Bars and Office Parties in Jewish Law

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by Jonathan Ziring1

Editor’s note: Recent trends in Jewish life highlight the very real problems of intermarriage, assimilation, massive loss of Jewish identity, and the very survival of Jews and our communities as an endangered minority in an open society. This raises the question of how to remain separate, numerically viable, and strongly committed to Jewish life and traditional values. Historically the halacha has utilized various principles in dealing with this challenge. The following essay examines one such principle in a contemporary context.

Part I: Drinking with Nochrim: Shechar Shel Einam Yehudim

A. The Talmud

Regarding an ancient rule, the Talmud2 questions why the shechar, which likely means alcoholic beverages, though we will return to its exact definition, of nochrim, was forbidden. Two explanations are provided. The first, offered by Rami bar Chama in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak, is that it was forbidden because of chatnut. The exact connotation of chatnut is unclear, but the simplest understanding is that it will lead to intermarriage. This is also the explanation provided by the Talmud for the rabbinic prohibition of pat akum –bread baked by nochrim,3 and by many Rishonim for bishul akum, food cooked by nochrim,4 as well as several other prohibitions.5 While some Rishonim explicitly explain that the concern is intermarriage per se,6 others suggest that chatnut may stand in for a category of inappropriate interactions between Jews and nochrim that can lead to prohibitions being violated, up to and including intermarriage.7 In the context of shechar, Rashi writes that Chazal did not want people to attend parties with nochrim, as that would lead to intermarriage, an explanation that is accepted by many Rishonim.8 The second explanation offered by the Talmud is that it is prohibited because the drink might have been left uncovered and a snake may have left its venom in it.

The Talmud then seems to rule in favor of the explanation that shechar was prohibited because of chatnut. It records that Rav Papa would drink shechar from a nochri only after he left the nochri‘s store, and Rav Achai would not drink until he returned home. The Talmud concludes that both believed the prohibition was driven by the concerns of chatnut, but Rav Achai was more stringent in the application of the law. Some Rishonim assume it was forbidden for both reasons suggested by the Talmud, and the permissions listed above only apply when the problem of snake venom is not applicable.9 Others believe the prohibition was expanded to include the concern of venom later, but the original concern was only for chatnut.10

In addition to all of the above, the Talmud and poskim forbid any drink that might have wine mixed in, but the parameters of that are beyond the scope of our discussion.11 In many if not most contemporary situations, this concern is irrelevant. Obviously, when there are kashrut concerns, the drinks are prohibited.

The Rishonim note that the application of chatnut in the context of shechar is fundamentally different from its application in the cases of pat and bishul akum. The latter are prohibited when they are cooked by nochrim. Shechar, on the other hand, is a contextual prohibition – drinking with nochrim is forbidden – as is evident by the solutions offered in the Talmud.12 However, it should be noted, that in a sense shechar is more stringent, as the context forbids it even if it was made by a Jew entirely, unlike the other cases.13

B. Source of the Prohibition

Unlike bishul akum and pat akum, shechar is not mentioned in the Mishnah. Tosafot,14 Rosh,15 and others16 note this, and suggest that this prohibition is of Amoraic origin. Rashba17 and Meiri18 argue that there was never any prohibition at all, but rather a minhag, custom. Rabbi Binyamin Cohen19 suggests that this may have been motivated by the alternate version of the text that Ramban20 and Ritva21 both cite, that reads “why did they say (amru) shechar” was forbidden and not “why did they forbid it (asru).” While the Rashba and Meiri are not accepted by subsequent authorities,22 the Rishonim still assume that this institution is treated more leniently than bishul and pat because the source of the prohibition is later. Therefore, as noted above, the prohibition does not inhere in the food, but rather is only prohibited in the inappropriate context.

C. Contextual Limitations

As mentioned, the Talmud has a dispute as to how far one must be from the store of the nochri to drink the shechar. The more lenient position only requires the Jew to leave the store, while the more stringent position requires returning to the Jew’s house. The simplest understanding of the Gemara is that the halacha only requires leaving the store; returning to the Jew’s house was only an additional stringency. Many Rishonim rule accordingly.23 The Rambam’s language is difficult to parse– on the one hand he rules that it is prohibited to drink in the nochri‘s house, implying he would permit drinking as soon as one leaves the house, like the lenient position. He then writes, “however, if he brought it to the house of the Jew” it is permitted, implying that he rules like the stringent position.24 The same ambiguity exists in the language of adopted by Shulchan Aruch.25 Erech HaShulchan26 assumes that both Rambam and Shulchan Aruch rule like the lenient position, while Sefer Bein Yisrael LeNochri27 and Rabbi Binyamin Cohen28 assume they rule stringently. Sefer Bein Yisrael LeNochri takes this to be the mainstream position, while Rabbi Cohen notes that many rule against it,29 and notes that some even had versions of Rambam which make it clear he rules leniently.30 Pri Chadash31 rules leniently, and this position is cited by Darkei Teshuvah.32 Rabbi Cohen notes, however, that even if one permits drinking as soon as he leaves the house of the nochri, one cannot then take the drink back into the house and drink there.33

