Pesach – Shemini


One stark contrast between our Seder nights and our currently home-based synagogue services is the place of wine.

Whilst a fundamental requirement of our Seder was to drink four cups of wine, there is no place for wine or liquor in a regular prayer service, whether held at home or shul.

In the sidra of Shemini, which we read two days after Pesach this year, we learn of the episode of Nadav and Avihu, the two older sons of Aaron, who tragically lose their lives as they bring strange fire into the dedication of the Tabernacle. One explanation of this strange fire is that it refers to the fire that had been kindled within them as a result of their drinking wine first. They entered the Sanctuary not completely sober. The succeeding verses make this abundantly clear when they state:

And the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying, ‘Do not drink wine that will lead to intoxication, neither you nor your sons with you, when you go into the Tent of Meeting, so that you shall not die. [This is] an eternal statute for your generations.’” (Vayikra 10:8-9)

Unlike, other religions (Christian communion, for example) wine has no fundamental part to play in synagogue worship, not even grape juice. Our current practice of making Kiddush in shul on Friday night in the Diaspora, arose only because visitors were going to be eating their meal at the synagogue. Now, rather than abolish the practice, we give the wine to a child. Synagogues in Israel do not have the custom of Kiddush in shul at all on Friday nights. Similarly, on the occasions when we make Kiddush in the synagogue sanctuary on a Shabbat morning, it is because the service has ended, not because the Kiddush has any part of the prayer service. Like the Tabernacle and Temple, our devotion to G-d in prayer, whether in shul or at home, must not be boosted by liquor. Our enthusiasm for prayer needs to be as a result of our own resources, not artificially enhanced through drink. Indeed on Simchat Torah, Kohanim do not duchen (give the Priestly Blessing to the community) at Musaf, as there is a concern that by that stage of the service they may already have drunk wine.

In complete contrast to this is the way we celebrate outside of a prayer context. When the shul service is over on Shabbat morning, we make Kiddush, literally sanctifying the Shabbat over a cup of wine. Our Friday night Kiddush before the meal to welcome Shabbat, and our Havdalah to escort the departure of Shabbat, start with a blessing over a cup of wine. A wedding and a circumcision both require a cup of wine and our Seders needed four cups. We recognise that wine can enhance our enjoyment of these events and occasions. As it says in Psalms: “Wine gladdens the heart of a person.” (104:15)

Wine in its proper place is symbolic of the prime joys of creation. The Zohar speaks of a special vintage of wine that will be enjoyed in the Messianic Age. May we enjoy that cup soon!