by Jonathan Udren
Upon opening up the Book of Esther, one is cast into a banquet of royal
proportions, one that spans over 180 days and includes participants from
127 provinces. Rich and poor, young and old were all invited to the royal
feast, the men to King Ahasuerus' party and the women to Queen Vashti's.
Yet the name for the festivity is a peculiar one - "mishteh",
which loosely translates as a drinking party. And what were the beverages
on tap? Only wine! In one of the many textual references to wine, the
Book of Esther records, "Royal wine was served in abundance."
The Sages of the Talmud asked a question about this passage: How do we
qualify the term "abundance"? They answered that each guest
drank wine whose vintage was older than he. (Megilla 12a)
The Maharal of Prague, one of Judaism's most noted philosophers and Kabbalists,
gives us a fascinating insight into the Rabbis' statement:
Why did they do this [serve each guest wine older than he]? Because there
is an essential connection between wine and a person; the whole time that
a person grows older, his thoughts become clearer. So too with wine; the
more that it ages, the better it becomes. (Or Chadash)
Though the Maharal's comment can be understood at face value, he is also
hinting to a profound idea about the nature of wine. Everything else in
the world deteriorates over time, but wine is unique in that it becomes
better. This distinctive quality hints to G-d's intended purpose for all
Man was never supposed to die; like a fine wine, G-d intended that man
would constantly improve with age. But our mystical tradition relates
that when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil,
death entered the world. The physical body that holds the spark of the
Divine became destined to return to its source: the very ground we walk
upon. But there was one hint that G-d left us to illustrate G-d's initial
desire, and that is wine. Wine develops greater texture and taste with
age. In wine we see an allusion to the possibility of unlimited growth
and improvement, which was intended at the outset of Creation.
Note that the Maharal compares wine to the thoughts of man and not to
man himself. There is an aspect of the human being that maintained its
pristine state after the fall from Eden; according to the Maharal, that
is our advanced intellect. This is the spark of the Divine inside all
of us and one of the unique qualities that defines our humanity. Our intellect
is not rooted in the realm of the physical, but rather in the spiritual;
therefore, if it were not bound to the constraints of the body, it would
continue to develop infinitely. This is why the thoughts of man, or intellect,
and not man himself, are compared to wine, a metaphor for infinite evolution.
By examining a famous statement made by the Sages of the Talmud with
the Maharal's interpretation, we can understand another hidden aspect
"When wine enters, secrets are revealed" (Eruvin 65a).
Wine (in Hebrew "yayin") comes from a hidden place; therefore
its numerical value is 70, which is the same as the word "secret"
(in Hebrew, "sod").
(Hidushei Aggadah, Sanhedrin)
For the Maharal, who developed a numerical approach in his study of the
entire Written and Oral tradition, numbers contain special significance.
A numerical connection between two Hebrew words is not simply a random
connection; it illustrates a deep conceptual bond.
In the Maharal's system, multiples of 10 do not change the character
of the number; therefore we can relate to 70 as a large seven. But, before
we understand the number seven, let's talk about the number six. In the
three-dimensional physical world, everything has six sides, as in the
sides of a cube; the number six relates to the six sides of the physical
existence in which we live. Seven, however, is the point at the center
of the cube; it is the hidden place where everything in the physical world
has its spiritual source. It is the point that represents unity and the
inner essence of all existence.
Now we can understand the Maharal's statement that wine comes from the
place of concealment. The numerical value of the word for wine points
us to the hidden, inner essence of Creation. It also illustrates our appointed
task in the world: bringing the seven, the elusive ideal, into the six,
the physical nature of existence. This is a reason why wine is present
for almost every significant Jewish lifecycle event, as well at every
Shabbat and festival. At these central moments, wine sits at the center
of our table and reminds us all about our hidden, infinite potential.
At the end of the Book of Esther, Mordecai pronounces that the 14th and
15th of the month of Adar should be celebrated as "days of mishteh
and joy". The celebrations must, like the party of King Ahasuerus
and Queen Vashti, include wine. But unlike the royal party, Purim is not
about drinking to get drunk. The point is not to numb our senses, but
rather to attune them to the hidden reality that is normally hidden from
our eyes. By drinking wine on Purim, we have the ability to see through
the six sides of the physical straight through to the center, to the absolute
essence of ourselves and to the boundless possibilities that surround
us. When wine enters, the secrets are truly revealed.
[First published on our sister site, KabbalahOnline.org]
Yonatan Udren, originally from Ft. Lauderdale, FL, has lived in Israel
since 2001. He divides his time between freelance/creative writing and
yeshiva learning, and is currently studying for the rabbinate at Yeshivat
Hamivtar in Efrat. Any comments or questions can be directed to his e-mail: