wine that resulted in evil and death being brought into the world. Thus, the spiritual rectification for this is to make kiddush on wine, thereby sanctifying and rectifying it, and reversing the damage that it caused. This explains why it is customary to say l’chaim, “to life”, before reciting the kiddush blessing (and toasting l’chaim more generally when drinking) since the idea is to reverse the death that was brought into the world through wine. In fact, our Sages state that one of three things that can shorten a person’s life is not reciting kiddush on wine! (Berakhot 55a) However, it must be said that this does not mean wine should be consumed in copious amounts—on the contrary, our Sages teach that wine is one of eight things that are only good in minute quantities and very harmful in large quantities (Gittin 70a).
Once we grasp the connection between the Forbidden Fruit and wine, we can answer many more questions. For instance, the timing of the Friday evening kiddush since, as per tradition, the sin of Adam and Eve took place on Friday, right before Shabbat. It also helps to explain the blessing on wine at a brit milah, where a newborn is officially brought into the Covenant, to rectify the breaking of the first covenant that God made with man. More specifically, Adam had been created whole, with no foreskin, and the foreskin only grew out after as a consequence of the consumption of the Forbidden Fruit (see Sanhedrin 38b, as well as Or HaChaim on Leviticus 12:2-3). So, it is fitting to make a blessing on wine at the ceremony in which that barrier is removed and a child is restored to a wholesome, original human state.
It is a similar case with the blessing on wine under the chuppah. Adam and Eve represent the first marriage, which was ruined by the Forbidden Fruit. In fact, Adam and Eve had separated for 130 years afterwards (which is why their third child Seth was only born 130 years later). Again, the wine under the chuppah serves as a rectification for marriage, and a blessing for the newlyweds to be able to establish a proper and holy “Garden of Eden” of their own.
We can also answer the classic question on this week’s parasha of why the nazir had to bring a sin offering at the end of his nazirite period. Why is a sin offering required—is not a nazirite vow a good thing? We can posit that by abstaining from wine, a nazir was simultaneously abstaining from kiddush and wine blessings, thereby failing to fulfil a critical tikkun for the world. As such, when the nazirite vow was over, a sin offering was required!
Finally, we can appreciate the extremely strict prohibitions on non-kosher and non-Jewish wine, or yayin nesekh. Since wine has such immense spiritual power, it is used (and misused) in other religions as well, and was widely used in ancient idolatries. One of the 613 mitzvot is to completely avoid the consumption of such idolatrous wines. The term yayin nesekh actually comes from parashat Ha’azinu where God warns that He will severely punish those who drink yein nesikham, the libation wine of idolaters (Deuteronomy 32:38).
Having said that, it is worth clarifying that there is a distinction between yayin nesekh, “idolatrous wine”, and yayin shel nokhrim, “gentile wine” more broadly. As the Rambam explains (see Sefer haMitzvot on Negative Mitzvah #194) the Torah itself did not forbid all wine made by non-Jews, just those made for idolatrous purposes or used in idolatrous rituals. Nonetheless, one of the famous 18 stringencies of Beit Shammai that were pushed through the Sanhedrin some 2000 years ago included a ban on all gentile-made wine, as an extra precaution. This is why, although we are unwaveringly stringent on this today, there have been lenient opinions in the past when it came to drinking wine made by non-Jews, as long as it was not yayin nesekh, of course (as most commercial wines are today, which are mass-produced and not involved in any kind of idolatry). Among those who were lenient on the matter include Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the Rama), Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh of Modena (of whom we previously wrote here), and Rabbi Shmuel Yehuda Katzenellenbogen of Venice. (Their positions, and how they have mostly been censored today, was discussed in Shapiro’s Changing the Immutable, ch. 3.)
10 Laws of a Kiddush Cup
The Talmud (Berakhot 51a) lists ten key rules regarding a kiddush cup (specifically one that is used when reciting birkat hamazon with wine, but also applying to any “cup of blessing”). First, it must be rinsed from the outside, and second, washed thoroughly from the inside. It must be filled with wine that is chai, “alive”, likely referring to undiluted wine, or perhaps wine that is still fresh and has not soured. (We can understand what the Sages meant on a mystical level when they said it must be “alive” in light of what was explored above.) The cup should be filled to the top, “adorned and wrapped”, raised with both hands, held in the right hand, lifted at least a handbreadth above the table, and gazed upon when reciting the blessing. Some also add that it must be passed around to the family to spread the blessing to them, especially to one’s wife.
