Shemini: Jewish law allows modest drinking of wine


Leviticus 9:1-11:47

II Samuel 6:1-7:17

My grandparents bought a new house in the Bronx.

They bought it, by coincidence, just about when national prohibition went into effect.

I grew up in that house many years later, and I remember the old grapevines that grew in the backyard. The way I heard the story, Prohibition had a direct relationship with those grapevines. Grandfather planted them to help make sure he would have wine for kiddush, and maybe even something stronger for other celebrations.

Grandfather's generation had a deep respect, a visceral love, for America. America had fair laws, which would let a Jew live just like anyone else — so we should never get on the wrong side of America's laws.

But, as much as these immigrants loved America, I think they had some trouble taking Prohibition seriously.

They believed that, as Jews, they knew how to deal with alcohol. Even children had a sip of wine on Friday night, and four small cups of wine at the seder. Everyone could drink a "l'chaim" at an engagement or a wedding. And then the bottle went back into the closet until the next family celebration.

If anyone did get drunk, the adults' descriptions of that event would convey enough chilling disdain to warn us not to emulate that ugliness.

But America — naive, idealistic, lovable, slightly self-righteous America — had come up with the idea that keeping a sober family from drinking a "l'chaim" at a wedding would somehow help keep serious drinkers from winding up sprawled in the street.

Now, the Prohibition law itself made an exception for sacramental wine. In all honesty, we could have done without that exception: Grape juice arguably meets the requirements for all Jewish ritual functions. But Jews did invoke the sacramental wine exception, and many small congregations survived with the help of members who observed kiddush religiously, if not always on the prescribed nights.

The approval of moderate drinking has deep roots in Judaism. The psalmist observes, "Wine gladdens the heart of man" (Psalms 104:15), and that we want to "serve God with gladness" (Psalm 100:2). A curious verse in Judges refers to wine as "making glad the heart of man and God" (Judges 9:13).

The talmudic rabbis cite this verse to explain why their ancient predecessors instituted a cup of wine to accompany various joyful prayers, declaring, "One says religious songs of praise only over wine" (Brakhot 35a).

Nearly two thousand years ago, the house of Shamai and the house of Hillel could argue about whether the blessing on wine comes before kiddush, or the kiddush before the blessing on wine.

But both agreed that wine and kiddush belong together (Pesahim 10:2).

Despite all that, an uncompromising prohibition also has its place in Judaism. The Temple ritual involved spilling wine on the altar, but never drinking wine.

"Drink no wine or strong drink…when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you not die" (Leviticus 10:9). This verse clearly prohibits a Kohen from so much as entering the Tabernacle if he has tasted an alcoholic drink, and similarly prohibits any Jew from entering the outer parts of the Temple if he or she has had a drink.

The ancient rabbis understood that this injunction prohibits any learned Jew, male or female, from ruling in matters of Jewish law after so much as one drink (Sefer HaHinnukh 152, based on Sifra).

Sefer HaHinnukh continues: "A great scholar, on whose legal teaching people rely, is forbidden to teach his pupils while drunk, for this teaching is like giving decisions" (based on Keritot 13b).

Extending the principle, Rabbah bar Rav Hunah taught that "One who has drunk may not say prayers, and if he does pray, this prayer amounts to an abomination" (Eiruvin 64a).

So while classical Judaism treats temperate drinking with approval, it demands abstinence when we undertake the solemn tasks performing the Temple ritual, of ruling on Jewish law and of saying prayers. Then we must practice prohibition.