Yeyn Nesech, Wine Libated to a Power Other than God

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Ha’azinu has no specific mitzvot of its own, so we turn to R. Ahai Gaon, whose She’ilta 162 reminds us it is prohibited for Jews (he writes beit Yisra’el, the House of Israel) to drink yeyn nesech, wine libated [poured or even just turned over; I have heard Prof. Haym Soloveitchik point out the Gemara assumed it could happen in an instant, because the non-Jews of Talmudic times would reflexively dip their hands in any wine they saw and flip some over, an act of worship, rendering it problematic yeyn nesech].

She’iltot quotes the verse Rambam will, from this parsha, Devarim 32;38, they ate the fats of idolatrous sacrifices, drank the wine they libated. She’iltot adds such wine is also assur be-hana’ah, Jews may not derive benefit from it, with Talmudic sources, raising the question of why we have a separate verse about drinking, if all benefit is a problem.

Two Prohibitions On Benefit From Items of Worship

Rambam assumes the Torah established two prohibitions, nos. 25 and 194. Number twenty-five is the general ban on gaining monetary benefit from items of worship of other powers. We must instead distance ourselves from the power being worshipped, the houses where the worship occurs, anything connected to it. That is said in Devarim 7;26, ve-lo tavi to’evah el beitecha, and do not bring an abomination into your homes.

[“Part of the worship” is ambiguous. Rambam gives the example of burning wood for Asherah worship. What if an idolatry gave out a candy to everyone who walked in for services, are those “part of the worship”? We will not be able to be very specific here. What counts as a power other than God is also subject to dispute.

One relatively easy example, whether Buddhism counts as avodah zarah, probably depends on which version one adopts; the more traditional Eastern versions likely are avodah zarah, where the versions peddled to Americans often have the avodah zarah scrubbed out.

Minhat Hinuch 111 throws in the question of land. Worship of land or items attached to the land (a tree) cannot create a prohibition on the land, but he wonders about items used as appurtenances of the worship].

Prohibition Number 194—placed among eating and drinking prohibitions—tells us we have been warned against drinking wine used in idolatry.

Proving It Is Biblical

Rambam cites the same verse as She’iltot and, as if to anticipate objections, sets out to prove this is a full-fledged Biblical prohibition. First, the Gemara frequently assumes one incurs lashes for drinking/benefitting from libation wine. Theoretically, those could be makkat mardut, Rabbinic lashes, so Rambam offers Avodah Zarah 73b, where R. Yohanan and Resh Lakish agree about yeyn nesech’s especially stringent status when mixed with other items.

All but two Biblical prohibitions (the other is produce from which terumah has not been separated) become batel, nullified, if they create no noticeable presence in a mixture. With other types of food than wine (min be-she-eino mino), the standard works for yeyn nesech as well, but be-mino, mixed with other wine, yeyn nesech prohibits be-mashehu, in any amount.

For further support of the claim there is a Biblical prohibition, Rambam notes how Sifrei Balak described the Moabite women’s seduction of Jewish men, where it says their wine had not yet been prohibited, whetted their appetites for other physical pleasures, and the game was on. [Ramban will argue with the proof, so I leave it for him.]

Shabbat 17b does include non-Jews’ wine among eighteen decrees made in the attic of Hananiah b. Hizkiyah b. Garon, an issue Rambam evades by limiting the decree to stam yeynam, non-Jewish wine we have no reason to think has been libated [this Rabbinic rule is the one we more commonly confront with non-Jewish wines today].

For Rambam, a Biblical prohibition on wine used in their services, a Rabbinic one on all their wine. Ramban disagrees, at length.

Stam Yeynam Also Prohibits Be-Mashehu

In his gloss to Prohibition 194, Ramban offers counterarguments for each of Rambam’s sources. First, stam yeynam, wine owned by a non-Jew without having been used in worship, also prohibits mixtures be-mashehu, with any amount. Everyone agrees stam yeynam is a Rabbinic prohibition, yet Hazal seem to have decided it should be unusually hard to nullify in a mixture with its like substance.

Avodah Zarah 56a says it explicitly, yeyn nesech is different, in that the Rabbis decided to be stringent. The phrase often includes stam yeynam, Ramban points out, and Rambam himself, in Laws of Prohibited Foods 12;15 and 16;29 agreed that stam yeynam also prohibits its entire mixture in any amount.

Ramban knows Rambam might reply that Hazal would only impose such a stringency if some aspect of the prohibition came from the Torah. He counters that wine fits in a broader category of tikrovet avodah zarah, items offered to a power other than God (the first of the prohibitions we mentioned), and all such items also contaminate be-mashehu, with any amount. The decree on non-Jews’ wine could have started with that Biblical prohibition, not need another one as foundation.

The Midrash Thought the Moabite Women Were Using Permitted Wine

For the story about the Jews’ being lured into drinking with Moabite women, Ramban is sure the Midrash’s reference to non-Jews’ wine not yet being prohibited must have meant stam yeynam, because we have no reason to think Moabite women had libation wine lying around for drinking parties. Also, the Midrash said “wine of non-Jews,” where it should have said “libated wine” if it meant that.

