Kosher Wine – and Following Tradition for Tradition’s Sake
Last year, there was not a single fatality on commercial airlines — and there hasn’t been a fatality on a US commercial flight since 2009. But in 2016, road accidents accounted for 37,461 fatalities in the US, and 335 in Israel.
You may be aware that there is a special blessing called Tefilat Haderech, the prayer for travel, which one says before venturing out. And more significantly, there is a blessing made, usually when one is called to the Torah in synagogue, for surviving a crisis of almost any sort, called Hagomel: “He [that is, God] who is so good to us humans and has been good to me.” It is not a full blessing, but it is a taken seriously by people recovering from illness or who have survived any dangerous situation, including a “dangerous journey” — usually defined as crossing water, mountains or seas.
Surely, the facts are compelling that a transatlantic flight is far less dangerous than a drive from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, or from New York to Boston. So why don’t we change anything?
The simple answer is inertia. We won’t change anything unless we are forced to. Nowadays we suffer from unenlightened religious legislation and a belief that you can only retain or pile on new restrictions. Never, ever change them for the better or more sensible. This is a feature, sadly, of modern-day Orthodoxy. This reminds me of another such anomaly that I have dealt with before on my blog — the issue of non-Jewish wine. It’s another perfect example where both logic and practice demand a rethink.
We are just coming out of party season, the time of year when people drink more wine than usual. But what wine can one drink? Does it have to be kosher? And what is kosher wine?
Let me ask you this: Is your tap or faucet water kosher? Of course it is. What can be not kosher about it? It is possible it contains lead, fluoride, even bugs. But all that does not make it not kosher.
We might understand that kosher food involves ensuring that there is no forbidden ingredient, or that the process has not been compromised by other foodstuffs. But since wine comes from grapes, what could possibly need supervision? Why is it that one can drink whisky and vodka made and served by non-Jews, but one cannot drink wine unless it is supervised as being “kosher” and not touched by a non-Jew?
It is true that some cheap wines have had ox blood and even antifreeze added illegally, and some better wines add animal substances to clear the liquid of lees and impurities. But even if there is absolutely no unacceptable ingredient, the wine is still forbidden.
The Torah forbids idolatrous wine, Yayin Nesech, simply because of its association with paganism, corruption and values we hold abhorrent. Idolatry was such a major issue that anything forbidden because of it was forbidden even more strictly than, say, treifa non-kosher animals. But such wine is hardly to be found anymore (some might argue that communion wine falls into this category). Most wine nowadays is called Stam Yayin, which means ordinary non-Jewish wine. This, as well as bread and olive oil, was the subject of a series of special rabbinic innovations some 2,000 years ago, as part of a campaign to prevent intermarriage.
Wine was the staple drink in the days when water was usually contaminated. The average person drank mead or beer, then vodka or whisky (and now we seem to be returning to water). But at banquets, wine, bread and meat were the essential features, which is why traditionally we celebrate festive meals with these three items, and start the meal with wine.
So to prevent people of different religious practices from sitting down together, the rabbis forbade eating bread, wine and olive oil with non-Jews. Olive oil soon fell by the way, because it would have made any cooking impossible, and bread too would have prevented any traveling on business, so they modified it to allow commercial bread. But to reinforce the wine taboo, they imposed all the strictures of Yayin Nesech, such as not allowing others to touch the wine (which meant not just idolators, but also Jews who did not keep the laws of the Torah).
Similarly, one could not derive benefit such as trading in Stam Yayin. In medieval Europe, Rashi and Rabbeynu Tam actually made a living trading in wine. So that aspect of the law was soon observed in the breach. But one is bound wonder why the rabbis didn’t ban spirits. And if this meant that they didn’t want to be too restrictive, then why not allow wine in a private setting?
Halachically, boiled wine was not considered real wine fit for a banquet and was therefore allowed. There is much discussion about the amount of heat required to make wine Mevushal, boiled. There are, as ever, dissenting halachic voices, but the pasteurising process that most popular wines and grape juices go through is of a high enough degree of heat that it satisfies most definitions of Mevushal.
There are several different approaches to halacha. One is the simple one of saying that if it is forbidden, then just accept it as such without question or even without looking into the reasons and trying to be consistent, or even logical. If the Talmud says you should not leave water uncovered because snakes might spit venom into it, you will find some people saying this should stand even where there are no snakes.
Another point of view would be to examine the reason for the law and then try to be consistent. On the other hand, if the ingredient is not the issue, and only the company, and if one can bring one’s spirits home to drink en famille, then why not bring ordinary wine home to drink, other than that usage has lead to an established precedent? Yet throughout Jewish history, we have mixed with non-Jews, traded with them, socialized with them and even, according to the Talmud, discussed the law with them.
Up until the 1960s, you could have a kosher supervised wedding with non- supervised wine, but no longer. Once head coverings amongst Ashkenazi Jews were exclusively the custom of particularly strict Middle European Jews and hasidim. Times change, and conformity is a powerful tool.
I am not at all opposed to conformity. If one chooses to be strict, then why not? It is when excessive strictness is both pointless and unnecessary that one begins to wonder whether we have become unhealthily obsessive. If I am not in any danger, then thanking God for getting me out of it sounds to me a bit like a blessing in vain.