The past weeks have delivered to us a spate of articles about the beneficial aspects of drinking red wine. It seems that researchers have shown that obese rats who receive large doses of the stuff that is in red wine show little negative effects from their being grossly overweight. While these findings have as yet not been transferred to influence the human population it has long been known that drinking a glass of red wine every night at dinner does have healthful consequences regarding heart and arterial diseases in humans.
Wine plays a great role in Jewish life and tradition as well. It is considered a holy drink – the only liquid drink that, before consuming, has its own special blessing. Wine is part of all life cycle events in Jewish life. It appears at weddings and circumcisions, redemptions of the first-born and in Talmudic times at the house of the mourners. There are many non-Ashkenazic groups of Jews today who still continue the custom of drinking wine and reciting special blessings in the house of mourners.
Wine is meant to inspire and comfort us, to lend dignity and importance to an occasion, to raise an ordinary or even extraordinary human event to a higher spiritual level. It is the blessing over the cup of wine that constitutes the Kiddush ceremony that ushers the holy Sabbath into our homes. It is wine or its equivalent that is the centerpiece of the havdala service when we take leave of the Sabbath.
When a large enough quorum of people has eaten together it is again the cup of wine and its attendant blessing that concludes the grace after meals. The required drinking of the four cups of wine at the Pesach Seder serves as the guidepost to that holy occasion. As is obvious from all of this, wine is very important in Jewish ritual life.
But like most things in life, wine is a double-edged sword. The same beverage that is the symbol of holiness and sanctification is also the potential for drunkenness and dissolute behavior. The rabbis of the Midrash were critical of Noach for planting a vineyard as his first project after emerging from the ark that saved him from the great flood.
Noach himself paid a great price for this error of judgment, becoming drunk and then being violated by his own grandson. The Bible teaches us that “When wine enters, hidden things [about the drinker] are revealed.” The Bible records that a gala feast preceded Joseph’s revelation to his brothers where the amount of wine consumed brought about an aura of drunkenness. It was at that meal that Joseph first sensed the regret that the brothers had over their act of betrayal, of having sold him as a slave to Egyptian captivity. After they had the wine, the hidden things buried deep within their hearts were revealed. Wine also leads to joy and contentment. The verse in Psalms reads: “And wine makes the heart of humans glad.”
Again, just as in every other facet of life, wine’s positive and negative effects are determined by the moderation, appropriateness and wisdom in using and consuming it. I have always felt that this is perhaps one of the reasons why wine has its own special blessing both before and after consumption – to remind us of its special quality and to caution us to drink it wisely, with holy intent and purpose.
Jews always placed a special premium and importance on wine produced in the Land of Israel. The great Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the head of the famed yeshiva of Volozhin in nineteenth century Lithuania was one of the founders of the Lovers of Zion organization of that time. When Baron Rothschild’s Carmel Wineries produced its first bottles of wine, one of these bottles of wine was sent as a gift to the great rabbi in Volozhin.
Rabbi Baruch Epstein, the nephew of Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, was present at the moment the bottle of wine finally arrived at its destination in Volozhin. He records for us that as a sign of love, respect and emotional joy at having in his hand a bottle of wine produced by Jewish vintners living in the Land of Israel, Rabbi Berlin went into his bedroom and put on his Sabbath garments in honor of that bottle of wine. The bottle of wine was the harbinger of the return of the Jewish people to their homeland. So, as we drink our daily portion of red Israeli wine and toast to our life and health, we should also recall the innate history and holiness associated with wine in Jewish life, especially wine made from grapes grown and produced in the Land of Israel.