Words over Wine

(Why do people make declarations over wine? February 2021)

Why are so many occasions marked by formal declarations over wine or other alcoholic beverages? Toasting is one of the most popular examples of this practice. In a Jewish context, there are many more, notably Kiddush, Havdalah, the naming of a child at a bris, the seven blessings of a wedding ceremony and the grace after the meal that follows, and the four cups of the Passover seder. For Jews, alcohol for these formal purposes has always been nearly synonymous with wine. The greater status of wine than beer in Jewish tradition is explained in detail in Fruits of Freedom, The Torah Flora Hagadah. Distilled liquors such as whiskey and vodka originated long after the Jewish ceremonial preference for wine had been consolidated.

An investigation of Kiddush helps to explain the meaning of these manifestoes over wine. The Biblical verses that introduce the Sabbath are of two types. One (Exodus 31:13-16 and Deuteronomy 5:12) tells us to observe or protect (Hebrew shamor) the Sabbath, and a second (Exodus 20:8) urges us to remember (Hebrew zachor) the Sabbath. The first refers to the laws of the Sabbath, when certain kinds of work are not done. The second is fulfilled by reciting Kiddush as a declaration that the Sabbath is a commemoration of God’s creation of the world and His relationship with the nation of Israel.

What is the connection between wine and memory? Tosafot, a medieval commentary on the Talmud, provides a clue. Commenting on the discussion of Kiddush on Pesachim 106a, Tosafot cites Hosea 14:8 as a basis for the practice of reciting Kiddush over wine— Hosea 14:7-8 cites the fragrance of Lebanon and the memory of the wine of Lebanon, pointing toward smell as a key to memory.

Why smell? Unlike the other senses, olfactory input goes directly to the amygdala, part of the limbic system, a part of the brain that regulates emotion. Research on learning has shown that experiences associated with strong emotions (and therefore, odors, too) produce memories that are especially vivid and persistent. Readers of classic French literature will recall Marcel Proust’s intuition of this effect in his famous description in Swann’s Way of the unexpected recall of a childhood memory brought on by the smell and taste of madeleines. This fact gives greater meaning to Tosafot’s explanation that the Kiddush recited at home is for the benefit of children and other members of the household who did not attend the synagogue and recite it there as part of the Shmoneh Esrei. Pairing this religious manifesto with the fragrance and flavor of wine is intended to promote a lasting and deeply felt memory of the importance and meaning of the Sabbath.

Proust’s description also hints at the fact that the experience of flavor is a combination of smell and taste. For this reason, the manufacturer of a popular brand of tea flavored with orange oil and spices prints on the packaging of its tea bags that “sugar brings out the flavor of oranges.”

These observations add depth to the Talmud’s urging to recite kiddush over wine and enjoy more elegant meals on Shabbat than during the week. These delicacies are not only pleasant. They reinforce our positive memories of the Sabbath and its commemoration of the Creation and our relationship with the Creator. The same can be said of the four cups of wine consumed at the Passover Seder. Not only do they help to celebrate our freedom. They also reinforce the educational goals of the Seder as we reenact and discuss the Exodus and our national covenant with God.

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