Their using stam yeynam explains their seduction technique more plausibly, too. They started with completely permitted items, wine with no connection to their religion at all. Only after the men were buzzed (Ramban uses the Midrash’s phrase “the wine burning in them”) could they draw the men to prohibited acts.

Libated wine should have been already prohibited because of the first prohibition we saw, the rule against items offered as part of an idolatrous worship. The distinction seems too fine for the Midrash to have focused on it; in Ramban’s reading, the Midrash meant the women invited them to share a pleasure with zero problems, a gateway pleasure, luring them to then go against the Torah.

[I leave you to consider the many contemporary applications of the idea of permitted pleasures being nonetheless spiritually dangerous. Rambam might have argued yeyn nesech wasn’t considered part of tikrovet until after the verse in Ha’azinu, but he does not say that, nor is it a very strong argument.]

Midrash Tanhuma at the end of Balak supports Ramban’s claim (although Rambam is not obligated to accept every Tanhuma). The Midrash says the women brought out live animals and birds for the Jews to slaughter, knowing they would not eat food cooked by non-Jews. Their sensitivity to the Jews’ standards would make it odd for them to then offer wine they were already not allowed to drink [and also remind us already back then rabbis knew of non-Jews who were perfectly happy to accommodate Jews’ life standards as they drew them away from Judaism].

Biblical Rules Came at Sinai

The most glaring weakness in Rambam’s reading of Sifrei is the idea yeyn nesech wasn’t yet prohibited because it was only said in Ha’azinu. Rambam himself elsewhere accepts the idea in Sifra Behar, that all of the Torah, with all its rules and details, was given at Sinai. Just the verse not appearing until Ha’azinu cannot possibly be a reason to treat it as “not yet prohibited,” says Ramban (he writes “it is not worth hearing”).

Pirkei de-Rabi Eliezer 47 also says the Moabite women incident led to the rules on stam yeynam, an odd connection if the wine used was actual yeyn nesech. [The Midrash agrees the Rabbinic rule did not take hold until much later in Jewish history, which might justify Rambam’s rejecting its view of where it started.)

The Prohibition According to Ramban

Ramban has more questions, such as the oddity of the idea the Torah would prohibit wine separately when it was already included in tikrovet, items offered as part of idolatrous worship, and its’ focus on drinking when it was already prohibited be-hana’ah. To move away from the back and forth, I will summarize his view.

He agrees we may not benefit from such wine at a Biblical level, because it is tikrovet avodah zarah, a contention proven by the Torah’s warning us against eating non-Jew’s sacrifices, Shemot 34;15, and an inference in Avodah Zarah 29b, from Tehillim 126;28. The verse referred to the food the Jews ate at Pe’or as zivhei metim, sacrifices of the dead. Just as we may not benefit from the dead (an idea itself derived from a similarity in wording to eglah arufah), so too from what is offered to powers other than God.

Appurtenances of avodah zarah, by the way, are prohibited because of Devarim 7;25, a different verse and different issue. Yeyn nesech, however, is the same issue, offered as sacrifice to a power other than God, and therefore prohibited in drink and benefit.

What Sefer Ha-Hinuch Adds

The back and forth between these two giants has taken almost all our space. Sefer Ha-Hinuch 111 points out tikrovet includes water or salt, if offered to a power other than God, surprising because they are usually halachically insignificant. He also follows Ramban fully, counting only the one prohibition of tikrovet and not a separate one for the wine because, he explains, it seems to him the more correct way to read the verses (a real mouthful, seeing as he in other places stuck with Rambam’s list despite preferring a different view, because that was how he chose when he sat down to write the sefer. Here, he thinks Ramban was so right, he did not even count the mitzvah).

While wine is the primary example of something Hazal prohibited even when not yet used for wrongful purposes, graven images is another (barring evidence to the contrary), because they are general used for idolatry. With wine, he says, Hazal were extra stringent in recognition of its central role in people’s enjoyment of events, including worship rituals or sacrifices to other gods. Also, since the Torah singled it out (the verse Rambam cited as the source of a Biblical prohibition), Hazal inferred guidance as to where to direct their Rabbinic prohibitions.

Pulling the Value Out of a Mixture

With stam yeynamhalachah allows ways out if it gets mixed with other wine, either to sell it all to a non-Jew minus the value of the problematic wine [to me, this would be a complicated calculation, because the non-Jew will appreciate the Jew’s throwing in extra “free” wine, and the Jew would have to deduct that as well, else he will be benefitting from stam yeynam), or throw the value of the wine into the ocean.

Hazal allowed that only for not actually prohibited wine, or if the actually prohibited wine, the yeyn nesech did not itself mix with the kosher wine (if barrels of wine got mixed up, rather than wine within a barrel). Since the Jew will never benefit from the yeyn nesech itself (if he sells it to a non-Jew in a group of barrels), it is permitted.

The Rules We Are Not Discussing

There are many more rules, such as who renders wine stam yeynam, at what point in the process, with what intent, how direct an action, what kind of Jewish supervision avoids the problem. He also throws in that the verse of not bringing to’evah into our homes has its simpler meaning, too, we must not eat or drink out of disgusting utensils (like toilets).

One or two prohibitions, but clearly yeyn nesech is Biblically prohibited, stam yeynam Rabbinically, with many, many rules about how far we must go to avoid its use.

About Gidon Rothstein

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