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Destiny in a Plastic Cup

by Rabbi Yisrael Rutman

My dentist was right.

That is what I was thinking to myself as I poured the cold Cabernet Sauvignon into a plastic cup on the kitchen table. Our family dentist is not only a superb dentist, he is also a superb drinker of wines, a connoisseur. He is not a religious man, but the thought of drinking wine in a plastic cup is, to him, well, a sacrilege. Wine is an elegant drink. As such, it requires a fitting vessel, such as glass or silver. To drink it from a plastic cup says something unfortunate about the drinker. No doubt, he wasted his formative years habituating his palate to the insensate slosh of Coca-Cola and Heavy Concord. He does not appreciate the carefully wrought balance, the subtle flavorings, the emotional intensity of a fine wine.

So I plead guilty, but with a smile. I am, or at least try to be, a religious man; but the thought of drinking wine in a plastic cup doesn't bother me at all. On the contrary, there is something about the incongruity of the wine's elegance and the cup's cheapness that appeals to my sense of humor. And I can just imagine my dentist gnashing his teeth at the sight of it.

There is a similar rabbinical dispute about the use of disposable cups for Kiddush, the blessing which marks the beginning of Shabbat and festivals. Some say like I, that a cup is perfectly adequate to the task. How wonderfully it keeps the noble liquid from spilling all over the table and onto the floor. Could a vessel of silver or glass do the job any better?

Others maintain that for the sake of a mitzvah - whose reward is nothing less than eternal life - a throw-away cup will not suffice. It is for this same reason that a cracked or dented cup of whatever material is unfit for kiddush.

But there is more to it. Every mitzvah has its own special story, and kiddush is no exception. To begin with, we must acknowledge that wine, whether we appreciate its finer aspects or not, is not like other beverages. From the time of Noach, when, on the first day after the Flood, he fell to drunken nakedness, wine has taken its place as the ancient lubricant of immorality. Because of it, one who feels tempted to immoral conduct may take the vow of the nazir, who abstains from wine for a period of time. From the biblical law of the nazir the Sages have derived the principle of making fences around the Torah to protect us from transgression. Just as the nazir must stay away from any product of the vine, lest he come to violate his vow of not drinking wine, so also we have many rabbinical prohibitions which keep us off the slippery slope to sin.

But the Jewish attitude to wine is not limited to abstention. It is redeemed by use in the sanctification of Shabbat and festivals. The same beverage that was used as the sensuous run-up to sin is transformed into a noble prelude to days of Divine service.

The cup, too, is more than just a container. In Jewish tradition, the cup can symbolize either salvation or retribution. The cup full to the brim symbolizes that our portion in life is a full portion. No matter what our condition, we accept the Divine judgment; we are lacking nothing.

Ultimately, the uplifted cup of wine represents the thanksgiving of the returning exiles. Kiddush is destiny; and destiny cannot be contained in a plastic cup.

That is why normative halacha is that one should not use a disposable cup for kiddush, unless nothing else is available. But that's only on Shabbat. When drinking wine just for the personal pleasure of drinking wine, when it is not eternity I am imbibing, but a slightly elegant relaxation, then I can have it any way I want. I can enjoy my wine and have my incongruity, too.

But on Shabbat, the dentist is right. Then the quality of the vessel must match the quality of the wine. Of course, it is not for his reason. For him, it is a matter of esthetics, of knowing how to have a good time, how to appreciate the wine. For us, it is a matter of ultimate values, of knowing how to appreciate the mitzvah, how to approach eternity---with a cup of wine in hand.

* Reprinted with permission from



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