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Alcohol and Judaism: Can Wine Really Be Holy?

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09/18/2009

Well, my friends, a new year is upon us. Celebrations are inevitable: reunions with old friends and familiar temple-going faces, parties to break the fast, and prospects of starting with a clean slate. But how much celebration is allowed? And what exactly constitutes a holy celebration? In this installment, I will be exploring the question of whether or not consuming alcohol is considered holy, or even allowed, in the eyes of the Jewish faith.

To begin, there are an abundance of both positive and negative references to alcohol and, more specifically to wine, throughout the Old Testament and even in our rabbinic traditions. In ancient times, every sacrifice offered in the Holy Temple was accompanied by a wine libation. Because wine is considered to be the "king of beverages," the rabbis coined a special blessing to be recited exclusively on wine: the Hagafen blessing. Jews use wine for kiddush and havdallah on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Many, many mitzvot are accompanied by a cup of wine. Blessings are recited on a cup of wine beneath the chupah (wedding canopy), at a circumcision, at a Pidyon Haben (the "Redemption of a Firstborn Son"), and let's not forget the four cups of wine we drink at the Passover seder! However, there are some pretty ugly stories as well. According to an opinion expressed in the Talmud, the Tree of Knowledge was actually a grapevine, believing that it was the fruit of the vine that tripped up Adam and Eve, causing them and their descendents untold hardship and misery. Nadav and Abihu, Aaron's two holy sons, entered the Holy of Holies while drunk, and were instantly consumed by fire.

When I asked some Jewish experts about this topic, I had a few different responses. Many pointed to the passages in the Bible about the negative effect of wine on the body and the insignificance of earthly temptations in opposition to becoming closer to God. From a close Orthodox friend, I learned something very unique about the relevance of alcohol in Jewish traditions. He begins by explaining to me that each of us (humans) has a body and a soul, and that our body is usually interested only in the material pleasures – good food, exciting entertainment, money, comfort and instant gratification. The soul, however, has higher aspirations than the body. In addition to seeking higher truth, it also seeks true love, meaning, inspiration and a meaningful connection to what's holy. So, essentially each person has an ongoing internal conflict that can convolute one’s true purpose in life.
 
“But how is this unique to Judaism?” I ask. “I know that the Muslim faith forbids all forms of alcohol in order to testify to its followers that earthly desires will deter one from achieving total spirituality with God.” He replies, “Well, all religions attempt to give us access to our souls, but as long as the body continues to follow its path towards the earthly desires, the soul becomes inherently trapped.” This explains why Muslims forbid alcohol consumption, to clear the mind and cleanse the body in preparation for holiness.

He goes on to say that there are two major methods to free the soul that are offered by different religions. First, by suppressing our bodily temptations, we can allow the soul to become free to explore its own path. Taken to its literal extreme, it will create a life of ascetism and abstinence, avoiding the pleasures of this world and concentrating only on achieving oneness with the holy.

Alternatively, by using restraint, we can find spirituality within the mundane itself by being involved with the physical world in a holy and refined way. Once we achieve that balance, he concludes happily, the body no longer opposes the soul but rather serves as a vehicle to express the soul's needs.

Then he turns to me and says, “Now, which method sounds more like us Jews?” I thought about it for a moment, then mumble, “Probably the second one, right?” He claims that Judaism insists on the second approach. Rather than suppress the body, refine it. Don't be celibate, but save sexuality for marriage. Don't fast all day, but only eat foods that are spiritually pure. Essentially, work with the body and not against it.

As I walked away from our conversation, I couldn’t help but start to think about how this philosophy about body and soul relates to Jews drinking wine on the holidays and even on Shabbat. Then I realized that there are some things about wine itself that parallel many Jewish traits. For instance, wine improves with age, much like our souls and lives learn and improve with each passing moment. Wine also embodies a unique property that demonstrates the fact that we need not afflict our bodies in order to tap in to our souls. While most foods decompose as time goes on, as most physical things do, the one exception is wine. Although it is physical, wine has the spiritual property of improving with age. Wine therefore represents what is at the fundamental core of the Jewish faith: fusing the holy and the mundane, the spiritual and physical, the body and soul. 
 
My cocktail for this blog had to embody the themes of our holiday, so this refreshing drink has some wonderful flavors and can be a great addition to any party or a night out, if your bartender is flexible enough to pull it off. Best of all, it’s 100% kosher! Chag Sameach!
 
A Sweet New Year 

2 oz. Apple Vodka (Smirnoff Green Apple is kosher)
½ oz. Apple Pucker
½ oz. organic honey/agave nectar
Or
½ oz. Koval Chrysanthemum Honey Liqueur
1/4 oz. Grand Marnier/Cointreau/Triple Sec
Splash fresh lemon juice
1 thinly sliced apple wheel
Optional: splash of butterscotch schnapps

Add ingredients to shaker filled with ice. Shake and strain into chilled cocktail glass or highball glass. Garnish with an apple wheel dipped in honey or agave nectar and serve. Also try with a splash of club soda or San Pellegrino.

L’Chaim!

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