I bet you expected this month’s symbol to be all about trees and planting of trees — but that’s so easy to find! Here we’re going to talk about drinking and drinking vessels! How did I get to cups (כוסות) and the drinking of wine as the practice which symbolizes the month of Shevat. It was an easier leap than you might think. While the Tu B’Shevat seder may not be as ancient a practice as the Passover Seder, it has grown and grown in awareness and popularity. While both also have four cups of wine, the Tu b’Shevat seder is even more focused around the drinking of these cups than Passover is. It also aligns well with the astrological sign of the month, the bucket or vessel. So cups is our object for the month and the act of blessing and drinking a cup of wine, is our action.
Cups seem, understandably, to also take on the association of whatever they are holding. In Judaism they have a strong association with life and celebration, because those are the most common associations of wine in Judaism. In Tarot they are associated with emotions, and in European heraldry they are closely associated with fertility and of course Communion and the Holy Grail. In Judaism we also immediately associate them with the Sabbath, Passover, Elijah, Miriam, and often Joseph (Genesis 44:2, goblet = גְּבִיעִי). They are also, in Jewish tradition, symbols of good or bad fortune (i.e. “my cup runneth over”).
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Judaism has a long history with wine. Planting a vineyard was the first thing Noah did after the flood. We have a special blessing for wine made from grapes, and there’s many references to wine in the Torah. Just about every Jewish ritual involves blessing and drinking a cup of wine, and there’s a Jewish saying that i have no citation for that says, “without wine there is no blessing.”
Now let’s look at the act of blessings and drinking of wine.
“The sole fruit with its own special blessing is the grape–in the form of juice or wine–for which the blessing concludes “borei peri ha-gafen” (Who creates the fruit of the vine). It does not apply to the fermented juice of other furits or vegetables, even if it is called wine, or to grapes themselves, which are considered a fruit for which the blessing borei peri ha-etz is appropriate.”(JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions, page 475)
All blessings for food and drink spring from the same source, Deuteronomy 8:10, which says You will eat, you will be satisfied, and you will bless YHVH, your g!d. This is the the source of all food blessings and like a river — from there springs many twists, turns and tributaries!
This doesn’t explain why we bless wine at so many rituals, though. My instinct is that kiddush, wine and challah, serves the same function as “cakes and ale” in other religious traditions. Kiddush does act as a grounding action in a ritual, since eating and drinking are embodied practices that root us in the here and now. Kiddush also allows for a communal sharing of foods that require a very special connection between humanity and the Divine. The reason we use these two special foods, bread and wine, I think are because the Divine actions of fermentation occur in both products, and it takes a particularly skilled human effort to transform raw ingredients. But nothing in Judaism is that simple. Everything we do has thousands of years of layered traditions.
So, now’s the questions for you!
- What associations do you have with cups and the blessing/drinking of wine?
- Why do you think we blessing wine at so many rituals and include Kiddush?
- What special cups or goblets are part of your spiritual practice?
- What blessings would you like to “drink in” as the winter turns to spring?
Adapted from a post originally written for Peeling a Pomegranate (2003-2013) by Kohenet Ketzirah haMa’agelet