Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • Marriage and Relationships
To dedicate this lesson
(or How to Mix the Wine)

Heaven and Earth

Our Rabbis teach us that when the couple stands under the chuppah, all their sins are forgotten. The custom to fast on the day preceding the wedding, and to recite the vidui (confession) prayer indicate the parallel between a wedding and Yom Kippur. In the mixing of the two cups of wine, that of Birkat Hamazon and that of the blessings for the couple, we see another parallel, this time to the sacrificial service of Yom Kippur.


Rabbi Chaim Tabasky

During the festive wedding week we partake of several wedding meals – seudot nesuin – also known as "sheva brachot" because of the seven blessings that are recited after birkat hamazon. In Ashkenazi custom, two glasses of wine are poured. One is held by the leader of Birkat Hamazon, who, after the grace, puts it down. The other cup is passed to those honored with the recitation of the six blessing for the bride and groom, At the conclusion of those blessings the leader takes the first cup and recites the "borei pri hagafen" blessing for the wine. Then he mixes the wine from both glasses and passes cups to the chatan and kallah who drink (after drinking himself from the first cup).

According to Sephardi custom, one cup is used for both purposes. The halachic issue is whether the rule אין עושים מצוות חבילות חבילות – literally "don't do mitzvot in bundles" but rather give due to each mitzvah, in this case with its own cup of wine – applies to birkat hamazon and sheva brachot. Since sheva brachot are recited only when there is a meal that requires birkat hamazon, there is a connection between these two mitzvoth and performing them together with one cup is not seen as a denigration of the mitzvah in Sephardi psak. Nevertheless, Ashkenazi custom is to separate the mitzvoth, emphasizing the integrity of each. The custom of mixing the wine and having the chatan and kallah drink from the combination requires explanation. In this study I would like to suggest that this custom is reminiscent of another admixture, and symbolizes a profound understanding of Jewish life and practice.

Although most of the laws of the sacrificial service in the Beit haMikdash are not well known, many people are familiar with the service of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which is actually included , in great detail, in the Musaf prayer on the Holy day. One of the highlights of that passage – actually a lengthy liturgical poem – is the description of the sprinkling of the blood of the two special sin offerings, the bull and the goat. A section of this passage is chanted by reader and congregants in many synagogues, though the reason for singling out this particular segment is obscure. It concerns the sprinkling of the sacrificial blood in the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Temple, that is performed by casting the blood once, underhand, in an upward direction, and then seven times downward. This order is performed first with the blood of the bull, then with that of the goat inside the Holy of Holies, and the order is repeated while the High Priest stands outside the Holy of Holies facing the curtain dividing it from the outer sanctuary (the "heichal"). After completing these acts, the Priest mixes the remaining blood together from the two vessels and this combination is sprinkled on the golden altar in the heichal. This alternation and then combination of two separate sacrifices is unique in the Temple service all year round, as well as on the holiest of days.

The Temple service on Yom Kippur is filled with mysterious rites; the entire process seems confusing and enigmatic to the casual observer. We will attempt to find deep significance in the acts so far mentioned, but to do so demands a bit of further clarification. First let us set out the order of the particular acts we are about to explain. This is not the opportunity for an analysis of the entirety of the Yom Kippur service. We limit ourselves to these two sin offerings, the bull and the goat. It should be noted that the bull was privately purchased by the High Priest, while the goat was purchased from communal funds. To emphasize the contrapuntal nature of the acts, we mark the bull related sections with -- and the goat related sections with >>.

1. -- The High Priest places his hands on the head of the bull and confesses the his sins and those of his immediate family.
2. >> He casts lots to determine which of the two goats that have been set aside will be sacrificed on the altar (and which will be thrown into the desert).
3. -- The priest again approaches the bull and confesses the sins of the entire priestly family.
4. -- He slaughters the bull
5. He prepares the incense, brings it in to the Holy of Holies and lights it there.
6. -- He brings the blood of the bull into the Holy of Holies and sprinkles it eight times, once upwards and seven times downwards, towards the holy ark.
7. >> He slaughters the goat designated for the altar , brings the blood into the Holy of Holies, and sprinkles it in the same way he did with the blood of the bull.
8. -- The priest again takes the blood of the bull and sprinkles it eight times (as previously, once upward and seven times downward) outside the curtasin of the Holy of Holies, but in front of and towards the Holy Ark.
9. >> The same sprinkling is performed with the blood of the goat.
10. The High Priest mixes -- the blood of the bull with>> that of the goat and sprinkles the mixture on the four corners of the golden altar, and then sprinkles seven times on the surface of that altar. The remaining blood is poured onto the western base of the outer alter.

