Alcohol & Judaism

Wednesday, 19 August, 2009 - 8:39 pm

Alcohol & Judaism


By Rabbi Eli Brackman


One of the major problems facing British society is the excessive consumption of alcohol. Even in a respectable place like Oxford, the problem of alcohol cannot be underestimated.


The problem of drinking is not the unsightliness of the phenomenon as much as the serious health risks involved with young people drinking beyond their limits. At the end of last term, I saw a student being carried out of a vehicle onto the street almost completely lifeless. When I asked if she was okay, it became clear that the girl had lost consciousness due to over drinking. I immediately made sure that an ambulance was called and she was safely transported to receive urgent medical help.


The problem of drinking in Oxford reflects the problematic drinking culture around the UK. According to statistics in 2007, forty two percent of men and thirty six percent of women aged between sixteen and twenty four drink above the recommended daily intake. In 2005, there were 187,640 hospital admissions among adults aged sixteen and over with either primary or secondary diagnosis specifically related to alcohol, compared to less than half that figure in 1995.


In 2005, over six and a half thousand people died from causes directly related to alcohol consumption, and of these just under two thirds died from alcoholic liver disease. Considering the above, should alcohol be further regulated or even prohibited, as certain religions stipulate?


Health Benefits


The problem is complicated by the fact that in small quantities alcohol can be beneficial for health. In fact, men may enjoy two drinks per day if they wish and a woman one drink. The benefits from moderate consumption of alcohol are decreased risk of cardiovascular problems, reduced risk of stroke, it diminishes the possibility of gallstone and it may reduce the danger of diabetes.


This is in contrast to the consequences of excess alcohol, which can cause cancer to the pancreas, mouth, pharynx, oesophageal, breast and liver, and there are a number of other health risks, including cardiovascular and mental problems, not to mention the increased risk of accidents, suicidal tendencies and depression.


This conflict between the benefits and dangers of alcohol is also found within Judaism. What does Judaism say about alcohol consumption? Is it encouraged or sinful? Many of the sources seem outright negative.


Problems with alcohol in Judaism


Genesis (9:18), relates that Noah, upon leaving the ark, planted a vineyard, drank of the wine, became drunk and debased himself inside his tent. It continues that his son Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon their shoulders, walked backwards and covered their father’s nakedness. It concludes that when Noah awoke from his wine and realized what his son had done to him, he said ‘Cursed is Canaan: a slave shall he be to his brothers’, and he blessed Shem and Japheth.


The commentaries discuss the actions of Ham that provoked Noah to curse him, some saying that Ham castrated his father to prevent him from having more children. He was concerned that Adam and Eve had two children and Cain killed Abel. Noah should therefore certainly not be allowed to have more than three children.


It is clear that Torah portrays drinking alcohol negatively. It can cause unethical consequences where the drinker loses control. This ethical reason is justified even if one were unaware of the health consequences related to alcohol consumption.


In the book of Leviticus (10:9) it states that ‘you should not drink intoxicating wine when you come into the Tent of Meeting (sanctuary), lest you die. This according to one opinion in the Talmud is the reason why the two sons of Aaron died at a young age.


The reason indicated here seems to be respect. One should treat the Temple with respect. Drinking alcohol however is a debasement of the self and therefore debases the sanctuary.


A more practical reason to condemn alcohol is raised by King Solomon in Proverbs, where he explains that a person who consumes excessive alcohol is destined to poverty.


Solomon writes (23:20), ‘do not be among the guzzlers of wine, among the gorgers of meat for themselves, for the guzzler and the gorger will be poor, and slumber will clothe you in tatters’.


Another source states (Proverbs 23:31), ‘do not look at wine becoming red, for to one who fixes his eyes on the goblet all paths are upright. His end is like that of one bitten by a snake, like one dispatched by a serpent. Your eyes will see strange things and your earth will speak duplicities. You will be like one who sleeps in the heart of the sea, like one who lies on the top of a mast. In your drunkenness you will say, they struck me, but I did not become ill; they beat me, but I was unaware. When will I awaken? I will continue asking for more wine.’


This source seems to approach the problem of alcohol consumption from an ethical perspective, indicating that alcohol can cause a person to lose awareness of the difference between right and wrong; truth and falsehood.


A final problem from a Jewish point of view is violence due to alcohol consumption. On the Jewish festival of Purim there is a custom to drink alcohol to celebrate the occasion when the Jews in the Persian exile in 352 BCE were threatened with collective annihilation across the Persian Empire for not agreeing to abandon their faith and assimilate. The anniversary of the miraculous survival from this threat is marked in the Jewish calendar as a day of major celebration.


However, the tradition to drink alcohol on this festival led to a violent episode between two rabbis, related in the following reading of the Talmud (Megillah 7b): ‘Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira had the Purim feast together and they became intoxicated. Rabbi arose and slew Rabbi Zeira. The next day, Rabbah prayed for mercy on his colleague’s behalf and revived him. The following year, Rabbah asked Rabbi Zeira: ‘Let my master come and we will have the Purim feast together.’ Rabbi Zeira answered him: ‘Not every time does a miracle occur.’


