It’s a tradition that is deeply embedded in our celebration of Shabbat. When we sit down to dinner, we begin with the recitation of the Kiddush, the sanctification of the day accompanied by words of blessing and a cup of wine. But have you ever stopped to wonder why we use wine to make Kiddush? It’s true that other beverages can be used, especially non-alcoholic grape juice, but wine is preferred. Why?
One answer is the wine “gladdens the heart.” In the Talmud, (Berachot 35a), we read:
Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani said in the name of Rabbi Yonatan: What is the proof that the Levites’ song of praise to God is sung only over wine? From the verse (in Judges 9:13) that says “But the vine replied, ‘Have I stopped yielding my new wine, which gladdens God and man?’” We understand how wine gladdens men, but how does it gladden God? We must therefore conclude that the words “gladdens God” refer to the song of praise, which is to be sung only over wine.”
In other words, wine makes us happy and God likes to see us happy. When we’re in a good mood, we’re inclined to sing praises to God. It may sounds simplistic, but our tradition calls for Kiddush to be said over wine because it relaxes us, makes us feel joyful, and God likes that.
Another reason that we make Kiddush over wine is that it gives us an opportunity to display restraint. A midrash explains the potency of wine to color our judgment (as if we needed a midrash to understand such a thing!). Playing off a verse in this week’s Torah portion in which we read that one of the first things Noah did after coming off the ark was to plant a vineyard, make wine, drink it and become intoxicated (Genesis 9:20-21), the midrash says:
When Noah began planting, Satan came, stationed himself before him, and asked: “What are you planting?”
Noah answered, “A vineyard.”
Satan asked, “What is its nature?”
Noah answered, “Its fruit, whether fresh or dried, is sweet, and from it one makes wine, which gladdens a man’s heart.”
Satan said, “Will you agree to let both of us plant it together?”
Noah: “Very well.”
What did Satan do? He brought a lamb and slaughtered it over a vine. After that, he brought a lion, which he likewise slaughtered. Then a monkey, which he also slaughtered over it. Finally, a pig, which he again slaughtered over that vine. And with the blood that dripped from them, he watered the vineyard. The charade was Satan’s way of saying that when a man drinks one cup of wine, he acts like a ewe lamb, humble and meek. When he drinks two, he immediately believes himself to be as strong as a lion and proceeds to brag mightily, saying, “Who is like me?” When he drinks three or four cups, he immediately becomes like a monkey, hopping about giggling and uttering obscenities in public, without realizing what he is doing. Finally, when he becomes blind drunk, he is like a pig, wallowing in mire and coming to rest among refuse.
(Midrash Tanhuma, Noah 13)
In Rabbinic texts, Satan is an evil angel who does things that God does not approve of. Satan is often depicted testing the resolve of a human being to be faithful and to behave properly. In this midrash, the Rabbis use the character of Satan to show that human beings are easily susceptible to becoming drunk if we do not practice restraint. Drinking wine is not prohibited, but Jewish tradition considers drinking to excess and abandoning restraint, at least more than infrequently, as incompatible with proper behavior. So why put a glass of wine in our hands on Shabbat? The rabbinic sages seemed to feel that we are absolutely capable of displaying restraint, of respecting boundaries and of making good choices, and that Friday night was certainly a good time to demonstrate that capability. Rabbi Aharon Greenberg quotes a medieval scholar who makes that point in his volume Itturei Torah:
When one of the opponents of the chasidim asked Rabbi Naftali of Rotshitz what the basis for elevating drinking to such a degree of importance was, he answered: “We base ourselves on Noah, the first righteous man in the Torah, and he knew the secret of wine.” On this, Rabbi Yaakov of Sadigora said: “The drinking of wine is sometimes a commandment, but every commandment has a built-in prohibition against exceeding the requirements of that commandment.
In other words, we’re instructed to drink wine on Friday night, to enjoy ourselves, to relax and be in a good mood. But the commandment comes along with a built-in prohibition against going overboard, and we’re asked to demonstrate that we can enjoy ourselves within reasonable limits.
So pour yourself a cup of wine, perhaps even two, and enjoy Shabbat. But keep in mind that every good thing has a limit.