We will concern ourselves with two central questions. 1. Why are the two bloods sprinkled first separately and then together? 2. What is the significance of the two orders of sprinkling, first the "one above and seven below" sets, while on the golden altar the order is four corners, then seven in the center?

The Day of Atonement is the day of purification and repair, a time of redemption of all human capacities, a return to innocence and restoration of potential. Full understanding of the sacrificial acts - their efficacy and symbolism – is apparently beyond the scope of our knowledge. Nevertheless, we are able to learn from them proper methods of the personal and communal paths to penitence and growth.

The two sin offerings relate to the two main areas of human concern, relationship with G-d (bein adam laMakom) and interpersonal relationships (bein adam l' chavero). The bull represents the path of repentance and the correction of the sin of the golden calf, the paradigmatic sin concerning our belief in G-d. The goat represents the selling of Joseph into slavery , which is perhaps the most heinous ethical breach of the sons of Yaakov. The first, the bul;l, was purchased from the High Priest's personal funds to underscore the pivotal role of the Cohanim in the spiritual lives and development of all Jews, communally and individually. This also calls to mind Aaron's role in the forging of the golden calf and serves as a warning to the family of priests that their lofty position does not guarantee perfect judgment in all spiritual matters, and reminds them that humility and patience are crucial to their role. The goat was purchased from communal funds to emphasize the obligation of all Jews to care for their fellows. In these two sin offerings we find the germ of the quintessential modes of atonement, but to understand this we must go back to understand the unique nature of this part of the Yom Kippur service.

When the priest sprinkles the blood, he symbolically reconnects man with G-d. Sin creates a barrier between man and G-d. The prophet Yishayahu spelled this out explicitly:

ישעיהו פרק נט
(ב) כִּי אִם עֲוֹנֹתֵיכֶם הָיוּ מַבְדִּלִים בֵּינֵכֶם לְבֵין אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְחַטֹּאותֵיכֶם הִסְתִּירוּ פָנִים מִכֶּם מִשְּׁמוֹעַ:
For your transgressions are a barrier between you and your L-rd, and your sins cause
Him to hide His face and not listen.

Atonement is not simply a pardon from the consequences of sin, but an attempt to rebuild the relationship with HaShem, to forge a stronger bond based on personal growth and newfound understanding of our weaknesses and strengths. Blood represents the very spirit of life. When our life has been cut off from its spiritual source we seek to reestablish that connection. In this light we will interpret the acts of the priest on Yom Kippur.

The Holy of Holies is a place of intense sanctity, an elevated reality that is neither appropriate nor available for man in his day to day affairs. In the rarified atmosphere of the inner sanctum, the priest connects the people to the highest realms of kedusha. The sprinkling once upwards and seven times downward represents the attempt to connect every aspect of reality (the seven representing the creation in seven days) to the ultimate mystery of G-d's presence, the One, the Hidden King who manifests His presence in the Holy Temple. When the priest sprinkles the blood he chants:

אחת אחת ואחת אחת ושתים אחת ושלש אחת וארבע אחת וחמש אחת ושש אחת ושבע (משנה מסכת יומא פרק ה)
"One, one and one, one and two, one and three" and so forth. With the upward toss he says "one," and he repeats the word one with each downward flick as he counts, so that on the third downward throw he says "one and three".

The Talmud explains that this unusual way of counting prevents the priest from confusion. Otherwise one might not know if the"two" meant the second toss – that is the first downward –or the second downward. On a deeper level we can explain that the counting serves to form a bond between the upper and lower realms of reality, and to declare that all below is bound to the One above. This primordial statement of faith in HaShem's majesty and providence is the starting point for the dynamic of atonement.

In the Holy of Holies, where all life and reality is connected to its source and untainted by the gross existence in the lower world, the bull and goat are separated. First one must come to terms with one's relationship to G-d; then we can relive and repair our failings in our relations with other men. The inner sanctum is the world space of contemplation and theory. The "avodah" – the crucial task there is the repair of the foundations and building blocks of faith and commitment. The atonement of the bull and the atonement of the goat are separated. The first four sprinklings, which are all connected to the Holy of Holies, follow this pattern.