Even those who are lenient, however, often write that ideally one should be stringent, as it is worthwhile to maintain distance.34 This seems also to have been the Beit Yosef’s motivation for being strict.35

Tosafot36 introduce a series of other dispensations. Tosafot write that if one is sleeping at a nochri’s house, one may drink there because the house has temporarily become like one’s own. Others rule similarly, that a guest can drink, on the basis of eivah – to prevent inciting animosity.37 Furthermore, Tosafot write that the prohibition only applies if one goes in and settles down to drink – if it is once in a while and one enters the place derech arai, i.e. in an informal manner, it is permitted.38 Or Zarua39 adds that when one only drinks under extenuating circumstances, the concerns of intermarriage are mitigated. Both of these are accepted in Shulchan Aruch,40 though the Achronim note that you need it both to be infrequent and informal.41 Tosafot Rabbenu Elchanan42 suggest that it is only prohibited when one goes to the nochri‘s house or store for the express purpose of drinking, but if one goes to eat or attends a meeting and is offered a drink, one may accept it. One could suggest that this is what Tosafot meant when they stated that arai (informal) is permitted. This view is particularly important because Shulchan Aruch adopts it. He also suggests that it is only forbidden at nochri stores that are set aside for drinking, such as bars, but it is permitted in a nochri‘s home. This position is not reflected in Shulchan Aruch.

D. What Drinks are Included?

There are three basic positions that can be suggested. One could limit the prohibition to a small subset of non-wine alcoholic drinks. (Wine is prohibited for other reasons.) One could expand it to all drinks, alcoholic or not. A middle position, which in the opinion of this author is the simplest understanding, is that alcoholic drinks are prohibited and non-alcoholic drinks are permitted. Even within this position, some drinks may be excluded for technical reasons. Aside for this being the simplest understanding of the word shechar, it emerges explicitly from the words of many Rishonim who limit it to shechar and certain non-grape wines.43 Rid44 writes that the motivation of the decree was to prevent Jews from getting drunk with nochrim, highlighting the connection to alcohol as well. This position is suggested by many Achronim explicitly.45 Even within this position, some exclude uncommon drinks because Chazal do not issue decrees about uncommon things.46

Some Achronim suggest that the prohibition extends to all drinks. For this reason, Rabbi Yaakov Emden suggested that coffee is included within the decree.47 However, most reject this position, though many discourage the practice of drinking coffee with nochrim for reasons we will discuss below.48

The third position, taken by Raaviah49 and accepted by Rama, is that only a specific subset of alcoholic drinks is prohibited – namely date (and perhaps fig) beer, which was a distinguished drink in the time of the Talmud. Beit Yosef50 explains that this position assumes that the decree only applied to those drinks that were distinguished at the time of Chazal. Raaviah himself seems to base his claim on the lack of chatnut that is created when drinking other types of beer. Amudei Esh51 argues textually that only date beer is described by the word shechar without any appellation. Rama writes that the common custom is to rely on this position and drink beer made from grains.

As Beit Yosef notes, this position is rejected by all other Rishonim. However, many Achronim seem to accept Rama. Levush52 explicitly accepts his position, and Rabbi Cohen53 argues that since Taz and Shach do not disagree, it must be assumed they accepted Rama’s view. The Gra54 does not seem convinced, and cites the opposing positions. Pri Chadash55 rejects Rama. Chochmat Adam56 expresses hesitancy to accept Rama’s ruling, but writes that one should not challenge those who are lenient on beer because they have a position to rely on. Aruch HaShulchan57 accepts Rama’s position and adds that whiskey should not be forbidden because it is a simple drink and rum, cognac, and porter, while distinguished, are too rare to warrant a rabbinic decree.

