by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
In this week’s portion, Shemini (Eighth), Aaron and his four sons complete the eighth day of their ordination as priests by presenting an animal offering at the new altar. God sends forth a miraculous fire that consumes everything on the altar, and all the people shout with joy and bow down to the ground.
Then Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring unauthorized incense into the Tent of Meeting, and God sends forth a miraculous fire that consumes them. (See my post Shemini: Fire Meets Fire.)
Moses gives instructions regarding removing the bodies and mourning. Then God tells Aaron:
Wine or sheikhar do not drink, you or your sons with you, when you come into the Tent of Meeting, and you will not die—a decree forever for your generations—and to distinguish between the holy and the ordinary, and between the ritually-impure and the ritually -pure; and to teach the Children of Israel all the decrees that God, your god, has spoken through Moses. (Leviticus/Vayikra 10:9-11)
sheikhar (שֵׁכָר) = strong drink. (From the root verb shakhar, שׁכר = was drunk, became intoxicated.)
Sheikhar is not liquor or fortified wine, since distilling was not inventing until the fourth century B.C.E. The alcoholic drinks available to the ancient Israelites were wine from grapes, wine from other fruits, and beer from grain. Judging by other Biblical passages containing the word sheikhar, the word might mean any of these fermented drinks, if they happened to be especially strong.
The Torah distinguishes between new wine, chemer (חֶמֶר), and old wine, called shemer (שֶׁמֶר) or sheikhar. New wine has only progressed through the first stage of fermentation; old wine has fermented for at least 40 days (according to the Talmud, Sanhedrin 70a) and has more alcoholic content. (The Torah also refers to both new and old wine as yayin (יַיִן), which simply means “wine”.)
Does God give Aaron the injunction above shortly after Nadav and Avihu’s fatal error because they were drunk when they brought the unauthorized incense? The commentary is divided. Either way, God states the reason why priests must not drink on duty: alcohol decreases reasoning and discernment, and therefore would interfere with several of the priests’ duties: judging whether something is holy, judging whether something or someone is ritually pure, and teaching the laws correctly.
However, the Torah does not banish wine altogether from the sanctuary or temple. Priests are required to give offerings of wine to God, poured out as libations on the altar. The book of Numbers/Bemidbar even specifies strong wine for God:
And you shall say to them: This is the fire-offering you shall bring close to Hashem: male yearling lambs, unblemished, a pair for the day, as a perpetual rising-offering. The one male lamb you shall do in the morning, and the second male lamb you shall do in the evening. … And he shall pour out a fourth of a hin for the one male lamb, on the holy place, to provide a libation, a drink-offering of sheikhar for Hashem. (Numbers/Bemidbar 28:3-4, 7)
During the time of the second temple in Jerusalem, the wine libation was poured near the southwest corner of the altar. The wine flowed down through holes into drainpipes. (See my post Emor: Libations.) The wine of a libation had to be be entirely poured out; Jews did not follow the Greek practice of pouring a libation and then drinking the rest of the wine.
On the other hand, it was acceptable for non-priestly worshipers to drink their own wine in front of the sanctuary.
You must definitely tithe all the yield of your planting, what comes out of the field, year by year. And you shall eat in front of God, your god … so that you will learn to be in awe of God, your god, all the time. And if the road is too long for you … Then you shall give silver, and you shall bundle up the silver in your hand, and you shall go to the place that God, your god, will choose. And you may give the silver for what your nefesh craves: cattle, or sheep, or wine, or sheikhar, or anything that your nefesh asks you for. And you shall eat it there in front of God, your god, and you shall rejoice, you and your household. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 14:22-26)
nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = appetite; the soul that animates the body.
Here the Torah seems to approve of imbibing (as well as feasting) as an aid to feeling both joy and awe when serving God. Yet in the first book of Samuel/Shmuel, the high priest Eli criticizes Hannah for coming to the temple when she is, apparently, drunk.
And Channah, she was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard. And Eli considered her leshikorah. And Eli said to her: How long will you go on making yourself drunk? Remove your wine from over yourself!
But Channah replied, and she said: No, my lord, I am a woman of heavy spirit, and I have not drunk wine nor sheikhar, but I have poured out my nefesh before God. (1 Samuel 13-15)
leshikorah (לְשִׁכּוֹרָה) = to be drunk.
By pouring out her soul before God, Channah is, in effect, making her own libation offering. And she is dedicating something stronger than old wine.
Perhaps the priests must avoid drinking at the sanctuary not only to keep their minds sharp, but also to serve God with appropriate levels of joy and awe, avoiding emotional excess. Their libation offerings could be interpreted as pouring out their own emotionality, emptying themselves in order to become holy vessels for their work.
When I lead prayer services, the people in front of me seem to find more comfort, or insight, or elevation, when I manage to step away from the emotions that I walked in with, but retain my rational alertness. At those times, I find myself empty and available for inspiration, yet also able to notice when I need to change the volume or tempo of a song, to skip something I had planned, to say something different, to invite comment or to move back into song.
If only I could do that every time!
Next time, I will imagine pouring out all my sheikhar, my old, strong wine, in a libation to God before the service begins. Then maybe I can be both clear and clear-headed in the sanctuary that it is my duty to help create.