When Avraham is visited by the angel-guests, he asks Sarah to make bread for them. (Bereshit 18:6.) The Torah hints that they did not eat Sarah’s bread (18:8 and Rashi), but evidently they ate other bread and made grace, for they sought to honor Sarah with the grace-cup. (Bava Metzia 87a and Etz Yosef commentary.)
In the Toldot column we discussed the general significance of saying blessings over a cup of wine (kos shel berakha). Wine has the power to bring out our inner selves, for better or for worse; by adjoining our blessings to wine, we show our confidence that the inner self revealed by the wine is one of holiness. Now we will discuss additional aspects of the kos shel berakha, some unique to the cup of wine for birkhat hamazon.
The Zohar likens the cup of wine to the land of Israel. In birkhat hamazon we thank HaShem for our many material blessings, which are exemplified by the full cup of wine; this is like the land of Israel, which is a land of plenty and the source of material blessing for the Jewish people.
The one saying grace should keep his gaze fixed on the wine, so as not to be distracted from the blessing (SA OC 183:4, based on Berakhot 51b); the Zohar likens this to the gaze of HaShem, which never wavers from the Land of Israel. “A land which HaShem your G-d looks after continuously; the eyes of HaShem are on it from the beginning of the year to the end of the year”. (Devarim 11:12.)
Many Rishonim require a cup even when an individual says grace, but according to the Zohar we say grace over wine only when there are three men (Beit Yosef OC 182), and this is the custom. (MB 182:4.) Why specifically three?
The three men saying grace are likened to the three Patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, to whom the land of Israel was promised. This symbol of the Avot reminds us that the unique blessing of the land of Israel is not something natural; it is atttained only through the special blessings given the Avot. Requiring a quorum of three reminds us that the Land of IsraelLand of Israel had to be promised to each Patriarch in turn, because each one made a unique contribution to the character of the Jewish people, making us worthy of the land.
After the blessing, a man should pass the cup to his wife (SA OC 183:4), even if the wife did not eat together with the men (MB), just as the angels sought to have the cup passed to Sarah. In this way the husband acknowledges that the material blessing of the family is mainly in the merit of the wife, and that this blessing also is not a natural one but rather rooted in the woman’s unique connection to holiness.
The birkhat hamazon thanks HaShem for the “delightful, good and broad land” which He gave us. But there are many delightful, good and broad lands in the world. The cup of grace, when we understand its symbolism, reminds us of what is unique about Eretz Yisrael. The land of Israel has a spiritual goodness and breadth; its blessing stems from the Divine glance and from the influence of the holy Patriarchs who merited the promise of the land for themselves and their offspring, the Jewish people.
(Based on Zohar Trumot, II:157b; Zohar Pinchas, III:245; Zohar Chadash 87:3.)
Rabbi Meir is in the process of writing a monumental companion to Kitzur Shulchan Aruch which beautifully presents the meanings in our mitzvot and halacha. He is also directing the Jewish Business Response Forum at the Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility, Jerusalem College of Technology – Machon Lev. The forum aims to help business people run their firms according to Torah, by obtaining prompt, relevant responses to their questions.