Saturday, November 19, 2005

Wine and Alcoholism

In almost all junctures of life, wine is a significantly important tool for Jewish ritual. A Jew is first introduced to wine at his bris Milah (ritual circumcision)—at the age of eight days and at the redemption of the firstborn—at the age of one month. Wine plays essential roles on the holiday of Purim and at the Passover Seder. Jews use wine for the Kiddush and Havdalah rituals on and after the Sabbath and Holidays as a means of showing separation between holy and profane days. Wine is also integral to the ceremony of a Jewish wedding and for seven days thereafter, and is even used at the end of every meal as part of the Grace After Meals. One of the most pressing issues plaguing contemporary society is alcoholism, in which drinkers become addicted to the consumption of alcohol which inhibits one's senses and can cause other grave repercussions.

Many Christian and Muslim religious leaders feel that "wine is evil"; this idea even caused the Volstead Act in the United States which prohibited intoxicating beverages during the 1920's. However, this stance is unjustified; wine is only evil when used for the wrong purposes, such as enjoying the taste and fulfilling other physical pleasures[1]. According to the Jewish view, wine should help one in his in service of HaShem. When the Psalmist wrote[2] "wine gladdens the hearts of men", he is referring specifically to the happiness and inspiration which wine offers when being used to fulfill religious obligations. Only when one is sitting at the Passover meal and drinking the four cups in reminisce about the exodus from Egypt, or when one completes one’s an entire meal only to thank HaShem over a cup of wine, does wine possess its spiritually up-lifting properties. In this, the power of wine is comparable to the effects of learning Torah, for it is also written concerning the study of Torah[3], “the laws of HaShem are righteous, and cause rejoicing in the heart.” However, unlike Torah-learning, the physical excitement resulting from wine is artificial because it is physically inspired and, therefore, it does not cause a real inner joy. Indeed, Rabbi Yehudah Low (1525-1609), the Maharal of Prague, said[4] about wine that it strengths a person's power, warms his natural feelings, and rejoices his spirit. However, this excitement from wine is artificial because it is physically inspired and therefore it does not cause a real joy. This is why the sacrifices offered by Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, were rejected, because they were not brought from a joy caused by the soul, but rather from a drunken excitement[5]. This idea serves as the basis for the paragraph in Leviticus forbids a Kohen from performing the services in the Temple while intoxicated[6].

The numerical value of the Hebrew word for wine, Yayin, is seventy. This represents the seventy nations (frequently mentioned in Rabbinic literature)[7] and the way they use wine for pleasure in comparison to HaShem's chosen people. This difference between the outlook on wine of the Jews and those of the gentiles was one of the main causes of the rabbinic ban which prohibited even merely deriving benefit from wine of a gentile[8]. This still holds true nowadays with the bars, college dorms, and other social meeting joints where gentiles gather to drink alcoholic beverages in a social setting. There is a famous idea that many mixed marriages begin with mixed drinking; in fact, the Talmud[9] writes that the rabbis forbid the wine of a gentile as a means of curbing intermarriage. The sages also compared gentile wine to sacrifices offered to idolatry and therefore prohibited the wine of Idol Worshippers and all gentiles[10]. They were so stringent in their decree that they not only prohibited drinking such wine, but merely enjoying any benefit from such wine was outlawed because drinking wine together can lead, heaven forbid, to intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews[11]. Just as a Nazirite cannot even eat grapes or the skins of grapes because it may cause or tempt him to drink wine[12], a gentile’s wine might lead to mixed marriages, so it is forbidden. In one story of Chanukah, Yehudis (Judith) is able to kill the Syrian-Greek king Helefornes because he is intoxicated with wine. Thus, she is able to avoid rape by causing her would-be rapist to use wine as a physical pleasure, which was his downfall. Even one of the righteous men of his generation[13], Noah, used wine in such a fashion[14], and this was a cause for his castration by his son. For this, he was “insulted” by G-d and was called “a man of the earth”[15] as opposed to Moses who was styled, “a man of G-d[16]”.

In discussing this mistake of Noah, the Zohar writes[17] that wine and service of heaven cannot coexist. Indeed since the beginning of humanity, wine has been linked with sin. The Talmud records[18] the opinion of Rabbi Meir who believes that the Tree of Knowledge from which Adam had sinned by consuming its fruit was actually a grapevine, for nothing brings suffering into the world as wine does. However, the Zohar also states[19], “there is not holiness except with wine, and there is no blessing, except with wine, in a place where joy dwells.” Furthermore, the Talmud[20] says that the ultimate reward in the World to Come will be wine that has been aged since the beginning of time, this passage views wine in a positive fashion. The seemingly contradictory attitudes concerning wine as exhibited in the Talmud and Zohar again show the duality of this drink. While the former statements refer to wine in its usage as an agent for sin, the latter statement refers to wine when used properly to enjoy HaShem’s commandments. Maimonides also makes[21] this distinction and explains that one should serve HaShem out of happiness, but not out of drunkenness and frivolity.