The problem of drinking to excess from the perspective of the Talmud has thus another dimension: the propensity to violence, not necessarily against oneself - which might be considered less problematic, as in suicide - but towards another person.


The above story from the Talmud is indeed difficult to understand. How are we to understand that Rabbah, who was considered one of the leading rabbinical figures of his generation, stooped so low, to the level of violence in the form of manslaughter through slaying? It is also difficult to fathom how a person who has been decapitated becomes revived through prayer.


The son of Maimonides, Rabbi Abraham (introduction to Ein Yaakov), quotes this passage as a classic example of the Talmud’s occasional use of hyperbole in cases where it is clear that the literal meaning is not intended. He explains that actually Rabbah dealt his colleague a blow that wounded him grievously. Due to the seriousness of the wound and possibly because it was located in the neck, the Talmud describes it as ‘slew’ from the verb to slay, which usually connotes the fatal slitting of the throat, but in this case is not actually what happened.


Another commentary (Maharsha) maintains that Rabbah did not physically attack his colleague but forced him to drink an excessive amount of wine from which Rabbi Zeira became deathly ill. Rabbah then prayed that Rabbi Zeira should not die from this illness and he recovered.


Another commentary (Meiri) explains that the Hebrew word used for ‘slew’ can also be read in a way that in Hebrew it would mean he merely ‘squeezed’ him.


There is a final commentary (Lekutei Sichot) that explains the whole story as a spiritual experience. The two rabbis had a mystical journey through the esoteric teachings of the Torah and while Rabbah was able to remain physically intact, Rabbi Zeira, who was on a lower spiritual level, departed. He needed a miracle to bring him back to life.


Aside from the latter commentary, they leave the basic concept intact that violence as a result of alcohol consumption took place during the Purim feast of two great rabbis.


Based on the majority of sources there is a common negative approach towards drinking alcohol; it can be a cause of debasement, loss of sense of ethics, poverty and possible violence. This is in addition to the harmful effect excessive alcohol consumption has on one’s health, which suggests that it should be prohibited according to Jewish law.


Encouragement to drink alcohol in Judaism


In contrast to all the above there is the clear encouragement stipulated by Jewish law towards drinking wine. At nearly every significant stage of life in Judaism, including circumcision and marriage a blessing is made over wine. Almost every special day in the Jewish calendar, every Shabbat and Festival, is marked by a blessing over wine, including the festival of Passover when there is a custom to drink four cups of wine at the Seder night.


Furthermore, the Talmud (Megillah 7b) writes regarding the festival of Purim that one is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until one doesn’t know the difference between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai’.


How is this consistent with all the above sources that imply an extremely negative attitude towards alcohol consumption?


The fact that there are two seemingly contradictory sources in Jewish thought illustrates that they both must be true. There are indeed severe moral concerns regarding drinking alcohol. If a person drinks excessively for the wrong purpose it can cause immoral conduct and destitution.


If however one drinks alcohol in moderation and with the right intentions, it can make the person more moral, become more aware of other people’s needs, and heighten the intellect.


Most things in this world, from a Jewish perspective, are neither good nor bad. It is within the free choice of the person to decide whether to utilise the world for constructive or destructive purposes.


Furthermore, the Talmud (Shabbat 70b) says that everything is the world is created with an innate purpose. This includes even gnats and flies. Creatures and other manifestations of the corporeal world must fulfil their purpose to justify their existence.


What is then the ideal purpose of wine and alcohol?


The Psalmist (104:15) writes that G-d brings forth ‘wine that gladdens man’s heart, make the face glow from oil, and bread that sustains the heart of man’.


Psalms, in contrast to Proverbs, does not imply any possible negative effects of alcohol but rather focuses on the positive; it has the ability to allow a person to be happy. This is echoed in the Talmud that says ‘there is no happiness (to compare with that is brought about through) wine’. This is the reason why most Jewish ceremonies are accompanied with cup of wine, indicating that it is a happy occasion and we thank G-d with a blessing for the celebration.


This positive aspect of wine is further explained from a mental and spiritual perspective by the great grammarian and scholar Rabbi Dovid Kimchi (1165-1235), who comments on the above passage in Psalms, ‘G-d creates the grapes from which wine is pressed and when drunk in sensible proportions, wine gladdens the heart and drives away melancholy. It heightens the intellect and even prepares the mind for prophecy.’


This commentary reconciles two opposing potentials in wine. When boundaries on not set, it causes corruption and immorality. If however it is taken in sensible moderation, and for the right purposes, not only is it physically healthy, but from a Jewish point of view, one fulfils the purpose of the existence of wine and alcohol – to bring about happiness and draw a person closer to the spiritual.


Comments on: Alcohol & Judaism

Richard Albert wrote...

Excellent post, Rabbi Brackman. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful reflections.

abdulah baba wrote...

sallam Rabbi Brackman,



KPK wrote...

Thank you very much for the article. However could it be that Intoxication to the level of becoming unable to discern between haman and Mordechai, be termed as moderate?!