Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 2 August 2008 / 1 Av 5768

Why Wine?

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Baruch Greenbaum in NY
Dear Rabbi,
Why does wine have such a significant role in Judaism?

Dear Baruch,

I’ll introduce the answer to your question by way of a joke:

A leader of a house of worship was giving a fiery sermon about the evils of alcohol: “If I had all the beer in the world,” he said, “I’d take it and throw it in the river; and if I had all the wine in the world, I’d take it and throw it in the river! And if I had all the whiskey in the world, I’d take it and throw it into the river.” He sat down. The choir leader then stood and said with a gluttonous grin, “All please rise for the singing of number 258: ‘We Shall Gather at the River.’”

The above story illustrates two approaches to drinking alcohol and wine. The sermonizer believes that wine is intrinsically evil and must be totally avoided, while the glutton implies that hedonistic immersion in wine is not so bad. The Jewish view is far from both of these views. We believe that the enjoyment of wine, like other physical pleasures, can and should be used, but in the service of G-d.

To be sure, many verses warn about the potential harm of indulging in wine. Yet others laud its value. For example, wine is mentioned in Psalm 104 as something that “gladdens the heart of man.” Hence it is used to gladden and inspire us at various times: like at a circumcision, wedding and other joyous occasions, and also for kiddush on Shabbat (sanctification of Shabbat), and during Purim and at the Passover Seder recalling redemption.

In addition to its relevance as a venue to compliment the inherent joy of these occasions, there is a deeper reason for the relevance of wine as well.

Wine symbolizes the coming into fruition and the perfection of the human life cycle. It starts off in an undeveloped state as a conglomerate of disparate parts thus corresponding to the incognizance of infancy. It then becomes grape juice that corresponds to the sweetness, yet immaturity of childhood. Eventually, it undergoes fermentation, a possibly unpleasant but necessary transition to sophistication and maturity. This corresponds to the struggles and challenges of adolescence and young adulthood on all levels: physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. Only then does it become the refined, elevated and mature product, wine. This corresponds to the serene and sagacious state of adulthood.

This transformative property of wine, then, is another reason it’s involved on occasions such as mentioned above. We drink it on occasions that mark distinction (circumcision), growth (marriage), elevation (Shabbat) and enlightenment (Purim, Passover). In fact, this latter, latent quality of wine to engender elevation and enlightenment is covertly alluded to in the Hebrew word for wine – “yayin”.

“Yayin” is spelled ‘yud’, ‘yud’, ‘nun’. Since each Hebrew letter has a numerical equivalent (referred to as ‘gematria’) such that ‘yud’ equals 10 and nun equals 50, the value for wine is 70. This is also the value for the Hebrew word for the mystical or esoteric – “sod” (‘samech’, ‘vav’, ‘dalet’; 60, 6, 4). Through the proper use of wine in the proscribed context, one is able to release great potential for spiritual transformation, elevation and enlightenment.

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