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Encyclopedia of Jewish-Christian Relations Online

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From biblical times until the present wine played an important role in the Jewish-Christian encounter. Cult, art, and economy in Judaism as well as in Christianity from antiquity onwards were related in many ways to wine and viniculture. Allusions and references to the consumption of wine therefore are manifold and also symbolically relevant. Israel and the Early Church are in several contexts compared to a vineyard or a grape of vine.

On the basis of stories in the Hebrew Bible early Christianity as well as Rabbinic Judaism embarked on different paths to control and include the regular use of wine in their moral and religious thinking. The danger and the pleasure of wine consumption, already addressed in stories on the drunkenness of Noah (Gen 9:20-27) as well as on the daughters of Lot (Gen 19:31-38), were interpreted as warnings against the unregulated consumption. Although the idea of a time of limited abstinence is expressed with regard to the Nazarite vow (Num 6:2-20), for Jews total abstinence was not considered a virtue, and in the Talmud therefore we read the famous saying that “there is no joy without wine” (b. Ta’anit 11b). In the Bible and early Christian writings but also in Rabbinic traditions and in magical recipes from the Cairo Genizah a moderate consumption of wine is considered healthy and conductive. Only on certain days and under certain circumstances was wine prohibited. A Nazarite abstained for a certain time from wine (Num 6:3). But it was never prohibited completely as in later Islam, after the reforms of Umar I (7th cent. CE). Drunkenness however has always been strongly condemned in all monotheistic traditions.

In contrast and demarcation from Christianity and Islam for Jews only kosher wine is permitted. Wine which is not grown and produced in accordance with Jewish dietary laws (kashrut) is not considered suitable. Wine is regarded halakhically as kosher (“fit”) for consumation if it is produced by Jews or under surveilllance of Jews. While in Judaism wine is a necessity for several cultic occasions such as on Sabbath and festivals, e.g., Pesach and Purim, and several rites de passage such as circumcision and marriage, in Christianity it is mainly connected with the Eucharist.

In Rabbinic tradition though, wine became part of the Seder as well as of other festival celebrations as an element of a normal Jewish banquet similar to Hellenistic banquets. The Babylonian sages suggested that wine had taken over the function of meat within the Seder at Pesach (cf. b. Pes. 109a).

The symbolic significance of wine is well attested in several New Testament writings and is certainly fundamental for the church. Its consumption, however, was not the object of religiously motivated restrictions or stipulations for the common people in Christian tradition. But communion wine should be stored appropriately and kept clean and pure. In contrast, the prohibition of gentile wine or yeyn nesekh, literally “libation wine,” wine that has been poured to an idol, is already attested by m. AZ. 2:3 and is mentioned also in Sif. Deut 32:38. According to the b. AZ. 3b and its commentators any contact with non-Jewish wine was prohibited with the purpose of preventing any social relations with gentiles which might lead to intermarriage. Even trade or any profit made by using gentile wine is forbidden, in the same way as eating flesh from an animal used for a pagan sacrifice. While this prohibition is not directly explained nor does it result from a biblical commandment, later medieval authorities like Maimonides tried to justify the prohibition by reference to a biblical commandment (e.g., Deut 7:26). Others, like Nachmanides, tried to explain the prohibition by referring to customs of drinking. Medieval Jewish wine production in Ashkenaz brought with it a wide range of difficulties with regard to Jewish-Christian relations. The injunction against yeyn nesekh included any wine touched by a gentile. This prohibition affected a major area of Jewish household activity and of daily livelihood. Ashkenaz households and shops were often run with the help of gentile laborers and employees – how could Jews then produce and transport wine and how could they run their kitchen if many of these tasks were being performed by gentiles? According to several sources it was Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitsḥaq, called Rashi (1040/41–1105), who allowed for the first time the trade and dealing with non-Jewish wine or stam yeynam, literally “simply their wine,” i.e., wine made by non-Jews. Rashi himself was born into a family of wine traders in Troyes in the Champagne wine region, and therefore it seems reasonable to assume that he himself indeed was interested in permitting the trade and usage of stam yeynam (cf. Responsa Rashi, ed. Elfenbein, p. 56). Some sources mention that he had knowledge about this from Geonic decisions (cf. Tosafot on b. AZ.57b s. v. la-afuke). But due to Rashi’s commentarial efforts his decision can also be explained by his study and interpretation of tractate b. AZ. containing laws of yeyn nesekh. He established the important insight that “non-Jews” of his days were not well versed in the nature of ancient idolatry. Consequently they should be looked at as if they were new born infants who thus cannot make wine into yeyn nesekh.

