Nov 10, 2016

What goes down must come up

The meaning of wine in Jewish practice is always a symbol, a bridge, a mechanism driving a step from one level to a higher level. Notice that whenever we connect the physical to the spiritual we use wine. We are so used to it, we don’t even realise. But that’s what we do. There are two people getting married, potentially a very earthy or even sordid relationship. In Judaism, we elevate it to the level of Kiddushin – “sanctity” – and we do this under the chuppah when we take wine. A brit milah, a circumcision – again, an aspect of the body, of human functioning, that is potentially very earthy and animal, and we give it sanctity by taking wine. Shabbat is another classic example; we move from the mundane, the “profane” if you like, into the Kiddushin, the sanctity, of Shabbat by taking a cup of wine and making Kiddush.

So we always take wine as a point of connection between the material and the spiritual, as we elevate. In fact, the Gaon of Vilna explains that’s what wine means. The Hebrew word for wine, yayin, adds up to 70 – exactly the same as the word sod, meaning ‘secret’. Wine goes in, and the secret is revealed. When you drink wine, it opens a higher consciousness. And that’s why we always take wine to liberate the spiritual from the material.

What about Havdallah? Havdallah marks a descent. We are stepping down from Shabbat into the earthy, into the weekly, into the mundane – what is wine doing here? The answer is amazing: that the purpose of going down after Shabbat into the material, the profane, the mundane of the week, is to cycle back so that the following week we get to a Shabbat that is higher than this one. The whole point of Shabbat is that it’s a cycle – not a circle wearing a rut into the same groove, but a spiral so that each time you come back to the same point, but higher.

And, therefore, perhaps the most important and most potent occasion on which we use wine is when we take that step down after Shabbat; when we leave one Shabbat behind to engage a week that will yield a Shabbat that is even higher. In the Kabbalistic writings, this is referred to as a “descent for the sake of an ascent”. And that’s the classic Jewish experience. We leave Shabbat behind – we feel the let-down if you like – and yet we take a cup of wine. We are engaging the week, building it into something, so that the tachlis, the purpose, the endpoint, the elevation of the following Shabbat is higher than the previous one.

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