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Wine in Jewish Tradition

When our hearts are “glad” with wine, our inhibitions fall away and we begin to chatter. When this happens, we may reveal secrets and thoughts that we’d rather keep to ourselves.

“When wine goes in, secrets come out,” the Jewish tradition says. In addition to the literal meaning of the expression, it has a numerical meaning. The numerical value of the letters of both Hebrew words, yayin (wine) and sod (secret), is 70.

The source of the expression is the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 38a. Rabbi Hiyya’s two sons, Yehuda and Hizkiya, were staying over with Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi. In the course of their meal, they maintained silence and said nothing. Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi instructed his servant to “loosen their tongues” by plying them with wine. After they got drunk, they began to speak harshly about Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi—who became very angry, of course. Rabbi Hiyya told him to curb his anger: “ ‘Wine’ is given with 70 letters,” he explained, “and ‘secret’ is given with 70 letters—when wine goes in, secrets come out.”

Rabbi Yehuda Halevi b. Rabbi Shalom said: Wine is called yayin in Hebrew and hemar in Aramaic. In numerology, that adds up to 248, corresponding to the 248 organs of the human body. Wine enters each and every organ, causing the body to drop its guard and confounding one’s wisdom. Wine enters; wisdom exits. Thus Rabbi Eliezer the Kapar taught: “When wine goes in, secret comes out: wine, counted at 70, goes in, and secret, counted at 70, comes out. This is why the High Priest must not drink wine while performing the Temple service. His thinking must not be disrupted; instead, he should uphold the Torah and maintain his thinking” (Midrash Tanhuma, Shemini, 5).

Sayings about Wine

“Wine is the most civilized thing on earth” (François Rabelais).

“Grape wine refines the soul and the understanding” (François Rabelais).

“A high-minded man never despises good wine” (François Rabelais).

“A miser is like a horse burdened with wine that drinks only water” (German saying).

“In no way may one foresee an auspicious future as through a glass of superb wine” (Alexander Dumas, Sr.)

“Wine is the spiritual part of the meal” (Alexander Dumas, Sr.).

“To know the vintage and quality of a wine one need not drink the whole cask.” (Oscar Wilde).

“Condemning wine because some people will get drunk is a bad custom” (Michel de Montaigne).

“Wine is like water filled with sunshine” (Galileo).

“If the blues were wine I would be drunk all the time, but if you get drunk you stop counting the glasses” (Avner Strauss).

Wine, Marital Harmony, and Woman’s Dignity

Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 51b

Ulla visited Rav Nahman at home [in Babylonia], had a meal that included bread, and recited the Grace after Meals. He did this over a glass of wine, from which he drank and that he passed to Rav Nahman. [It’s a Jewish custom to recite the blessing for wine at the end of Grace after Meals and to pass the glass to one’s wife as an expression of love, marital harmony, and a blessing for the home.] Rav Nahman said, Pass the glass to my wife, Yelta. [Ulla] replied by citing something Rabbi Yohanan had said: The fruit of a woman’s abdomen is blessed only from the fruit of a man’s abdomen …. The verse says not bitnekh, her womb, but bitnekha, his, as is written, “[G-d] will bless the fruit of your abdomen.” Rav Nahman’s wife Yelta, hearing this, went to the wine cellar and broke 400 casks of wine. Rav Nahman sought to appease her by sending her another glass of wine but she sent it back, saying “It’s all talk; that wasn’t a glass of blessing that you sent me …”

Notes to the homily:

• In the rabbinical literature, the number 400 represents something of importance, respect, and appreciation. The Tomb of the Patriarchs was purchased for 400 silver shekels in currency. The literature also speaks of a Gentile woman who was subjected to indignity in the marketplace and was paid 400 shekels in compensation.

• The disrespect shown to Yelta cost Rav Nahman 400 casks of wine. In this case, the number 400 is symbolic of the value of a glass of wine upon reciting the Grace after Meals, on the one hand, and the importance of marital harmony and woman’s status as the main source of blessing of the home, on the other.

The quality of Judean wine as a symbol of national redemption and prosperity (Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 42b)

Rav Nahman said: Originally, when they brought libations [of wine] from Judea [to the Temple], the Judean wine did not go sour until barley was placed in it [it was such outstanding wine, so imbued with blessing, that it went sour only if someone deliberately threw barley into it] and they would call it plain vinegar. But now [that the Temple has been destroyed], the wine of the Edomites does not go sour until barley is thrown into it, and they call it Edomite vinegar—as is written [Ez. 26:2]: “I shall be filled with her that has been laid waste” [“I” = Edom; “her” = Judea]. If one [the Kingdom of Judea] is filled, the other [the Kingdom of Edom] is laid waste, and if [the Kingdom of Edom] is full, the other [the Kingdom of Judah] is laid waste.

Notes to the homily:

• At that time, wine and commerce in wine were mainstays of the Judean economy.

• The destruction of the Temple marked the destruction of the Kingdom of Judea; the wine that soured is symbolic of the kingdom that, by being laid waste, also “soured.”

• The Edomite wine that did not sour symbolizes the worldly and economic ascent of the Kingdom of Edom.

Happiness with Wine and Meat

The expression “Wine … makes glad the heart of man” is said in praise of drinking wine. Its source is Ps. 104:15.

It has been said: “You shall rejoice on your festival.” With what should one rejoice on [a festival]? With wine. Rabbi Yehuda says, “Men [should do this] with the thing that befits them and women [should do it] with what befits them.” Rav Yosef taught, “In Babylonia—with colorful clothing; in the Land of Israel—with pressed linen clothing. It has been learned that R. Yehuda b. Batira said, “When the Temple existed, rejoicing was done only with meat and wine, as is written, “And you shall slaughter whole-offerings and shall eat there and shall rejoice before the L-rd your G-d.” But now that the Temple no longer exists, rejoicing is done only with wine, as is written, “Wine makes glad the heart of man” (Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 109a).

The role of wine and meat as symbols of joy gave rise to the adage, “There is no rejoicing except with meat and wine.”