Rashi’s permission to drink wine touched by a gentile had wide implications for trade and any sort of contact with wine and wine products of Christians. He also ruled that the transport of Jewish wine by non-Jews is allowed even if it is carried out only under one seal. This lenient decision stands in contrast to the opinion of Rashi’s teachers in Mainz and might have evolved under different socio-political conditions in medieval France. Rashi’s view has been criticized by contemporary rabbis such as Solomon ben Samson and the sons of Makhir. But also the Tosafists accepted the view that the prohibition in the Talmud applies only to gentiles who are not known to the purchaser (cf. also y. AZ. 1,1 [39b]). Many French rabbis therefore tried to demonstrate retrospectively the inappropriateness of the Talmudic ruling. The reason for adopting a lenient view obviously had also economic reasons since the main occupation of the Jews in Ashkenaz in the 10th and 11th cent. was viticulture. Already responsa from Rabbenu Gershom from 10th cent. Mainz mention vineyards owned by Jews. In 1090 the Jews of Speyer and Worms were licensed by the emperor “to sell their wine to Christians,” and the export of kosher wine from Germany to England in the 12th cent. is also attested. According to documents from France smaller Jewish vineyards prevailed, and they were cultivated mainly to supplement private households only. From the 13th cent. onwards there were no Jewish owned vineyards in Germany anymore. In social and economic contexts, where Christians could have used certain wines of Jewish origin for Eucharist, stricter opinions were developed. Until the 16th cent. a significant amount of responsa and texts in halakhic compendia were devoted to the trade of and the dealing with non-Jewish wine. Already in Karo’s ShA, YD 123:1, stricter decisions relating to wine belonging to gentiles or handled by them were explained more moderately by Moshe Isserles. However, most Sephardic Jews follow the stipulation that a person may not drink such wine, derive any benefit from it, nor handle it (ShA, YD 133:5–6). Rabbis from regions in which the temptation to drink gentile wine was weaker issued stricter warnings.

In Italy though, drinking of gentile wine was widespread and the prohibitions and sanctions uttered by local rabbis much less lenient. Some rabbis were even willing to accept gentile wine if there was no other wine available. In Spain some Sephardim used to drink wine handled by gentiles, but many rabbis like Avraham ha-Yarhi from Lunel (end of 12th cent.) opposed this practice strongly. In the 17th cent. Jews in Italy used gentile wine for kiddush and havdalah. Even the learned Jewish elite in this country had gotten used to drink non-kosher wines. An argument in favor of this was that the prohibition of gentile wine was a Rabbinic prohibition, not a prohibition of the Torah – and that the former can be put aside under certain circumstances. Oriental Jewish prohibitions and disputes about the wine trade with Muslim wine can be found even until the early 19th cent., for example concerning the wine produced in the city of Jerusalem.