E. Extraneous Concerns

Chochmat Adam rejects the application of this prohibition to coffee and tea, unlike Rabbi Yaakov Emden. However, he closes his statement by saying that even though beer might be permitted, a scrupulous person should refrain from even drinking coffee with nochrim. He justifies this because the practice has led to much intermarriage. Similar concerns are raised by Radbaz,58 who warns that anyone who fears God should not even drink coffee at nochri parties. Halachot Ketanot59 and Shevut Yaakov60 rule that it is prohibited because of moshav letzim – a gathering of scorners. Ben Ish Chai61 expresses similar concerns. It should be noted that this logic could apply to a Jewish bar as well, while the other rationales cannot.

Rabbi Herschel Schachter62 was hesitant to accept the leniencies of Rama. He accepted the stringent concern of Chochmat Adam, arguing that intermarriage is in fact a problem and even coffee should be forbidden in nochri stores. However, he considered being lenient if the reality is that people do not speak to strangers in coffee shops, but rather drink by themselves or with friends.63 As this is often the reality, there seems to be room to distinguish between our coffee houses and the taverns of Chazal, even if one were to include coffee in shechar. This argument is offered by Shulchan Melachim.64 Seemingly, this argument should apply to bars as well, though bars have more of a communal culture, especially near the bar itself. Additionally, it is more likely that the original decree of shechar applies to bars, and not just the ancillary concerns. Rabbi Mordechai Willig also urged avoiding bars.65

F. Grounds for Leniency

Many Jews do in fact go to bars. Some go for social reasons, others for business. My friends who work in Washington tell me that much of the networking in politics happens in bars so it is necessary to go there. Therefore, it behooves us to understand whether it can be permitted.

As Chochmat Adam pointed out, from the strict letter of the law, it is difficult to challenge people because they can rely on the Rama. Indeed, common practice in Europe seems to have followed the Rema, as attested to either explicitly or implicitly by the Achronim, such as the position of Aruch HaShulchan and that of Shach and Taz, as understood by Rabbi Cohen. However, many Achronim challenge the Rama, and other argue that even if we accept his position it is strongly discouraged, such as Chochmat Adam, Halachot Ketanot, and Ben Ish Chai. Social gatherings in a bar, therefore, should be discouraged if not forbidden.

As for business meetings, if it happens only once in a while, it would seem there is room to be lenient based on the positions of Tosafot recorded in Shulchan Aruch. However, Rabbi Mordechai Willig told this author that if a given profession requires entering a bar, one should be hesitant about entering that profession.66 Rabbi Yonah Reiss similarly encouraged going to restaurants instead.67 Rabbi Herschel Schachter suggested that if one really must have a business meeting in a bar, then one should at least refrain from drinking alcohol and should order a soda instead. Based on Shulchan Melachim, we could suggest one should at least sit at a table rather than at the bar.

It should be noted that in addition to Rama, there is evidence that many communities were lenient on this issue for other reasons. Meiri,68 for example, argues that the prohibition is derived purely from custom, and we no longer have this custom. Tosafot Rabbenu Elchanan69 notes that no one was stringent on this prohibition. He suggests that perhaps the prohibition is only in stores, i.e. bars, and not private houses, as the latter are not exclusively set aside for drinking. Another suggestion is that it is only prohibited if one goes for the intent to drink – if one goes for other purposes and happens to be given a drink, then it is permitted. As mentioned above, this may be the intent of Tosafot, whose position is accepted in Shulchan Aruch. His central suggestion is that it is permitted because of eivah, preventing animosity, also a relevant concern even in some social settings.

In the opinion of this author, while attending bars should be discouraged, there are grounds for leniency. While people should try to find alternate venues for business meetings, if one attends business meetings in bars only once in a while, one may even be permitted to have an alcoholic drink, as this may be what Shulchan Aruch meant. However, by sitting down for a meeting, one only achieved one of the two requirements of arai and akrai. One can add to this the concern of eivah, if it will indeed create animosity. As Rabbi Schachter notes, it is better to not have an alcoholic drink oneself. One should ideally avoid the bar and instead choose a table, which can be distinguished from the taverns of Chazal. If one needs to frequent bars to network, there is less room to be lenient because this is parallel to attending a tavern in the times of Chazal. However, as Chochmat Adam notes, there is room to be lenient in a case of need. On all these issues, one should consult a competent posek for both the halachic and meta-halachic issues.

In the next installment, we will continue this discussion and address attending parties.

