Above: The Kiddush, the Jewish prayer over the wine. “Praise to You, Adonai our G-d, Sovereign of the universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.”
Today is the second-to-last day of “the Days of Awe,” the ten days that follow Rosh Hashanah, literally, the “head of the year” or the new year, the Jewish celebration of the new year and the return to the very beginning of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, which are read and discussed cyclically every year by observant Jews across the world.
The tenth and last day (tomorrow) is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, when Jews fast and ask G-d for forgiveness in not observing every commandment of the Torah (613 in all).
As the sun goes down on Yom Kippur, Jews across the world will listen to a cantor sing Kol Nidre, literally “all vows,” not a prayer but rather a declaration absolving the congregation of vows. In other words, asking G-d for forgiveness for vows that members of the congregation will not be able to keep.
And when Kol Nidre is complete, Jews across the world will break their fast with a festive meal. But not before they say the Kiddush, the blessing over the wine.
Wine plays a central role in the Jewish narrative, stretching back to before the time of Moses when G-d gave the Hebrew people the Torah. Just think of the first thing that Noah does after the flood: He grows grapes, makes wine, and gets drunk.
No ceremony can be performed and no meal can be served without first saying the Kiddush. You can’t get married, you can perform a circumcision (one of the holiest covenants of the Jewish faith), you can’t welcome the Sabbath, you can’t say goodbye to the Sabbath etc.
That’s because wine is one of the greatest miracles that G-d bestowed on the Hebrew people (or any people, for that matter). Just think of how little we knew about the biology of wine until Pasteur. To the peoples of antiquity, including the Jews lost in the desert, the vine was a plant that grew without need for much water, a plant that rendered a miraculous beverage with nutritional and health-enhancing properties.
And every time a Jew recites the prayer over the wine, she or he is reminded of this miracle, one of the fundamental miracles that G-d gave to the Hebrews.
The text of the prayer changes slightly depending on the holiday or the occasion. But the first line is always as above: Praise to You, Adonai our G-d, Sovereign of the universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.
As we begin to look at Wine and Culture and the role that wine plays in culture (and culture in wine, excuse the pun), this simple prayer gives us an early indication of how wine will become such an important and powerful element in cultural expression.
L’shanah tovah, everyone. Happy new year. May your fast be easy tomorrow.