Other local types of wine and their usage for other purposes were also of considerable significance for Jewish-Christian relations. Diverse drinking customs were of further concern. According to a medieval halakhic Jewish writing, which lists differencs between the minhag of Babylonian and Palestinian Jews, there is reference to the fact that Jews in the land of Israel always poured their wine with two parts of water. Similar customs were already observed by the Romans in antiquity and they were continued in the Catholic mass, mainly with regard to heavy red wine. Local and regional differences in drinking have been preserved for long periods of time until today. Sephardic and Oriental Jews, e.g., still follow customs different from Ashkenazic Jews. Likewise, in the church communion is served in different manners. In countries and regions in which viniculture was very costly or impossible due to cold and wet climate, alternative solutions for the cultic need for wine were found. Already b. Pes. 107a mentions the custom that instead of wine certain sorts of beer produced by gentiles might be used for havdalah at the end of Sabbath. For travellers who cannot transport bottles of kosher wine, raisin wine is a possible alternative. According to most Rabbinic authorities the benediction over raisin wine is the one (borē peri ha-gafen, who creates the fruit of the vine) over regular wine (and not bore ha-kol, who creates everything). In Eastern Europe the consumption of raisin wine became a widespread custom because it was cheaper and easier to obtain. The tradition to drink raisin wine at the Seder was continued by Jewish immigrants to America, even when fresh and kosher wine was easily available. This kind of Jewish wine was also used during the time of prohibition in the United States of America (1920-33). A Bible translation from those times, though, in which every reference to wine and alcohol was avoided, has not been widely accepted. In Judaism, wine is used ritually to point to a non-material reality. Wine is consumed not only on Sabbath and festival days during the kiddush ceremony, but also during or at the end of rites de passage, such as circumcision or a wedding. In contrast to Christian tradition, especially according to Catholic doctrine, wine never becomes a place of the presence of the divine in Jewish tradition. The Christian liturgical use of wine can therefore not be explained solely by Jewish precursors and must be clearly explicated separately. In Jewish contexts ritually used wine is initially considered simply peri ha-gafen, fruit of the vine. If wine is mentioned, fermented grape juice is meant without symbolically enhancing it through consecration. Symbolic interpretations in the Hebrew Bible, such as when the “vine Israel” is mentioned, do not aim at the idea of a transubstantiation of wine in Jewish perception. Although the comparison of wine with blood is well documented on the Jewish side, no change is intended with the blessing of the wine. Sacramental wine was used in early Christianity (1 Cor 10:16) and both laity and clergy received consecrated wine. In the Catholic church until today only pure wine symbolizes the change from wine to blood (“transubstantiation”) during the communion.

As in Judaism, but with different rules, the production of altar wine is supervised by experts to avoid defects. Usually during mass the wine was mixed with water. According to canon § 924 of the Roman-Catholic Code of Canon Law, “The wine must be natural, made from grapes of the vine, and not corrupt.” In many Protestant churches and under certain medical circumstances also in the Catholic tradition, in which only the priest communicated “sub utraque species,” the use of grape juice was allowed. In the Middle Ages communal wine was produced in monasteries, later in smaller wineries. The examination of these ideas has left numerous traces in Judaism.

One topic of discussion that arose frequently in the Jewish-Christian debates of the Middle Ages was the value of two rituals, the Jewish animal sacrifices and the Christian Eucharist. Jewish criticism of Christian wine beliefs focused on the transformation of water into wine (Jn 2:1-12) and the turning of bread and wine into flesh and blood. Many arguments centered around both the suitability and the effectiveness of the two modes of worship. Christians would blame Jews for ritual murder of children (ritual blood libel). Christians accused Jews of using blood for the preparation of mazzot, perhaps confusing this unleavened bread for the festival days of Pesach with haroset, a sweet, dark-colored paste made of fruits and nuts eaten at the Seder. In the Ashkenasic tradition haroset was mixed with wine as a sign of remembrance to the plague of blood or the slaughter of children by pharaoh (cf. Sefer Minhage Maharil, ed. Spitzer, 91; Or Zarua II, Pesahim fol. 117b). In the 14th and 15th cent. Jews of Southern France and in Savoy were accused of having made haroset for Passover with the blood of a Christian.

The use of wine and wine products in medicine has been known in Judaism as well as in Christianity since ancient times. Its beneficent effects on health were known already in the New Testament. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan poured wine and oil on the wounds of the traveler (Lk 10:34). 1 Tim 5:23 says that wine, drunk in reasonable quantities, is good for the stomach. Monks in the Middle Ages continued to use wine in their curative treatments. Wine is often mentioned as a tonic and as an antiseptic in the works of the most important medical schools, for example in the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum (12th/13th cent.). In Sefer Ḥasidim (13th cent. Ashkenaz), e.g., the administration of wine for pain relief is recommended. However, it emphasizes that wine and “the one dealing with women” should always be separated. Medieval Jews believed that drinking kiddush wine or bathing the eyelids with this wine might prevent someone becoming blind.

