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Where Did the Wine Go?

“Wine of the nesachim — at the beginning there is a prohibition of me’ila; once the wine has descended to the foundations, there is no prohibition of me’ila.”

As we have noted before in this column, property of hekdesh (dedicated for holy purposes in the Beit Hamikdash) must not be used for private benefit. A person who breaches the trust of appropriate use of hekdesh transgresses the prohibition of me’ila, as taught in Vayikra 5:15.

The Torah specifies that wine be poured on the Altar in the Beit Hamikdash to accompany the bringing of various offerings. The wine that was poured into special cups atop the Altar is called nesachim (libations). The wine for nesachim was made kodesh in the special vessels of kodesh in the Beit Hamikdash. Therefore, the wine to be poured as nesachim is subject to the laws of me'ila. However, once it was poured into the holes in the Altar, the prohibition of me’ila was no longer in effect since the mitzvah that it was designated for was already fulfilled.

How far down did the drainage system in the Altar go? And what is meant in the mishna by the nesachim “going down to the foundations”? The gemara on our daf cites a Tosefta from which we see that there are two different understandings of the foundations in the teachings of our Sages.

The Chachamim (the majority of our Sages) maintain that these drainage holes went very deep, from the Altar down to the watery depths of the world. On the other hand, Rabbi Elazar bar Rabbi Tzaddok asserts that they ran inside the Altar only until its bottom, but no further. According to him the wine that was poured into the Altar congealed inside at its base. Once every seventy years a delegation of young kohanim would descend a passageway and bring back the congealed wine, in the shape of fig-cakes, to the Courtyard of the Beit Hamikdash. There the congealed wine from the nesachim would be burned in a state of kedusha on the Altar due to it having a kodesh status.

Our gemara asserts that our mishna does not seem to be consistent with either of these teachings of our Sages regarding the final location of the poured nesachim. According to the Chachamim’s view that the wine went all the way to the depths, why is there a need for the Tana of the mishna to teach that once the wine descended there is no longer an issue of mei’la? Of course there is not since the wine descended into the watery depths and dispersed inside the earth. It no longer existed in the world!

The gemara answers that our mishna could be explained in a manner consistent with the view of the Chachamim, by qualifying the mishna with a specific scenario. Instead of allowing the wine to descend and flow to the watery depths, the mishna is speaking about a case where the kohen’s hand caught the wine that he poured into the Altar. Since the wine had in fact been poured for the mitzvah of nesachim, it is no longer hekdesh, and is exempt from the prohibition of me’ila. This is the halacha that the mishna teaches, and needs to teach, according to the Chachamim.

What is the challenge from our mishna to the opinion of Rabbi Elazar bar Rabbi Tzaddok? Since he teaches that the wine which descended to the base was collected periodically, and required burning on the Altar in kedusha, why does the mishna state that there is no prohibition of me’ila once the wine descended? Since the wine still has kedusha after going down, it should still be subject to the laws of me’ila, just as it was before it was poured.

The resolution offered for this challenge is similar to the answer given to the question raised on the view of the Chachamim — but with a twist. Again, says the gemara, our mishna deals with a case where the kohen placed his hand into the duct below the wine and caught the wine before it completely descended to the Altar’s base. Rabbi Elazar bar Rabbi Tzaddok would agree that once the wine is poured, the mitzvah of pouring nesachim is completed and there is no longer an issue of me’ila. So why does he teach in the Tosefta that after it “goes down” it still needed to be collected and be burned in a holy place due to its holiness?

The answer is that the Tosefta is speaking about when the winedescendsall the way to ground of the Beit Hamikdash without being caught along the way. In this case the sanctified ground makes the wine kodesh, which requires it to be burned in kedusha as Rabbi Elazar bar Rabbi Tzaddok teaches. However, when the mishna states that if the wine “went down there is no me’ila,” this refers to an interrupted going down. Since the wine was caught by the kohen’s hand, it no longer had kedusha, and it did not ever regain a kadosh status since it never descended entirely to come in contact with the holy surface of the Beit Hamikdash.

  • Me'ila 11b

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