Liberty to Enjoy With Intelligence
…v’yiyin y’samach l’vav enosh / ...and wine that gladdens a person’s heart (part of a list of things praising God for having made) Tehilim (Psalms), 104:15
Yiyin y’samach chaim / Wine makes life merry (actually a criticism of leaders who focus on partying and money) Kohelet, 10:19
L’mi hayiyin chaim le’enosh, im yishtenu b’matkunto / Wine is life enhancing when consumed in proper measure. Wisdom of Ben Sira, 31:27
Ayn simcha eleh b’yiyin / There is no joyousness without wine. Talmud Bavli, Mesechet Pesachim, 109a
B’rosh kal asvan ana chamar / Booze is the best medicine! Talmud Bavli, Mesechet Bava Batra 58a
“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief. “There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief Businessmen, they drink my wine, Plowmen dig my earth, None of them along the line Know what any of it is worth” “All Along the Watchtower,” Bob Dylan
When I get older, losing my hair Many years from now, Will you still be sending me a valentine, Birthday greetings, bottle of wine? “When I’m 64,” Paul McCartney and John Lennon
Wine, people have both enjoyed it and abused it for at least the last 8,000 years, according to evidence of wine making recovered by archeologists; some researchers believe this date is perhaps even earlier, likely soon after pottery was developed some 13,000 years ago, making the intentional storage and fermentation process easier to produce consistently. It’s more than likely that some sort of wine may have been consumed at an even earlier time than that, when the first beverage containing natural fruit sugars being stored in some skin flagon accidentally fermented into alcohol. This accidental brew or wine was then later consumed by the unsuspecting fellow who possessed the container¾he then enjoyed the buzz that he experienced after drinking it and set about to intentionally create the same results. According to the myth in the Torah, the first thing that Noah did upon the resting of the highly overcrowded teva (ark) on dry land following God’s destruction of the world, save Noah, his family, and a lot of stinky animals, was plant a vineyard, make some wine, get plastered, pass out, and have some debauchery performed on him by his son Ham (Bereishit 9:20-24). And Noah was the righteous man of his generation (Bereishit 6:9). In the pseudohistorical story set in a fanciful version of ancient Persia presented in Megilat Esther, read on Purim, almost every scene in the broad comedy takes place at a mishteh or “drinking party.” Before the conquest of Persia by Muslim invaders and the subsequent imposition of Islam, the Persians were widely known as partiers and wine guzzlers. The tasty red wine known as Shiraz is named for the Iranian where it was developed.
Wine has inspired both foolishness and bravery and served as a muse for the creation of music and literature. Wine has served as metaphor, honored gift, and impetus for legislation, both religious and secular.
In Jewish law, our chachamim legislated that we should use a cup of wine and say the specially composed blessing on it at many important events. Just a few examples of the recitation of boreh pri hagafen and the drinking of wine are under the chuppah in a marriage ceremony, brit milah, Shabbat kiddush, the four cups of wine during the Pesach Seder, and of course the rabbinic mitzvah to slug down enough happy juice on Purim until one becomes unable to discern orur Haman (cursed is Haman) from baruch Mordechai (blessed is Mordechai). The rabbis in general frowned upon excess when it came to imbibing alcohol (with the exception of Purim) but seemed to understand human nature and never considered banning the enjoyment of intoxicating beverages. In fact, they even understood the futility of haranguing and hectoring others on the evils of drink. In the Midrash Tanchuma, there is an amusing story of an extremely pious fellow who is troubled by his father’s regularly getting smashed. He sees a drunk sleeping it off while lying on the street with water dripping on him. He goes home to fetch his father to witness this disgraceful display in order to shock some sense into him. When his father arrives on the scene, he rouses the slumbering drunk and asks him, “Hey brother, where did you get such good strong stuff?”
Unfortunately secular legislators in the past have overreached in their attempts to legislate morality. In 1920 the 18th Amendment was added to the Constitution, inaugurating alcohol prohibition, and the Volstead Act was put through Congress to put it into functional law. In retrospect, we now see the folly of this effort and the damage it caused. These laws both turned innocent people into criminals and gave birth and sustenance to organized crime (today the states of Colorado and Washington see the same phenomena concerning the prohibition of marijuana and have taken appropriate steps to remedy the problem through legalization and regulation while other states have legalized marijuana for medicinal uses).
Prohibition also created the means for what would become a great scandal of the time for the Jewish people. Special permits were to be given out for the purchase of sacramental wine to Jewish and Christian religious denominations. For Jews, the permits would be controlled by rabbis representing the three movements of Judaism. Initially the Orthodox rabbis had gone to Washington and tried to convince legislators to pass laws that would allow only the Orthodox rabbis to issue permits. However, Louis Marshall, head of the American Jewish Congress, intervened and thwarted their efforts. A vicious feud then brewed among the Orthodox rabbinate about who controlled their permits. After much politics and influence peddling, it was determined that there would be four agents, two of them Orthodox, to issue the permits. The Orthodox rabbis had fought so hard over these permits because both were using them as bootleggers, selling large quantities of “kosher” wine for huge sums of money in cahoots with criminals (one example was high alcohol content non-kosher Malaga wine from Spain, which was imported to be diluted after have been given a very dubious hecsher).
This was a tense time for the Jewish community, as the recent influx of large numbers of Jews immigrating to the United States had created a pretext for anti-Semitic agitation. When word of the Orthodox rabbis’ criminal activities became known, anti-Semitic newspapers, such as Henry Ford’s notorious Dearborn Independent, took the story and used it to run articles attempting to demonstrate that the Jews were intent on destroying American values and culture. The liberal movement’s response was to attempt to ban the giving of these permits, and this group began to stress that Jews should instead use kosher grape juice for kiddush in place of wine to avoid this embarrassment. The proclamations on this issue emanating from the Reform movement were not taken very seriously due to the movement’s abandonment of the observance of halacha. Therefore, Louis Ginsburg, who was perhaps the greatest Torah scholar at the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, set out to make an impact on this issue by offering extensive halachic research that demonstrated the permissibility of using grape juice instead of wine for sacramental purposes. Prohibition, though, was soon repealed and all of this became a moot point. Ironically, the very arguments the Conservative scholar Ginsburg brought were those used later by Orthodox authorities to justify the use of the kosher grape juice that today is so ubiquitous at kiddush wherever one goes.
So this Purim be your own legislator. Govern yourself in an intelligent manner and drink what is appropriate for you. For some of us, we can drink just enough to be merry without harm. For others, even a little bit of alcohol is too much. We live in such a world today that most don’t even know who Mordechai and Haman are, so let’s not worry about drinking enough to confuse them. Let’s just have a great time on Purim.
Purim Samayach, B’Shalom,