At wedding ceremonies wine and grain or other seeds were poured on the ground or scattered through the house of the couple. According to Jewish texts from the Cairo Genizah wine was used also for magical purposes and as materia magica. Drinking of wine for magical purposes is well attested in late antique and early medieval Judaism. Also, for divination and prophecy the consumption of wine was accepted. According to a late mystical dream book (Etz Ḥayyim) all liquids are of good omen, except wine if the dreamer is an uncultured person. The magical use of wine was common in Jewish and in Christian communities. On the background of additional piety practices unknown to the older Rabbinic tradition, new ideas designed to prevent kosher wine bidding evolved. One such custom is to keep non-Jews from drinking kiddush wine in order to avoid mixed marriages. This custom practiced by many Jewish families continues the long-standing tradition that the sharing of wine with non-Jews must inevitably lead to sexual contacts. Also, keeping non-Jewish wine and kosher wine separated has different reasons. In the opinion of some kabbalistic authorities, the gaze of a gentile on kosher wine was enough to render it cultically useless. The mythic notion of “gentile wine” conferring impurity upon the soul of its imbiber found widespread textual expression in works such as Menahem ha-Bavli’s Taʽame Miṣwot and Isaiah Hurwitz’s Shene Luḥot ha-brit. Rabbi Menahem mentions pious men who refused to drink wine that had been looked at by a non-Jew, even though it had not been touched by the latter. Occasionally therefore Jewish wine was kept hidden. Wine that did not come from traders living in large communities was often considered unsuitable per se since it could easily have come into contact with non-Jews. According to Judah Loew (Maharal) from Prague nobody who drank gentile wine should hold a communal office. On the other hand it is attested that Christians drank kosher wines produced by Jews and that this wine occasionally was used even for Eucharist or in other Christian festivities. The prohibition of non-kosher wine did not include “boiled wine” (b. AZ. 29b). If there is no fresh wine suitable for ritual use, also heated wine (yayin mevushal) and occasionally even brandy can be used. Boiled wine is assumed to be unfit for idolatrous use and therefore it keeps its status of kosher wine even if subsequently touched by an idolater. The gradually assertive acceptance of yayin mevushal allowed further relief in living with non-Jews. A bottle or a vessel with heated wine may be touched by non-Jews, it may also be opened and the wine in it is considered kosher and may be drunk by Jews. In many kosher restaurants with non-Jewish staff therefore yayin mevushal is served. Although cooked wine is deemed to be inferior to uncooked wine, some of the Rishonim contradicted and held that cooking actually improves the wine (cf. Rosh on m. B.B. 6:10). The cooking of wine does not change it essentially and many therefore held the opinion that the benediction over it should be bore pri ha-gafen. Only Rashi, the wine expert, assumed that the benediction she-ha-kol should be said, because the quality of wine is lowered by the cooking and cooked wine was never used for libations. These discussions reflect again the progressive attitude towards the use of wine. The invention of boiled wine and its acceptance as kosher “wine” made it possible to include it as an indispensable part of Jewish culture, indeed an identifying factor as in Christianity (where the cultic imbibing of wine, even with white or grape wines, is also indispensable). It was only in the Reform movement that distinctions like these became superfluous.

Nowadays even the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement in the US has ruled that non-Jewish wine may be consumed generally. For religious ceremonies, however, only kosher wines may be used. In the Protestant churches grape juice has been introduced in numerous communities out of consideration for people who for any reason do not drink alcohol. Judaism and Christianity, represented in different churches, however, share the common tradition that according to Isa 25:6 wine will be served at the joyous eschatological banquet in the end of days (Lk 22:18; Num. R. 13:2). According to an Amoraic tradition the wine served at this banquet is taken from grapes preserved since the six days of creation and which no eye has ever seen (b. San. 99a; b. Ber. 34b). Wine or at least the symbolic meaning of wine is fundamental to the very existence of Judaism as well as of Christianity. As there is no Judaism without a certain notion of the importance of wine, there is no Christianity without wine.


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