Friday, February 26, 2010

On Purim, which falls on Sunday, Jews are commanded, among other things, to drink. While all manner of intoxicants will do, pride of place has always gone to wine, humanity's favored escape from consciousness since the dawn of recorded time.

Wine, the Psalmist wrote (104:15), "gladdens the human heart." That's not all it does—which may be why the Hebrew Bible has ten different words for alcoholic beverages. Wine was offered in the Temple in worship, refrained from by priests and ascetic Nazirites. The rabbis accorded it a prominent role in ritual, not only at Purim and Passover but also on the Sabbath, under the wedding canopy, at festive meals and prayers and circumcisions. The Midrash (Sifrei, Eqev 48) compares wine with Torah: both gladden the heart, both improve with age, both spoil in proximity to precious (read: pricey) metals.

Wine had its darker side, too. Talmudic law forbade gentile wine because of its place in pagan rituals. The prohibition extended even to wine touched by gentiles, thereby generating intricate chapters in Jewish legal history. In the medieval heartlands of Franco-Germany, wine was a more popular beverage than water, a major crop, a widely-traded commodity, a form of collateral. Great legists stretched their creativity to permit Jewish communities to sustain themselves economically while maintaining their religious dignity and distinctiveness.

To the South, Iberian Jews, though no less religiously observant, had a less fraught relationship with their surroundings. Philosophers, poets, and even talmudists wrote wine songs in the Arabic manner. While moralists denounced intoxication, kabbalists couldn't fail to notice that the Hebrew yayin, wine, was the numerical equivalent of sod, secret. For the Zohar (III:216b), red wine symbolized God's judgment, white His mercies—the secret being that mercies are to be found even within the severity of His judgment. 

In modern times, wine grapes were one of the first products grown by Zionist pioneers. In the U.S., halakhists during Prohibition strained to square the law of the land with the need for sacramental wine. More recently, kosher wine, long the stuff of nostalgia and shtick, has come into its own, a further sign of traditional Judaism's integration with mainstream patterns of leisure and consumption.

There is, of course, the morning after. For this was coffee invented; but that's another story.

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