What is Judaism's take on alcohol consumption?
Wine and intoxicating beverages are a fascinating subject when viewed from the Torah's perspective. On one hand, we use wine for kiddush and havdallah on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, and many, many mitzvot are accompanied by a cup of wine. Blessings are recited on a cup of wine beneath the chupah (wedding canopy), at a circumcision, at a Pidyon Haben (the "Redemption of a Firstborn Son"), and let's not forget the four cups of wine we drink at the Passover seder.
In the Scriptures, wine is described as "bringing joy to G‑d and man" (Judges 9:13). And, indeed, every sacrifice offered in the Holy Temple was accompanied by a wine libation. Because wine is considered to be the "king of beverages" the rabbis coined a special blessing to be recited exclusively on wine: the Hagafen blessing.
Nadab and Abihu, Aaron's two holy sons, entered the Tabernacle while drunk and were consumed by a fire that emanated from the heavens.
The Torah extols the virtue, courage, and holiness of the Nazirite who vows to abstain from wine.
So what is wine? Is it a holy beverage with immense powers, reserved for holy and special occasions? Or is it a destructive agent with the power to bring down mighty people; a substance to be avoided at all costs?
Well, a little bit of both, it seems. As we mentioned earlier, according to one opinion, the Tree of Knowledge was a grape vine—and the Tree of Knowledge is dubbed by the Torah as being "good and bad." It has tremendous potential, when utilized properly, and a drawback of equal proportion, if misused and abused. What we use it for is entirely up to us.
Can Wine Be Holy?
I am a Muslim, but I have many Jewish friends. I was recently invited to a Jewish home for a Friday night meal, and was surprised by the "Kiddush" ceremony, which involved saying prayers over a glass of wine. In my religion, wine is forbidden. Does Judaism honestly believe that such a sensual indulgence can be considered holy?
Each of us has a body and a soul. Our body is usually only interested in the material pleasures that this world has to offer - a good meal, an entertaining T.V. show, comfort and gratification. The soul has higher aspirations - it seeks true love, meaning, inspiration and a connection to what's holy.
All religions attempt to give us access to our souls. But as long as the body continues to chase the mundane, the soul is trapped. There are two methods to free the soul offered by different religions:
Wine has a unique property that demonstrates the fact that we need not afflict our bodies in order to tap in to our souls.
Wine improves with age.
Most foods decompose as time goes on. In fact, all physical things do - buildings crumble, clothes wear out, our bodies age. This is because anything physical is ephemeral - it doesn't last; while the world of the spirit is eternal, and gets stronger with time. The one exception is wine. Wine, although it is also physical, has the spiritual property of improving with age. It is wine that testifies that even the physical can be refined.
So what do we learn?
Jews are commanded to drink four full cups at the traditional Passover Seder (meal) and the festival of Purim is a time of licensed alcoholic excess. Yet the Torah explicitly condemns the sin of drunkenness. What then is the truth about Jews and alcohol?
Wine is regarded as particularly sacred and has its own bracha (blessing). Wine sanctifies the Sabbath at its inception (kiddush) and its conclusion (havdalah). The English word wine may derive from the Hebrew yayin.
Jews like to see themselves as restrained drinkers. However, recent statistics suggest that Jews are just as susceptible to the lure of alcohol as most people in modern society, as the parade of overly-enthusiastic biblical tipplers surely bears out!
Only on Purim (when Jews commemorate the brave Queen Esther for saving her people from certain death) are Jews encouraged to drink to excess. One custom even decrees that a Jew should drink ‘until he does not know’ (ad-lo-yada in Hebrew) the difference between Mordechai (their loyal leader) and Haman (the evil betrayer).
Chassidic Jews offended other Jews by praying while inebriated in the 18th century. They counter-argued that everyone should worship God in joy. The Talmud rules that drunkenness is no excuse for your bad actions; even business deals enacted while drunk are considered valid.
And let us not forget the venerated age-old Jewish custom to say l'chaim and wish each other well over a shot glass of schnapps.
Conversely, we are told of the destructive nature of wine and intoxication. Several examples:
According to an opinion expressed in the Talmud, the "Tree" of Knowledge was actually a grapevine. Thus it was the fruit of the vine that tripped up Adam and Eve, causing them and their descendents untold hardship and misery.
The righteous Noah, whose righteousness caused G‑d to spare the human race, was disgraced by excessive wine consumption.
Wine's ability to bring joy is because it relaxes our inhibitions and weakens the body's natural defenses. This "weakening of the body" allows the soul to shine through. After taking a l'chaim one is more easily inspired, because the body offers less resistance. This obviously applies only when one drinks in moderation, and on special, holy occasions in an attempt to make them a bit more festive and to introduce an inspirational ambiance.
On the other hand, getting drunk in order to escape responsibilities we have to ourselves, to our families, and to those around us, is highly destructive. A person who is in an "escapist" mode is a dangerous person, because very often he is also escaping many of the rules that he would be wise to follow.
On the practical side, we are forbidden to pray while drunk and priests were not allowed to serve in the Holy Temple whilst drunk. Even today, priests may not bless the congregation after having even a single glass of wine.
Rabbi Menachem Posner
1) Suppression. By suppressing our bodily desires we can allow the soul to shine through. This means a life of ascetism and abstinence, avoiding the pleasures of this world.
2) Refinement. Alternatively, we can find spirituality within the mundane itself, by being involved with the physical world in a holy and refined way. Then the body no longer opposes the soul; on the contrary, it serves as a vehicle to express the soul's needs.
Judaism insists on the second approach. Rather than suppress the body, refine it. Don't be celibate - but save sexuality for marriage. Don't fast all day - but only eat foods that are spiritually pure. Work with the body, not against it.
The path of refinement is a challenging one, but it is possible.
Just look at wine.
Wine represents what Judaism is all about: the fusing of the holy and the mundane, the spiritual and physical, the body and soul.
What could be more holy than that?
By Aron Moss
Rabbi Aron Moss teaches Kabbalah, Talmud and practical Judaism in Sydney, Australia, and is a frequent contributor to Chabad.org.
Noah was the first man to plant a vine, says the Bible. He was also the first to become intoxicated by its product, leading his children to uncover him sleeping naked. Noah's resultant shame is construed as criticism of excessive drinking.
Lot became drunk and was seduced by his daughters. Aaron's two sons were killed for officiating as priests while drunk. They had committed a sin as defined in Leviticus 10. Likewise, judges were forbidden to sit in judgement if they were drunk.
The High Priest Eli suspected, incorrectly, that Hannah was drunk when she prayed with such fervour for a child at the Shiloh Tabernacle (Book of Samuel). The pious Nazirites (Judges) took a vow of abstention from drink. Yet at the end of the vow's remit, the Nazirite would make a sin offering for having given up the pleasures of God's world. Psalm 104 proclaims that alcohol “rejoices the heart of man”.
Next time we will talk about wine aging... Please drink responsibly...