The Mishnah (4:2) describes the entrance to the Heichal as the “great gate”. The Tifferet Yisrael explains that it was given this name not for its size, but rather because it was the gate to the holiest part of the Beit Ha’Mikdash. The Mishnah (3:8) also explains that a grapevine made of gold was hung above the gate. People would donate golden grapes or leaves to the Beit Ha’Mikdash to add to the vine. What was the purpose of the vine?
The Tifferet Yisrael explains that whenever funds were required for the upkeep of the Beit Ha’Mikdash or for supporting the kohanim, the funds would be collected for the vines which were donated for this purpose. Consequently it acted as a source of money when the regular more immediate sources were exhausted. However why was a vine used for this purpose?
The Rosh (Tamid 29a), citing the Yerushalmi, explains that in the first Beit Ha’Mikdash, Shlomo planted a golden vine that literally bore golden fruit each year from which the kohanim were supported. In the second Beit Ha’Mikdash, this vine, whose fruit were a product of donations, was constructed as a replacement.
Alternatively the Rambam notes that Am Yisrael is often compared to as a grapevine.34 They were therefore placed above the Heichal in order to evoke heavenly blessings. But why are Am Yisrael compared to a grapevine and how would this image have such an effect?
The Tifferet Yisrael explains that like a grapevine, Am Yisrael is soft and weak, yet its fruit are sweet. Rav Hirsch (Tehillim 80:9) explains in a similar direction that a vine is only valuable when it produces fruit. The wood on its own is worthless. Similarly Am Yisrael’s noble worth is a function of its fruit; when it fulfils its purpose.35 Based on this understanding, perhaps then the vine serves as a reminder to Am Yisrael that if they fulfil their task engaging in Torah and mitzvot, then that will indeed evoke heavenly blessing.
The Tifferet Yisrael adds that Torah itself is also compared to a vine (Gemara Chulin 92a). He explains that just as a vine needs physical assistance and propping up to succeed, so too with those that engage in Torah. The association is strengthened as the kohanim who (aside from the few days they worked in the Beit Ha’Mikdash) were the teachers and disseminators of Torah, were supported by this vine. Is there a relationship between these two motifs that the vine represents – Torah and Am Yisrael?
In the same Gemara cited by the Tifferet Yisrael as the source of the vine referring to Torah, the Gemara also mentions that the vine resembles Am Yisrael. One of the explanations for this association is as follows:
R’ Shimon ben Lakish says, the nation is compared to a grapevine, the branches are the ba’alei batim (working men), the clusters [of grapes] are the talmidei Chachamim, the leaves are the amei ha’aretz (unlearned), and the small branches are the reikanim (empty people). This is what [the Chachamim of Eretz Yisrael sent], the clusters must pray for the leaves for without the leaves there will be no clusters.
In R’ Shimon ben Lakish’s description we find that the grapevine represents Am Yisrael and the vital relationship between all its parts in the upkeep of Torah and its study.
One can perhaps draw some beautiful conclusions from this relationship. Firstly the vine served as a reminder to the kohanim entering the Heichal to pray for every part of Am Yisrael. Secondly, it gave great respect to those wishing to support Torah in that their funds would adorn the holiest gate until they were needed. Finally, the appearance of the well loaded vine at the entrance to the Heichal, a testament to the fulfilment of this great relationship within Am Yisrael, between those who teach Torah and the ones that support it, would certainly evoke heavenly blessing.
34: Some examples Yeshaya 5:1-7, Yechezkel 15, Tehillim 80:9, Gemara Chulin 92a.
35: Rav Hirsch also provides another explanation. The grape is the most crushed and beaten of the fruit. Yet this crushing (to make wine) only serves to strength it to the extent that it eventually overpowers the one who crushed it. The same is true with Am Yisrael and its enemies.
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