———————

  1. Much thanks to my chavrusa, Moshe Karp, and my wife and chavrusa, Ora, for studying these topics with me. Thanks also to Rabbi Aryeh Klapper and Rabbi Ezra Schwartz for helping me understand these topics. And thanks to Rabbi Gil Student for his helpful suggestions.
  2. Avodah Zara, 31b.
  3. Avodah Zara, 35b.
  4. See for example Rashi, Avodah Zara, 35b, s.v. vehashelakot. Tosafot ibid, 38a s.v. ela miderabanan notes that on 38a, Rashi, s.v. miderabanan writes that it is prohibited because the nochri may serve the Jew non-kosher food. Tosafot rejects this and accepts the position of Rashi on 35b. Rabbi Menachem Genack argues that Rashi thought the motivation of the rabbinic decree was to prevent intermarriage but the form of the prohibition was that the food attained the status of non-kosher on a rabbinic level. See “Kuntres BeInyan Bishul Akum, Mesora Volume 1 (1989), pp. 84-96, specifically pp. 84-6, and republished in Gan Shoshanim, Sefer Chazon Nachum, Chapter 32. Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg in Shut Tzitz Eliezer 9:41, develops an expansive position based on Mekor Mayim Chaim (Yoreh Deah 113) of Maharam Padua that bishul akum can only be prohibited when both reasons apply.
  5. This may be the motivation for stam yenam, chalav akum, etc.
  6. See a particularly striking presentation of this position in Tosafot Rid, Avodah Zara 65b, s.v. yayin.
  7. See for example Rambam Perush HaMishnayot, Avodah Zarah 2:6. In the opinion of this author, this is the resolution to the contradiction in Rashi noted above.
  8. Rashi, s.v. mishum chatnut. See also Ri MiLunil s.v. mipnei, and implication of Eshkol Hilchot Bishul Akum, Perush Rabbi Yehudah Almandari, Or Zarua 4:162, Piskei HaRid, Rashba in Torat HaBayit HaKatzar 5:1, Nimukei Yosef. Many of the less known Rishonim cited in these notes are found in the Kovetz Shitot Kamai on Avodah Zara.
  9. Talmidei Rabbenu Yonah.
  10. Tosafot Rabbneu Elchanan 31b, s.v. mipnei.
  11. See continuation of Avodah Zara 31b-32a and Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 114.
  12. See for example Tosafot Rid, Avodah Zara 65b, s.v. yayin, Ramban, Avodah Zara 31b, s.v. Rav Papa. See also Piskei HaRid.
  13. Rabbenu Gershom cited in Sefer HaOrah LeRashi 111.
  14. Avodah Zara 31b, s.v. mipnei. See also Sefer HaYashar Chiddushim 727.
  15. Avodah Zara 2:15.
  16. See comments of Rabbi Yehuda Almandari.
  17. Torat HaBayit, 5:1.
  18. 31b. See also Ohel Moed, Shaar Issur Veheter Derech 10.
  19. Chelkat Binyamin, Yoreh Deah 114, s.v. kol shechar.
  20. Avodah Zara, 31b, s.v. Rav Papa.
  21. Ibid, s.v. mipnei.
  22. See Rambam, Hilchot Maachalot Assurot 17:9-10, Tur Yoreh Deah 114 and Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 114:1, Aruch HaShulchan, Yoreh Deah 114:1-4. See also Chelkat Binyamin and Rishonim cited above
  23. See for example Rosh cited above, Tur, Semag, Lavin 148 cited in Beit Yosef. See also Sefer HaPardes LeRashi Hilchot Yayin Nesech, Derashot Maharch Or Zarua 2, Derashat Maharach Or Zarua Vayetze 7, Bereshit 27, Rashba in Torat HaBayit 5:1, Tosafot Rabbenu Elchanan, s.v. Rav Papa.
  24. Rambam Hilchot Maachalot Assurot 17:10.
  25. Yoreh Deah 114:1.
  26. Yoreh Deah 114:1.
  27. Yoreh Deah 11:8, n. 23.
  28. Chelkat Binyamin, Yoreh Deah 114: 12.
  29. Ibid, Tziyunim 35.
  30. Ibid, s.v. im hevi citing Kenesset HaGedolah in his comments to Beit Yosef 114:4.
  31. Yoreh Deah 114:3.
  32. Yoreh Deah 114:3.
  33. Above, s.v. aval.
  34. Rashba, Torat HaBayit 5:1. See also Eshkol Hilchot Bishul Akum citing Ratzba.
  35. See discussion in Chelkat Binyamin above.
  36. Avodah Zara 31b, s.v. uteravahu.
  37. Or Zarua 4:162, Rabbi Yehudah Almandari, s.v. Rav Papa citing Sefer HaTerumot. Rokeach, 491, and Rabbenu Yerucham in Issur VeHeter 65 suggest this as well. See also Hagahot Maimoniot Hilchot Maachalot Assurot 17:10.
  38. See also Or Zarua cited above. See also Rabbenu Yerucham, Netiv 17:6.
  39. Ibid.
  40. 114:1.
  41. Chelkat Binyamin 114:15, Darkei Teshuvah 114:4 citing Pri Chadash 114:4. While this author think that “infrequent” should be understood in common sense terms, some try to formalize. See notes to Chelkat Binyamin.
  42. Avodah Zarah 31b, s.v. Rav Papa.
  43. Rabbenu Gershom cited in Sefer HaOrah 111, Rokeach 491.
  44. Piskei HaRid.
  45. Shut Halachot Ketanot 9, Beit Yehudah 21, and suggested by Sheelat Yaavetz 2:142, though he prefers the position that it includes all drinks. See Chelkat Binyamin, Tziyunim 12. See also Birchei Yosef (Shiurei Beracha) Yoreh Deah, 113:3, Chochmat Adam 66:14, Shut Rivevot Ephraim 6:79. See Shut Chai HaLevi 4:53:6-7. See Halachically Speaking, “Halachos of Coffee” V. 4, Issue 20.
  46. Semag 148 regarding apple cider, Orchot Chaim Issurei Maachalot 63, Kol Bo, Issurei Maachalot 100.
  47. Sheelat Yaavetz 2:142. See also Beer Esek 105, Ben Ish Chai Chukat 2:16, Kaf HaChaim Yoreh Deah 114:12, see 14. See Pitchei Teshuvah 114:1.
  48. See above sources.
  49. Teshuvot UBiurei Sugyot 1060 s.v. lo amadti. Mordechai Avodah Zara 818-9 (and following him, Beit Yosef) understands this as being derived from Rabbenu Tam in Sefer HaYashar Chelek HaChidushim 727, though in our versions this does not seem to be his intent, nor is it clear that Raaviah was citing him with regards to this position. See also Agudah who discusses the dispute and Piskei Maharamak who rules like Raavyah.
  50. Yoreh Deah 114.
  51. Kuntres Devarim Achadim 16:1, cited also in Darkei Teshuva 114:5.
  52. Yoreh Deah 114:1.
  53. Yoreh Deah 114:22 and n. 52.
  54. Yoreh Deah 114:8.
  55. Ibid 5.
  56. 66:14.
  57. Yoreh Deah 114:12.
  58. Shut Radbaz 3:637.
  59. 1:9.
  60. 1:12
  61. Ben Ish Chai in Parshat Chukat Din 16
  62. In conversation with this author.
  63. Told to the author by Rabbi Eli Gerlernter who spoke with Rabbi Schachter.
  64. Volume 2, page 808.
  65. In conversation with this author.
  66. This was in a brief conversation with this author.
  67. This was in a brief conversation with this author.
  68. Cited above.
  69. Cited above.