“Adorning” the cup means beautifying the mitzvah in some way, such as when Rav Hisda would surround the kiddush cup with other cups. Using a special, decorated cup as opposed to a plain cup is enough to fulfil this requirement. The meaning of “wrapped” is less clear, and some say it means the person should be enwrapped with a tallit, while others say it means one should have their head covered, or wear a special hat. (In those days, it was encouraged but not yet halachically required for men to always have their heads covered, see more in ‘The Kabbalah of Kippah’.)
As with all things ten, the ten requirements of a kiddush cup parallel the Ten Sefirot, allowing for a complete rectification to be accomplished on all levels through the kiddush. The Ben Ish Chai beautifully comments that a human being is also called a “cup”, and these ten requirements apply to each and every one of us: to be well “rinsed” and hygienic from the outside, as well as thoroughly “clean” and pure on the inside. To be “alive” and righteous (for the wicked are called “dead”), and to be “full” of mitzvot and good deeds. To be “adorned” with Torah and to be “wrapped” spiritually with a holy aura. To live a life of balance between “both hands”—the right side of Chessed and the left side of Gevurah—but to prioritize the “right hand” of kindness when it comes to others. All of this will surely bring a person to be “raised a handbreadth”, the four-finger-length of which alludes to ascending the four olamot of Asiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, and Atzilut, and then coming to stand whole before God, Who will “gaze upon” the individual and send blessings to his family.
Noah’s Wine and Mashiach’s Feast
No discussion of wine can be complete without mention of Noah’s vineyard. Following the Great Flood, Noah established the first vineyard, and then made wine and became drunk, with the unfortunate story that follows. The Midrash (Tanchumah, Noach) states that when Noah planted that first vineyard, Satan came and “slaughtered” four animals over it, with their blood seeping into the soil and giving their qualities to all subsequent alcohol drinkers: First was a sheep, for when one drinks a little bit they become “soft” like a sheep. Second was a lion, for when one drinks a little more they become haughty, proud, and bold. The last two were a pig and a monkey, for when a person drinks too much they inevitably urinate, vomit and frolic in filth like a pig, and become uncontrolled, wild, and foolish like a monkey.
That Midrash begins with Satan asking Noah what he was doing, and what the purpose of the wine would be. Noah explained that it can make people happy, and we can understand why he might have needed some joy after seeing the greatest global catastrophe of all time and the complete destruction of mankind. However, there was much more to it. The Zohar (I, 73a) says that Noah really wanted to penetrate deeper into the spiritual realms and see the divine. After all, wine is able to make the mind and soul more receptive to spiritual realities.
I believe Noah was attempting to rectify Eden himself. This is why the Zohar here says that Noah actually got the vine from the Garden of Eden. Further proof for this comes from the Torah’s exact language: when God planted Eden the Torah uses the rare verb va’ita (ויטע), and the very next appearance of this unique word is when Noah plants the vineyard. The third and final use of the term in the Torah is when Abraham plants an eshel, completing the first phase of the rectification process.
Amazingly, there is just one more instance of the word va’ita (ויטע) in all of Tanakh, found amidst the End of Days prophecies of Daniel (11:45). It sets up the very next verse which states that in those difficult times, the great angel Michael will arise to save God’s people, and “many that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake to eternal life…” Indeed, Noah’s purpose in making wine was to restore life, and the Midrash cited above quotes Noah telling Satan: l’chayei! His goal was “to life”, to reverse the death and evil of Eden and to rebuild a perfect world.
With each of our own l’chaims at every kiddush, we bring the world one step closer to that eventuality. And when it does come, and the righteous celebrate at the “Feast of Mashiach”, the Zohar (I, 135b, Midrash haNe’elam) states that a most special wine will be served, one that was cellared all the way back at the Six Days of Creation and has been aging ever since, waiting for the day when the world would be ready for it.