Rabbi Eliyahu Haouzi of Strasbourg, France also discusses[22] the dual components within the Jewish ideology of wine. The drinking of wine has been associated with almost all pre-Sinaitic biblical figures. When Abraham greeted Malchizedek, wine and bread was exchanged[23] by the two. Issac was served wine by his youngest son Jacob[24], in preparation for the latter's blessings as the holder of the firstborn right. Jacob also received wine after being reunited with his son Joseph, so that his mind may be settled[25]. After Joseph's brothers sold Joseph, the Midrash says that they did not drink wine until they dined with Joseph in Egypt[26]. When Judah was blessed upon his father's deathbed, Judah was twice blessed with wine[27]. The Midrash understands[28] that "bring me to the house of wine"[29] as the Jews requested of HaShem, refers to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and the "house of wine" is Mount Sinai itself. Rabbi Haouzi says that even though the great forefathers of Judaism clearly drank wine, wine is also associated in the Torah with sin. This again exhibits a recurrence of the above-mentioned dichotomy in Jewish outlook concerning the positive or negative rank of wine.

As mentioned above, Adam, Noah, Nadab, and Abihu, sinned through misusages of wine. When Lot committed incest with his two daughters, he did so only after having drunk wine[30]. Rashi explains[31] that Esau wished to sell his birthright to Jacob because he wanted to drink to his heart's content and not have to be responsible by making sure he did not serve HaShem while drunk. In this, Esau, the father of criminals, misused wine. The Torah also recognizes the potential misuse of wine on the part of Jews and therefore details the laws of the Sotah, a suspected adulteress, who the Talmud explains[32] sins because of wine, and the Ben Sorrer U'moreh, the rebellious son, who stole and drank an excessive amount of meat and wine[33]. Rashi explains[34] that the Ten Tribes were exiled by King Sennecharib of Assyria before the tribes of the Judah and Benjamin because they sinned with wine. These concepts imply a negative connotation associated with wine. The duality of wine is also evident from one passage in the Talmud[35] which says that wine was only created to comfort mourners, payback the wicked, and cause poverty and sadness. Wine is used by HaShem as retribution to the wicked when causing their wine to turn into vinegar as Rashbam[36] explains that the vinegarization of a vintner's wine is caused by some sin which he had committed[37]. Indeed, when the wines of Rav Huna went sour/bad, he was told that it was because of a sin which he must have committed[38]. Yet, the same Talmudic passage says that wine makes people happy, gives its consumer certain qualities needed in a leader, and was even the source of Rabbah's wisdom. The reconciliation between all these seemingly conflicting ideals is that wine is a positive force when used properly, but when abused, wine has a negative and dangerous aspect about it.

The Talmud says that one who uses wine to ease one’s mind and comfort one’s self has the wisdom of seventy elders[39]. Similarly, the Talmud says[40] that one who drinks wine, even if his heart is as blocked as a virgin, will becomes wiser. However, these intelligence-producing properties of wine are only present if the wine is used in controlled moderation[41], as Rabbi Meir HaLevi Abulafia (1170-1244) pointed out in the context of the latter Talmudic quotation[42], drinking a lot of wine makes one become stupid. Indeed the Midrash elaborates[43] on the imagery of one in a drunken stupor; the Midrash says that before one drinks wine, he is as innocent as a lamb that knows nothing and is as still as a sheep, before the arrival of its shearers, who does not know of its own fate. If he drinks a certain amount of wine, he becomes strong like a lion who will declare that no one is like itself in the world. If he drinks excessively, he becomes like a pig that dirties itself in its own urine and defecations. If he becomes drunk, he becomes like a monkey who drunkenly dances in front of all, laughs uncontrollably, emits profanities from its mouth, and is no longer aware of what it is doing.

A Jew uses wine at all points of his life. This is because a Jewish person can learn much from wine. Scientifically, wine is a living "mold" which represents a living person[44]. Wine starts out as a grape much a human starts out as an egg. Then grape juice, an inferior product, is extracted from the grape just as the human body of a baby, an inferior product, emerges from his or her mother’s womb. Through different struggles and challenges, this baby grows into an adult, similar to wine’s fermentation process. The external factors in a human’s life are represented in wine by the yeast. As time flows, the wine's taste is greatened and a human’s wisdom and perceptions increase. Once this process is completed, the wine gains its place in a bottle or a person receives his portion in the World to Come. Jews remind themselves of this at various points in their lives, such as a wedding or on Shabbos, so that they would not use wine as just another outlet of their physical pursuits. On the happiest day of one's life, or when one finally gets a break at the end of a long week, one could easily forget this. A Jew reminds himself that his goal is not to give in to his temptations in This World, but rather to prepare his or her self for the World to Come.