About Jonathan Ziring

Jonathan Ziring is pursuing an MA in Jewish philosophy and rabbinical ordination from YU. He has taught classes and lectured at many campuses, schools, and synagogues, most recently at the Columbia University Hillel. He has been a Tikvah fellow, a senior fellow at the Summer Beit Midrash of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, a fellow in the Cardozo Center for Jewish Law, and a fellow in the Straus Center for Jewish Ideas and Western Thought.

5 comments

  1. A friend once told of when he was in a local bar near his university celebrating a birthday. He was considering doing teshuva at the time. The local Chabad Rabbi came in to wish a happy birthday. He couldn’t believe it- such a holy man in such a yucky place? Eventually, he realized he didn’t belong there either.

  2. tosfot’s language “תוספות מסכת עבודה זרה דף לא עמוד ב

    ומיהו המתאכסן בבית העובד כוכבים יכול להיות שמותר לשלוח בעיר לקנות שכר מן העובדי כוכבים דהוי כמו בביתו של ישראל ואף אם העובד כוכבים אכסנאי שלו נותן לו משלו (ושותה) משום איבה

    certainly sounds tentative – do we know what the actual practice was in Europe prior to the baalei tosfot?

  3. You wrote:

    Tosafot Rabbenu Elchanan68 notes that no one was stringent on this prohibition. He suggests that perhaps the prohibition is only in stores, i.e. bars, and not private houses, as the latter are not exclusively set aside for drinking.

    Do you know if any contemporary authorities, such as those who you cited, accept this position?

  4. I have two questions for the author:
    1) What of a case when a bar is all Jews (eg in Israel) – how would this apply?
    2) What makes a restaurant (vis a vis the suggestion of R’ Reiss) different than a bar, if there is an issue of chatnut? I think you started to address this but what makes a bar different?

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