GRAPES OF WORTH
By Gil Marks
The Torah (Genesis 9:20) relates that after the Flood, "Vayachel (and he began) Noah, a man of the earth, vayita (and he planted) a vineyard." After surviving mass destruction while being confined in the ark for a year, Noah's second recorded action, the first being the offering of sacrifices, was to grow grapes. On the surface, this seems at the least an innocuous act and in many ways a commendable step. Indeed, Noah's planting was a fulfillment of the recently reestablished covenant that included, "I will not again curse the ground for man (8:21)." God wanted the survivors to reclaim the earth and resume a degree of normalcy in their lives. Thus planting was actually a positive and meaningful response to the recent catastrophe. In light of subsequent events, however, something clearly was wrong.
An important clue to Noah's viticultural debacle lies in the word vayita ("and he planted"), which appeared in only two other instances in the entire Chumash, the first occurring ten generations before Noah, "And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east (2:8)." According to some sages the vine was "the tree of knowledge" from which Eve and Adam ate (Berachot 40a), further conjoining Noah's planting to that of Eden. Noah's act of planting was merely an understandable imitation of God, literally starting again from the beginning. Nevertheless, Noah failed and did so miserably, creating a situation the reverse of Eden. Whereas Adam and Eve were unaware of being naked before they ate "Mi'piryo" ("from the fruit") and "the eyes of both of them were opened (3:7)," Noah's consciousness was blinded when he partook "MIN hayayin" (from the wine) and thereby failed to realize that he was unclothed.
It is the third instance of vayita ("planted"), revealingly occurring ten generations after Noah, that enables us to understand the previous two. "And he (Abraham) planted an 'ashel' in Be'er Sheva and he called there in the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God (21:33)." The word ashel is derived from the Hebrew for "firmly rooted," and although commonly translated as "tamarisk," it also refers to a large garden or a tent. As Raish Lakish explained (Sotah 10b), "Do not read the text, 'he called there in the name of the Lord,' but read it, 'he caused there to be a calling in the name of God.' Abraham caused God's name to ring out in the mouth of every traveler. How was that? After they had eaten and drunk, they would arise to give him a blessing. He (Abraham) would tell them, "Was it my food you ate?" Was it not God's food you ate?" So they thanked and gave praise to the One Who spoke and the world came into existence." Rashi quoted the disagreement between Rav and Shumuel as to what Abraham planted, "One said, 'an orchard to bring from it fruits for the guests at the meal,' and the other one said, 'an inn for lodging and in it were all kinds of fruit." (It would be interesting, considering that the previous two Biblical instances of planting involved grapes, if Abraham included vines in his garden. On the other hand, he may have been interested in planting more practical crops.)
Abraham's act of planting was in actuality part and parcel of his lifelong objective to introduce the concept of God to the world, a mission in which both Adam and Noah had fallen woefully short, the Flood proving that.
Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden to "ovda u'l'shomra ("tend and to guard it" 2:15)," to develop the world. He obviously lacked the necessary characteristic, as demonstrated by the Flood. Noah was the first person born following the death of Adam, reflecting that he had the chance to start anew, in effect planting a new world order. Noah, however, was unable or unwilling to do so. The Torah informs us that Noah consumed his wine, "in his tent (1:21)," enclosed by himself. This was Noah's tragic character flaw, he was what tradition deemed a tzadik b'peltz ("a righteous man in a fur coat"). Instead of lighting a fire and warming the entire room, he limited his actions to enwrapping and warming himself. As before the flood, Noah, afterwards, turns inward, in effect shutting out reality and escaping into drink. What does Noah accomplish after planting his vineyard? The Torah summed up the remainder of his life, "And Noah lived after the flood three hundred and fifty years. And all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years; and he died (Genesis 28-29)." In other words, he did nothing of note.
Noah was certainly unable to influence the future generations either for, according to the sages, he lived to witness the tower of Babel. In that instance too, Noah's voice is notably nowhere to be heard.
Also alive at the time of Babel was Abraham, then forty-eight years old and eighty eight when Noah died. The lives of Noah and Adam overlap, but that is where the correlation ended. For Abraham planted fruit trees as part of his continuing struggle to help others and spread the message of God. It was because of Abraham's aggressive, yet non-coercive attempts to influence and assist his fellows that he, unlike the previous two Biblical instances of planting, ultimately succeeded. As a result, "The Lord had blessed Abraham with all (24:1)."
Noah, on the other hand, turns out only to be a survivor not the redeemer that he had the potential to be. Just as Noah disappointed his father, Lamech, by not living up to his name, which means "comforter," so in turn Noah was failed by his son, Ham. Noah's attempt to escape from a corrupt and disheartening world ultimately found these evils in his own tent, resulting in inebriation, injury, and the cursing of a son. Noah, called "ish tzadik tamim" ("a purely righteous man") at the beginning of the parsha, descended to "a man of the earth" by the end. This stands in stark contrast to Moses who began as "an Egyptian man (Exodus 2:19)" and ended his life as a "man of God (Deuteronomy 33:1)." Indeed, Rashi, making a play of words on the term vayachel ("he began"), stated, "He (Noah) made himself chulin ("unsanctified"), for at first he should have engaged in a different planting." In this week's Haftarah, the prophet asks, "Wherefore do you spend money for that which is not bread? (Isaiah 35:2)." Grapes are not what Noah should have planted first, but rather grains, which sustain and benefit the many. Wine, therefore, personifies Noah's failure to "comfort" others, to live up to his name.
