The Mystery of Those Mini Kiddush Cups

I’ve made Kiddush in synagogue social halls countless times. Most of my life I stood there holding a humble plastic cup with its thimbleful of Manischewitz with one eye on the oneg offerings. Since becoming a rabbi, my Kiddush cup has been upgraded, although I’ve never stopped looking toward the oneg table.

Still, despite the countless times offering the blessing, there’s one thing I’ve never done: I’ve never actually prepared the Kiddush. The tray of little plastic cups, pre-filled with sweet Shabbat wine had always been waiting for me — until one day it wasn’t.

I was visiting Mountain Synagogue in Franklin, North Carolina. I’d arrived about 45 minutes before services, as had several members of the community, who were all busily preparing for the after-service community dinner. I made some introductions and then excused myself to make my own preparations. When I returned from the sanctuary, I saw that all of the congregants there were just as busy as when I had left. I offered to help, which is how I found myself tasked with preparing the Kiddush platter.

As soon as I started, I knew I was in over my head. We never learned this in rabbinical school.

By my first cup, I’d already spilled wine onto the tray, and I watched the small-purple-puddle slowly grow and meander beneath the waiting sea of still-empty cups. For better or worse, I’m not one to give up easily, so I continued to pour. You’d think that by my 30th cup I’d develop some sort of technique. But not so much.

As I plodded along, noticing I was soaking the tablecloth along with the tray, I had a number of thoughts going through my head. Primarily, though, I thought about the person who usually fills the cups. What did he or she know that I didn’t? No matter the tips and tricks, it’s still a tedious job filling all those little cups.

It’s one of the many synagogue mysteries most of us never stop to wonder about.

I’ve never given much thought to how those little cups get filled, or who fills them. I’ve certainly never thought to publicly acknowledge that individual. And it’s not just the Kiddush-pourer who deserves recognition. It’s the table-mover, the book-schlepper, and the silver-polisher. It’s the challah-maker, the thermostat-setter, and the trash-remover. And it’s a dozen other people doing a dozen other jobs I’ve yet to even consider.

Our communities function because people volunteer for these jobs. And mostly, the only time we think about them is when something goes wrong: the sanctuary is freezing because no one came early to turn on the heat, or Kiddush is a mess because someone asked the rabbi to fill the cups. But usually everything is seamless, and it’s easy to forget how much was involved in making these moments so lovely and comfortable.

I’m going to find out who fills the cups at my next Kiddush. Yes, I want to learn their secrets, but I also want to thank them, along with all those volunteers who help our communities function. For all those with a hand steadier than mine, from Redding, California to Rome, Georgia: Thank you.

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