Wine For Jews

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I have studiously avoided developing a taste for wine, but not for the obvious reason. R. Mordechai Willig often exhorts his listeners to avoid alcohol other than the bare minimum necessary for religious requirements. Like the nazirite of old, we who see so much promiscuity must also foreswear liquor (see Rashi to Num. 6:1). I cannot live up to R. Willig’s standard but attempt to follow it in spirit, sticking to a one-drink limit.

However, despite being raised by wine lovers, I have consciously avoided appreciating fine wine for even my single drink. The reason is simple: I can’t afford the expensive habit. I prefer to spend what little discretional spending I have on books rather than delicacies, expanding my mind rather than my palate. Instead I stick to one or two wines and drinks that I know and try not to learn too much about the qualities and differences of drinks. But, not only does my careful balance fail R. Willig’s concerns, it also leaves me bereft of the spiritual benefits of wine appreciation.

Irving Langer’s The Kosher Grapevine: Exploring the World of Fine Wine is a charming guide to the history of and Jewish attitudes to kosher winemaking, as well as the nuances of different wines. Langer’s humor and clarity allow even an ignoramus like me to learn about wine and his spiritual mindset provides a Jewish context to all his teachings. His meticulous research of Jewish texts provides fascinating historical and halakhic background. This short and easy-to-read book covers a lot of ground.

Langer’s passion for wine demonstrates not only a love for the beverage but an appreciation of it. The Kuzari (3:17) explains that the requirement of a blessing increases the enjoyment. When you stop to think about what you are eating–its main ingredients and its differences from other foods–you enjoy it more. I understand this to mean that we differentiate between foods with regard to blessings–what grows in the ground, on trees, etc.–in order to make the eating more pleasurable. The more you understand fine food, the more you enjoy it (as opposed to salami, in which case you enjoy it less). The Sages instituted detailed blessings on food in order to increase the understanding, joy and appreciation for it.

Conversely, the less you know about what you put into your body, the less you enjoy and appreciate it. If you want to be truly grateful to God for the food, you should learn about it–what it consists of, how it is produced, how it differs from other food. You will not only marvel at the wonders of food development and production and enjoy the food more, you will also gain greater appreciation for the divine gift.

In addition to the many Jewish concepts of wine, Langer’s book will also teach you about the differences between wines. This book will allow you to differentiate, enjoy and ultimately praise God for the incredible gifts of wines. The joys of wine are holy. The only question is whether they are appropriate for our unusual place in history.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

10 comments

  1. Michael Merdinger

    “I cannot live up to R. Willig’s standard but attempt to follow it in spirit. . . ”

    You attempt to follow his ruling with spirits davka but not wine or “in spirit” k’peshuto?

    🙂

  2. shachar haamim

    what is Rabbi Willig’s bare minimum necessary for simchat chag?

  3. Although only tangentially related, something has been bothering me for a while, which I was reminded of this weekend when we visited and apple orchared, which happened to be next to a vineyard.

    There is a gemara (I believe in Menachos) which says that the wine for nesachim had to come from grapes which trailed on the ground, as these taste better. However, today, the universal practice among growers of grapes, including those for the finest wines, is to train the vines on wires or trellises, lifted off the ground. I asumme that the grapes are cleaner that way, although it is more convenient too. Is this an example of where technology has changed, or are today’s vintners simply more concerned with convenience and labor costs than taste? (Hard to believe the latter, given the exorbitant charges for the finest wines).

    Any thoughts?

  4. “grapes which trailed on the ground” in the last post should read “grape vines which trailed on the ground”

  5. What to make of Psalms 104:15?

  6. shlomo karni – how about judges 9:13 –
    וַתֹּאמֶר לָהֶם, הַגֶּפֶן, הֶחֳדַלְתִּי אֶת-תִּירוֹשִׁי, הַמְשַׂמֵּחַ אֱלֹהִים וַאֲנָשִׁים; וְהָלַכְתִּי, לָנוּעַ עַל-הָעֵצִים.
    And the vine said unto them: Should I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to hold sway over the trees?

    Doesn’t wine make God happy? Imitato Dei! Maybe God is not frum enough for some.

  7. “ruvie on September 7, 2012 at 8:32 am
    shlomo karni – how about judges 9:13 –
    וַתֹּאמֶר לָהֶם, הַגֶּפֶן, הֶחֳדַלְתִּי אֶת-תִּירוֹשִׁי, הַמְשַׂמֵּחַ אֱלֹהִים וַאֲנָשִׁים; וְהָלַכְתִּי, לָנוּעַ עַל-הָעֵצִים.
    And the vine said unto them: Should I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to hold sway over the trees?

    Doesn’t wine make God happy? Imitato Dei! Maybe God is not frum enough for some.”

    Talmud says that is refering to the Songs sung by the Leviim and not wine itself 🙂

  8. Wine is a vital aspect of the holy land economy and diet. It plays as central a role as the simple über mitzvah of residing here.

    Oooops, my error. We are discussing diaspora compensations for electing not to fulfill the basic mitzvah of living here.

    אין סוף to wacko chumrot that diaspora Rabbis can come up with to compensate for a simple lack of basic halachic observance.

  9. The חלב of ארץ חלב ודבש refers to white wine…

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