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Judaism and booze

Thoughts on parashat Nasso

Menachem Mirski

One of the fundamental philosophical and at the same time practical problems underlying all religions is how to control things that are beyond our control. Therefore, throughout history intoxicants received religious, and often legal attention. One of the ways in which our religion responded to the challenge posed by these cheering substances was through the ancient institution of Nazirite, which is quite extensively discussed in our Torah portion for this week – almost the entire chapter 6 of the Book of Numbers covers this topic:

God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If any men or women explicitly utter a nazirite’s vow, to set themselves apart for יהוה, they shall abstain from wine and any other intoxicant; they shall not drink vinegar of wine or of any other intoxicant, neither shall they drink anything in which grapes have been steeped, nor eat grapes fresh or dried. Throughout their term as nazirite, they may not eat anything that is obtained from the grapevine, even seeds or skin.

Throughout the term of their vow as nazirite, no razor shall touch their head; it shall remain consecrated until the completion of their term as nazirite of יהוה, the hair of their head being left to grow untrimmed. Throughout the term that they have set apart for יהוה, they shall not go in where there is a dead person. (Numbers 6:1-6)

As mentioned in the paragraph above, the basic rules of naziriteship consisted not only of the abstinence from alcohol; nazirites were also not allowed to cut their hair or to defile their special status of holiness by contact with the dead. But let’s focus here exclusively on alcohol and let’s briefly discuss its role in our tradition and history.

The negative effects of alcohol were well known already in the very old days for wine was in universal use in the Near East and the Mediterranean basin. However,  what was not fully understood, was the physiological mechanism that caused the irrational behavior of the drinker. It is likely that alcohol was originally deemed to contain some supernatural powers that were in competition with the gods. The English word „spirits” for alcohol, or Polish “spirytus”, testifies to this ancient belief.

The Torah places the use and abuse of wine at the beginning of human history (Noah getting drunk after the flood, Gen. 9:21), and the Tanakh makes repeated references to the effects of drinking. But aside from the special case of nazirites, the drinking of wine was considered normal and proper – wine „cheers human hearts” (Ps. 104:15; Judges 9:13). Excessive drinking was considered degrading and a kind of foolish behavior that may easily lead to impropriety or immorality (Gen. 9:20; Prov. 20:1, 23:29.  Eccles. 10:17). The only explicit prohibition of drinking alcohol was for priests on duty, that they may not die during the Divine service (Lev. 10:9) Otherwise the priests, like other Israelites, were free to make use of wine, which was integrated into the Jewish ritual already in the ancient times. Even the Dead Sea brotherhoods, with all their strict rules of conduct, made no mention in their scriptures of nazirite abstention.

Later Jewish tradition, too, counseled moderation but never total abstinence, and this moderation became an aspect of Jewish social mores. We drink alcohol regularly on Shabbat and other Jewish holidays – obligatory four cups of wine on Pesach, the common minhag of intoxication on Purim aimed at not being able to tell the difference between Baruch Mordechai from Arur Haman.. Sefer ha-tikun, a late 19th-century commentary on the Shulkhan Aruch contains a mind-boggling enumeration of our many obligations to toast:

One is required to make a toast when he builds a house, sells a house, and when his house burns down. One must make a toast when he gets married. If the groom is a widow, he must drink for each wife; an elderly man who marries a virgin must drink forty-nine toasts. If the father of the bride refuses to drink a toast the couple must divorce; and the Polish Hasidim are accustomed to beating the recalcitrant father with his own slipper.

Sefer ha-tikun isn’t actually a real commentary; it’s a piece of anonymous satire on the supposed excesses of Hasidic drinking culture in Poland at that time. The title is a pun on the kabalistic notion of tikkun or cosmic repair and the Yiddish term trinkn tikn, that is, the custom of making toasts in honor of a yahrzeit.

History also brought us a different image – the image of the bad, sober Jew deliberately making „poor Christians” drunk. For various socioeconomic reasons, Jews were vastly overrepresented in tavern-keeping and alcohol distribution. Jews tended not to do the greater part of their drinking at taverns, reinforcing the nefarious image of the Jew profiting off, but not participating in, a culture of drinking. The problem was that liquor was big business in Poland (and it is still a big business today), and Polish nobility profited enormously off its production and distribution. But the Jews were the public face of that industry, leading antisemites to argue that the “peasants only drank excessively … because these bad, sober Jews enticed them into drunkenness in order to dupe them more easily.”

Alcohol has been “culturally integrated” into Judaism since its early days. This might be the reason that among religious Jews alcoholism is a relatively rare problem despite the culture that “expects us” to drink alcohol quite often. The philosophy underlying our culture claims that in order to be able to control something you have to experience it and really know it in the first place. It seems that this approach is working on a more general, societal level.  Of course, this philosophy won’t work in cases of alcohol addiction – it is helpless in the face of brain damage which is the core reason for alcoholism. Complete abstinence is also a way of controlling things we cannot control, sometimes the only efficient one. Thus, according to our religion it is ok to drink and it is also ok not to drink if that’s the necessity. A huge part of our religious tradition is 'case based’ and exceptions from the general rules are not completely uncommon, which is a blessing for many of us.

Shabbat shalom

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.