When the Cohen Gadol performs the service at the golden altar, matters change drastically. No longer are the two bloods kept separate; no longer is the starting point the Highest One. After mixing the blood it is first sprinkled on the corners of the altar, and then seven times on the altar surface. What is the meaning of these changes?

The golden altar represents human experience in the lower world. On a daily basis, the incense, which represents the tribes of Israel, is burnt here. The incense represents the diversity of human experience. In the actual world of actions and emotions, ideas and ideals, the harsh division between the concerns of G-d and the concerns of man breaks down. We may, for instance, consider the realm of prayer as a G-dly concern. However, the halachot of tefila are replete with concern for the community as a whole, and individuals in particular. While praying one must respect the prayer of the person sitting down the bench. We shouldn't raise our voices in a way that disturbs (even if it would enhance concentration); one cannot take steps after the amidah prayer that might distract another worshipper. The rules of interrupting prayer at various points in the service out of respect to others (e.g. to respond to a greeting) are basic. It is impossible to fulfill the laws of prayer without sensitivity to the needs of others or without appreciation of my relationship to community.

This principle is true of all matters in Jewish life and law. The interaction between concern for human dignity ( כבוד הבריות) aand the proper performance of commandments is a critical portion of Talmud (Brachot 19b). On the other side of the (same) coin, our sources constantly emphasize that the obligations to worry about the wellbeing of other people require fear of heaven. The mishne in Pirkei Avot (6;5,6) lists the attributes that are crucial in the acquisition of Torah greatness. Alongside the love of G-d we find the love of man. Deep friendship and love of charity and justice complement the fear of heaven and devotion to intellectual pursuits.

Not only the mixing of the bloods indicates this difference between the abstract theoretical sphere of faith and the practical application of halacha. The order of sprinkling stems from the same distinction. In the Holy of Holies the order is from above (the One) to below (the seven). On the golden altar the sprinkling begins at the corners, the periphery of the altar, and from there proceeds to the center of the surface. Human behavior must be developed from the small details, the minutiae of concern. Just as

This is true in all areas of Jewish life. It is not enough to believe in the dignity of man; one must show and live this ideal in everyday actions. If one wants to improve one's attitude and performance of this notion, it is necessary to review how one greets the bus driver and the sales clerk, as well as the Rabbi and community leaders. True devotion to Shabbat requires knowledge of the details of observance along with the appreciation of the tranquility and spiritual joy of Shabbat.

The two types of sprinkling – the inner, ideal, rarefied connection to the Holy One, and the outer, practical world wise repair of our daily lives – represent the constant constructive tension that should be at the center of all personal development. Striving for the highest goals, yet maintaining a firm stance in the realities of our situation are the hallmarks of a healthy religious life.

At the sheva brachot meal we celebrate the beginning of a new chapter in the lives of the chatan and kallah. Our Rabbis teach us that when the couple stands under the chuppah, all their sins are forgotten. The custom to fast on the day preceding the wedding, and to recite the vidui (confession) prayer indicate the parallel between a wedding and Yom Kippur. In the mixing of the two cups of wine, that of Birkat Hamazon and that of the blessings for the couple, we see another parallel, this time to the sacrificial service of Yom Kippur.

Birkat Hamazon is the only bracha that is explicitly mandated by Torah law. It contains all the basic elements of devotion to the service of G-d. Faith, praise, thanks and prayer, Torah mitzvot, Eretz Yisroel, the Holy temple, and our covenantal status are all mentioned in this amazing text. The Birkat Chatanim, the blessings for the bride and groom are a model of kindness and hope, wishing the couple joy and love, holiness and success, in their new life together. While reciting the brachot, we follow the rule אין עושים מצוות חבילות חבילות – don't perform commandments in bundles. Give each mitzvah its place in the sun. Perform each mitzvah as if it is the most crucial act. The individual mitzvah has infinite significance, in that each mitzvah creates a bond with the Almighty, the infinite One. However, when we give the chatan and kallah the wine to drink, they drink the mixture, to remind us that life is a mixture of many ingredients. Combining them in harmony and joy, with an understanding that ingredient, each mitzvah, each aspect of manifesting haShem's will in the world, is part of a larger fabric, a larger mosaic that forms a more complete realization of our accomplishment and potential.

During the days of the wedding celebration, we seek to accentuate the beginning of new life, and we do so by calling to mind the rededication of our lives on Yom Kippur. We pray that this chattan and kallah, like all others, feels the special joy of rebirth, כגן עדן מקדם – as in Eden of old. May their new beginning signify a renewal of joy and commitment for all Israel.
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