About the meaning of wine and its use in most Jewish occasions, the Maharal gives an interesting explanation: While all physical desires lose strength as time passes, spiritual concepts gain strength. Wine is the only physical object that shares this property of improving with time, placing wine as in-between the physical and the spiritual. Wine can go either way. Rashi says[45] that King Solomon uses the term "wine" in Song of Songs to refer to any pleasure-filled banquet, as is evident from its usage in the book of Esther. Gersonides adds[46] that King Solomon compares wine to all bodily pleasures and stimulants. However, all this seems to contradict the fact that the Talmud understands[47] that "wine" as used in the second verse of Song of Songs is actually talking about Torah! The comparison can be understood that just as wine leaves an impression on a person by making him drunk, Torah leaves an impression on a person by causing others to call him a scholar and regard him with honor. The Babylonian Talmud records[48] a conversation in which Elijah the Prophet tells an Amora, that if one refrains from drinking wine, he refrains from sin. This refers to drinking wine as a physical enjoyment. Hopefully with HaShem's help the world shall merit the coming of Elijah the Prophet who will herald the coming of the Messiah afterwhich wine will be used as a spiritual object for pouring the libations on the alter in the Holy Temple, may it be rebuilt speedily in our days: Amen.

[1] See “Jews and the Booze” by Uzi Silber printed in The Forward (October 8, 2010) who explores the sociological phenomenon of the fact that Jews are less likely to be alcoholics than their non-Jewish counterparts.

[2] Psalms 104:15

[3] Psalms 19:9

[4] Chiddushei Aggados (Maharal ) to Sanhedrin 70a

[5] See Leviticus 10:1-11 and Rashi to Leviticus 10:2

[6] Leviticus 10:12-15

[7] Shir HaShirim Rabbah to Song of Songs 1:2

[8] As discussed extensively in Tractate Avodah Zarah

[9] Shabbos 17b

[10] Avodah Zarah 29b

[11] See Shabbos 17b and Avodah Zarah 59a

[12] See Numbers 6:3-4

[13] Genesis 6:9

[14] See Rashi to Genesis 9:20 who said that Noah profaned himself by rushing to plant a vineyard as the first planting in the post-Deluge world.

[15] Genesis 9:20

[16] Deuteronomy 33:1

[17] Zohar Chadash Noach 22b

[18] Brachos 40a

[19] Bamidbar 189b

[20] Brachos 34b

[21] Laws of Yom Tov 6:20

[22] See introduction to Yayin Malchus

[23] Genesis 14:18

[24] Genesis 27:25

[25] See Rashi to Genesis 45:23

[26] See Rashi to Genesis 43:34

[27] Genesis 49:11-12

[28] Song of Songs Rabbah §2

[29] Songs of Songs 2:4

[30] Genesis 19:32

[31] To Genesis 25:32

[32] Sotah 2a

[33] See Rashi to Deuteronomy 21:18

[34] To Genesis 9:21

[35] Sanhedrin 70a

[36] To Bava Basra 96b

[37] See Maharsha to Bava Basra 98a who explains that a righteous man is comparable to wine while a wicked man is comparable to vinegar which is wine that has becomes soured and putrid.

[38] Brachos 5b

[39] Eruvin 65a

[40] Bava Basra 12b

[41] The distinction between a small amount of wine and a lot of wine is also halachik because Tosafos say (To Brachos 35b) that one is not allowed to drink a little bit of wine on the eve of Passover so that he will have an appetite for the Passover Seder, but one is allowed to drink a lot of wine on Erev Pesach because a lot of wine gives one a greater appetite, but does not satiate it.

[42] Yad Ramah to Bava Basra 12b

[43] Midrash Tanchuma, Genesis §13

[44] Technically, a person is actually highly dissimilar to wine. Aside from their obvious inherent technical differences (i.e. wine is essentially a liquid, a human is basically a solid; wine is naturally motionless without gravity, while most humans can move at will; humans can think, touch, taste, smell, and hear, but wine cannot, etc….), they are even different in their periods of existence. A human’s power weakens with age contrary to the essence and potency of wine that sharpens with time. In its early stages, wine must not be exposed to the oxygen in air. This is in stark contrast to a human body (baby) who immediately upon birth requires oxygen for the rest of life. If wine spoils then it is no longer called wine, rather it becomes vinegar. Nonetheless, if humans are “spoiled” then they are still called people (albeit they are spoiled and are thus considered prude, selfish, and egotistical people). After considering these facts, the wide gap between wine and people broadens. Nonetheless, the theoretical and philosophical similarities still stand.

[45] To Shir HaShirim 1:2

[46] Ralbag to Song of Songs 1:2 (see also RadaQ)

[47] Avodah Zarah 35a

[48] Brachos 5b

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