What Do Marriage and Winemaking Have in Common?

Rabbi Esther L. Lederman

“We make [the funeral procession of] a dead person give way before a bride.”
-- Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 17a

There is a reason the Talmud teaches that a funeral procession must make way for a wedding party when passing on the road: Life must take priority over death. A marriage is a commitment to life, and to hope. I find it a privilege to stand under a chuppah (wedding canopy) with a couple who have chosen to commit their lives to each other in front of beloved family and friends.

One of the teachings I most love to offer couples comes from the late Rabbi Harold Schulweis in his book, Finding Each Other in Judaism: Meditations on the Rites of Passage from Birth to Immortality. It is a beautiful and unique treatment about how wine can be a metaphor for the work marriage requires, and the rewards it may bring. I often include it at the point in the ceremony in which I spend offering a blessing to the couple, with a guidepost from Jewish tradition to hold them on their path.

I explain that one of the symbols we use in Jewish rituals and lifecycle events is wine. Wine represents our joy, and what better occasion for joy than a coming together of two individuals who have chosen love and commitment to each other. The first glass of wine in a Jewish wedding is offered near the beginning of the ceremony, and traditionally is shared by the couple, as well as by their parents.

The blessing over the wine is the same one we recite on Shabbat:

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, borei p’ri hagafen.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, Creator of the fruit of the vine.

Echoing Rabbi Schulweis’s words, I point out that the fruit of the vine, if we want to get technical, is really a grape. So why do we drink wine instead of eating grapes? The answer is a little more than “because drinking wine is so much more fun.”

Wine is the result of both God-given nature and humanity’s ability to yearn and strive. It is a perfect combination of our creative abilities paired with the Eternal Creator.

The seed, the soil, the sun, and the water all are necessary ingredients to grow the grapes that will become the Chardonnay, the Pinot, or even the Manischewitz that fills your glass. Each of these parts of the natural world are God’s gifts to us; their existence is not of our own making.

And yet, without our contribution – preparing the soil for the seed, caring for the vines as they nurture the fruit, harvesting the grapes, and transforming them into the joyous beverage we enjoy today – the creation of the wine itself would not be possible.

Marriage, too, relies upon a combination of God-given magic combined with human action and effort. According to Jewish tradition, love is an action – something you do – not something you feel. It is the reason Jewish wedding ceremonies often begin with a ketubah signing ceremony in which a written covenant between two equal partners that proclaims the deeds and commitments each partner makes to the other is signed and witnessed by others. Love in marriage is built on negotiation, compromise, agreement, and laughter. It requires hard work, patience, tenderness, compassion, and effort – not unlike that expended by farmers to turn grapes into wine.

And what about that God-given magic? That’s the part of marriage that can’t be explained but  is equally necessary. It’s the mystery of why you met when you did, why you connected, and the unexplained, magical attraction, if you will, that can’t be explained. It’s the je ne sais quoi of why after many years of marriage, you will still commit to acts of love with your spouse – in spite of the differences that make it challenging. The feelings you have for each other are the gift from God, like a kiss from the universe. But what you do with that gift, how you turn those feelings for each other into an unbreakable bond, one that will stand the test of time and withstand what life throws at you, that is your effort, your doing, your hard work.

Today as we celebrate you and your marriage, we recognize that long ago the seeds were planted, the soil watered, and the grapes cared for. Now that they have ripened, it’s time for you to harvest them from the vine and turn them into something greater, sweeter, and richer than they were before.

And may we all say: Amen

Rabbi Esther L. Lederman is the director of congregational innovation for the Union for Reform Judaism.