The sages understood that wine possesses the potential for havoc as well as the release of a person's inner secrets, "Where wine goes in, secrets come out (Eiruvin 65a)." Tellingly, Jewish tradition does not criticize Noah for making or drinking wine per se, only his timing and lack of restraint. Judaism is not about abstinence, but rather the regulation of our passions. Indeed, alcohol, when used in moderation, is viewed as a beneficial element. By conjoining wine with our holiest occasions, Judaism asserts that revealing the inner self is actually something good, for people in general at the core are good, rather than something of what to be ashamed. Jewish tradition teaches, "Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto the bitter in soul. Let him drink and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more (Proverbs 31:6-7)." In this vein, "Wine helps to open the heart to reasoning (Baba Basra 12b)."
From the onset, wine held a prominent and honored position in Jewish life and lore. The Torah recounts that the Israelites' first exposure to the Promised Land was a grape cluster of legendary proportions brought back by the spies sent by Moses. The vine is listed first among the Shevat Haminim (Seven Species) with which the Land of Israel is blessed (Deuteronomy 8:8). The people of Israel were compared to grapes (Hosea 9:10) and God to the owner of a vineyard (Isaiah 5, Ezekiel 17:1-10, and Jeremiah 2:21). Israel was equated with a vine transplanted from Egypt to the Holy Land, where it "took deep root and filled the land" (Psalms 80:9-10). Throughout the Biblical period, alcohol was amply consumed at everyday meals as well as at times of celebration. Indeed, mishteh, the Biblical word for a feast, is derived from the Hebrew word for drink, indicative of the primary role of wine and other alcoholic beverages in festive occasions. Wine -- symbolizing joy and fruitfulness ("wine that cheers man's heart" Psalms 104:15) -- is an integral element of many Jewish rituals, including Kiddush, Havdallah, the Passover Seder, brit milah, and the marriage ceremony. Wine will be on the menu at the feast served at the end of days (Berachot 34b).
Grapes were the most important fruit in ancient Israel and viticulture played a prominent role throughout the early part of Jewish history and ritual. Vineyards flourished on the terraced hillsides of ancient Judea. According to some scholars, one of the primary reasons that the Babylonians brought the Jews to Babylon and not to a distant part of their empire was to capitalize on their terracing and viticultural expertise. Indeed, Babylonian records reveal that the head gardener of Nebuchadnezzar's famous Hanging Gardens was a Jew from Judea. When the Jews returned to their homeland, they resumed their passion for growing and consuming the fruit of the vine. Reflecting its diversity and significance, the Talmud noted more than a dozen types of wine, including chemer (sweet red wine), ilyaston (wine made from slightly dried grapes), kunditon (spiced wine), meushan (wine made from smoked grapes), pesinyaton (bitter wine), tzimmukin (raisin wine), aluntit (old wine mixed with balsam), inomilin (old wine mixed with honey and pepper), and yashan noshan (aged dry vintages). One wine they definitely did not have was the cloying sweet "Kiddush wine," an Eastern European aberration necessitated by a lack of quality grapes, resulting in juice that required a copious amount of added sugar to make it potable, or a reliance on raisin wine.
Here are a few recipes incorporating wine, which you'll hopefully, in the path of Abraham, invite others to share with you.
6 to 8 servings
Wine soups, particularly popular in Central European cooking, were brought to Israel by emigrants. This version is enhanced with the addition of raspberries and oranges. If you prefer whole fruit in the soup, add the oranges to the cooled soup.
Bring all the ingredients to a gentle boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. Serve warm or chilled.
(3 to 4 servings)
This is typical of the Eastern European love of meats cooked with sweeteners and spices.
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees (190 C).
(6 to 8 servings)
This is a delicious way to utilize hard pears. Using red wine results in an attractive red color.
1. Cut off a small slice from the bottom of each pear. Leaving the pears whole and the stems intact, scoop out the core (a melon baller works well). Peel the pears and rub with lemon juice to prevent discoloration.
(About 18 cookies)
This variation of kipfel, called gipfelteig in Switzerland, is named after the capital of Bratislava, an important Hungarian Jewish community.
1. To make the dough: Dissolve the yeast in ¼ cup water. Stir in 1 teaspoon sugar and let stand until foamy (5 to 10 minutes). Add the wine, remaining sugar, fat, egg yolks, salt, and, if desired, zest. Blend in 1½ cups flour. Add enough of the remaining flour, ½ cup at a time, to make a workable dough.
Gil Marks is the author of the James Beard Award finalist The World of Jewish Cooking, The World of Jewish Entertaining, and the recently released The World of Jewish Desserts. If you have a special request for a future recipe, forward them to email@example.com