Do you have to serve wine at a seder? When making Kiddush? Why is wine used at these times?
Of all Jewish rituals, the practice of saying Kiddush, commonly known as “the blessing over the wine,” is one of the most ubiquitous. The blessing is a declaration of sanctification – not only of the liquid but also of the moment or the occasion.
The wine acts as a powerful symbol at these moments. The beauty of symbols is that they have many meanings and many interpretations; they can speak with varied voices. Wine is a perfect example of such a multi-faceted symbol in Judaism.
In Jewish ritual, wine generally symbolizes joy. This is why wine is used to sanctify Shabbat, the day of delight. Indeed, the ancient Psalmist declared, “wine gladdens the human heart” (Psalms 104:15). Firstly, wine’s intoxicating properties can physically bring the sensation of joy. Secondly, the sweet taste of the beverage (or simply of the grape) reminds us of cheer. When we say a blessing over the wine, we not only acknowledge these properties of the wine itself, but we bring in an added level of holiness. In doing so, we raise the properties to a higher purpose, acknowledging a significant moment and the Creator, the Eternal, who made it that way. This unique combination of joy and sanctity is why wine and its blessing make an appearance at the Jewish wedding ceremony as well as the brit (covenant) ceremonies for baby girls and boys.
Wine also symbolizes freedom. In the Reform Haggadah, The Open Door, a small note in the column may say it all: “Why is wine a promise of freedom? When people count sufficient seasons of secure settlement to plant, harvest, press and age this sweet liquid, we taste freedom.”1 In other words, when we can live long enough and peacefully enough to cultivate wine (a lengthy and multi-staged process, as dependent on the earth as it is on our own skill), we’ve established ourselves as self-dependent and secure.
This is one reason why wine and the Kiddush blessing headline at the Passover seder. At the seder, it acts as a symbol of redemption. We say Kiddush over four cups of wine. Reasons for the four cups abound. One well-regarded reason is for the four promises of redemption made in Exodus 6:6-7: “I will bring you out…I will deliver you…I will redeem you…I will take you to be my people.” Wine also appears at the Passover seder in the cup set aside for the prophet Elijah (even though Kiddush is not said over this cup). Tradition regards Elijah as the prophet who will usher in the Messianic Era – the ultimate time of redemption.
The symbol of the wine is also used most poignantly at our seder tables in the recitation of the ten plagues. As each plague is named, we spill a drop of wine to temper our joy and think of the Egyptian lives and livelihoods that were lost as a result of the plagues.
While wine acts as an important symbol at the seder and in other ceremonial situations, grape juice is an acceptable non-alcoholic option. We should not overlook the alcoholic component of wine and its intoxicating properties. For some, wine is indeed a source of joy. Yet for many in our community, it is not.
For many, alcohol is an addictive substance that can bring great struggle and hardship. Our sages acknowledge the tremendous danger it poses. For example, Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 70a speaks at length about the dangers of wine – from it’s role in Genesis 9 with Noah’s post-ark drunkenness and subsequent calamities, to the suggestion that the “fruit tree” that Adam and Eve ate from was actually a grapevine because “nothing else but wine brings woe to a person.”
Like any symbol, wine can be a myriad of things: joyful or dangerous, sweet or sour. This is why the recitation of the Kiddush is so crucial. Whether we lift wine or grape juice, the beverage itself is not the source of our joy. The Source is the One we are truly blessing, the Eternal our God, the Creator of the fruit of the vine – the Creator of our natural world and the true cup from which our delight flows.
1. Elwell, Sue Levi. ed. The Open Door: A Passover Haggadah. New York: CCAR Press, 2002.
Rabbi Mara Young is a rabbi at Woodlands Community Temple in Greenburgh, NY. She is also a founder and former spiritual leader of the Wandering Jews of Astoria, a community of young Jews in Astoria, NY.
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah.