The Tisch: Is the Glass Half Full?

Posted by Levi Cooper on November 11, 2013
Topics: Hasidut, Hasidic Lore Series, Early Hasidic Era

“I hold the cup on a slight angle, such that on one side it is filled to the rim, and on the other side it is like the second opinion [with part of the cup empty].”

Rabbi Yitzhak of Neshkiz (1789/90-1868) reported that when it came to Grace After Meals, two of his predecessors adopted practices that were at odds with each other. The two were both hassidic masters of considerable renown: Rabbi Yisrael Hopsztajn of Kozhnitz (ca. 1737-1814) and Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (1740-1809).

Yitzhak was the youngest child of another hassidic master, Rabbi Mordechai of Neshkiz (1742-1800). He spent time with some of the great hassidic masters of his day. Young Yitzhak married Gittel, the granddaughter of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak. During Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s final four years, the newly married couple lived in his home.

Thus, Rabbi Yitzhak of Neshkiz was well-placed to observe hassidic practices. He shared what he remembered with his student and the student duly recorded them for posterity.

The contentious issue concerned the cup of wine filled for the recitation of Grace After Meals. One hassidic master made sure that the cup was brimming with wine; the other purposefully did not fill his cup up to the rim, allowing the cup to form a crown over the wine.

Alas, Rabbi Yitzhak of Neshkiz could not remember who said what.

The issue itself is somewhat surprising because it is difficult to find a reliable source for the opinion that suggests that the cup should form a crown over the wine. The matter is first discussed in the Talmud, where we are told that cups of wine used for ritual purposes should have 10 features (B. Brachot 51a). One of those 10 features is ittur – a word that means crowning, but a requirement that is far from clear.

The Talmud offers two opinions as to the meaning of ittur. According to one approach, ittur refers those present who sit around the person reciting the blessing and thus form a crown. Another approach suggests that ittur refers to other cups of wine that are filled and placed before the reciter of the blessing. A variation on these two opinions appears in the commentary of the Provencal scholar Rabbi Menahem Meiri (1249–ca. 1310). Meiri suggested that ittur may refer to those present holding full cups of wine while the blessing is recited.

Either way, ittur appears to be referring to something that is not directly connected to the cup of wine being held by the one reciting the benediction.

The opinion that ittur means not filling the cup up to the rim, appears in the commentators to the Shulhan Aruch. Rabbi David Halevi Segal (the Taz, 1586-1667) mentions this opinion but quickly discards it, declaring there is not one jurist who described ittur in this manner. Rabbi Avraham Abele Gombiner (the Magen Avraham, ca. 1635-1682) explained that this opinion must be an incorrect reading of ittur, because another one of the 10 features is that the cup must be full! Despite the earnest discussion regarding the definition of ittur, this requirement was not codified as obligatory.

Returning to the recollection of Rabbi Yitzhak of Neshkiz – we have an ironic situation: a hassidic master who is careful about ittur, though it is a requirement that is not normative. Moreover, that master adopted the interpretation that the classic commentators clearly rejected!

Be that as it may, which practice did Rabbi Yitzhak of Neshkiz adopt?

His student related that as in other such cases, the rabbi opted for maximum position compliance; meaning, he tried to adopt a course that would satisfy as many halachic positions as possible. In this case it sounds like a nigh impossible task to follow both hassidic masters: Rabbi Yitzhak of Neshkiz would have to hold a brimming cup that was not filled to the rim, to fill his cup up and leave it part empty!

So what did he do in order to comply with both positions? The student recounted: Therefore our master of blessed memory said, “In order to fulfill both of them, I hold the cup on a slight angle, such that on one side it is filled to the rim, and on the other side it is like the second opinion [with part of the cup empty].”

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