Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Jews, Drinking & Kiddush Clubs

The popular press, in this case Newsweek, does not always get Jewish practices correct. Newsweek just published a short piece on Jewish drinking and specifically mention "Kiddush clubs." While the article makes it appear that this is a new problem, (and to be fair, it seems that is what they were erronously told by those they spoke with), in fact, as is almost always the case, ain hadash tachas ha-shemesh – there is nothing new under the sun.

First, the article claims that "Jews don't drink – much. Historically, Jews have not had alcohol problems to the extent as some other religious groups." This claim, that Jews don't drink, echos the erroneous assertions of some non-Jews, especially during the temperance movement of the 19th and early 20th century in the United States. Much of the temperance movement was lead by certain Christians and pointed to Jews or more specifically the Old Testament in suport of banning alcohol. One particularly egregious mistake in doing so was to misinterpret the prohibitions of Passover. That is, the problem that some in the temperance movement were required to deal with is if Jesus drank wine at the Last Supper, then how can wine be bad? To answer this, some pointed to "Jewish" practice. Specifically, they noted that the Last Supper took place on Passover, "and we know that the Jews were scrupulous in using at this ceremony none but unleavened bread and unfermented wine." Of course, while leavened bread is prohibited there is no related prohibition on fermented wine.[1]

Professor Hayim Solovetick has shown that historically Jews were involved in the wine business and drank as much as their non-Jewish neighbors. These facts may have affected certain halachik rulings. This does not mean that Jews must drink alcoholic beverages. Although wine is mandated for numerous rituals, according to most, grape juice suffices. For this point we again turn back to the temperance movement and this time the effect of the 18th Amendment. The 18th Amendment prohibited the consumption of alcohol. However, the National Prohibition Act carved out an exemption that allowed for consumption for "religious rites." As a consequence, there was a market for fraudulent rabbis and other religious figures that would permit the otherwise prohibited. To counter these scofflaws, R. Levi Ginzburg,[2] penned a responsum arguing that grape juice sufficed to Jewish religious purposes. This responsum remains the most comprehensive discussion of grape juice in Jewish law.

Isaac Wise, authored an essay discussing the topic of how Judaism views being a teetotaler. Wise rejects this practice. Wise notes that "Isaiah, upbraiding the weakness of his people says: 'Thy wine is adulterated with water.' and the Psalmist sings: 'And wine gladdens the heart of man.'" Wise continues and highlights the use of "mishteh, 'a drinking occasion." Accordingly, Wise explains that since "Moses and the Talmud are not opposed to the use of wine or strong drink. The Jew might consider it superfluous to be more orthodox than Moses, the prophets, or the rabbis of old."

Wise further argues that if the reason for prohibiting drink is due to the harm that may come from overindulging, there is a much more pernicious "evil" that of the amassment of wealth. Wise claims that "the wildest imagination [is] too feeble to depict a mere fraction of the woes and crimes caused by money. It makes rogues of honest men, and villains of generous souls . . . Money makes slaves, hypocrites, gamblers, thieves . . . [it] ruins virtue, beguiles innocences." Thus, Wise concludes that "the use of wine or strong drink as a beverage is no moral wrong . . . the abuse of religion and prayer is worse than the abuse of liquor, [and] the present crusade [of temperance] will not remedy the evil; it is contrary to law and liberty, and it makes us ridiculous in the eyes of the civilized world."

As was the case with Wise, there can be no doubt that drinking has been a controversial topic for one reason or another. One of the more well-known cases of censorship relates to a ruling on wine. The Rama's responsum on the consumption of ya'yin nesach was removed in most of the editions of his responsa. This responsum was so unknown that some charged the Rama never authored it and it was a forgery.[3]

But we need not go so far afield as ya'yin nesach to find controversy. As is mentioned in the article, there are those who participate in Kiddush clubs and, (as would be expected), there are those who question such gatherings. What no one appears to mention is that the Kiddush club is not a recent invention. Instead, from at least mid-sixteenth century, such gatherings took place. Specifically, R. Moshe Yitzhak M'zia (1530-1600, most of his responsa were authored between 1560-80) in his Yefeh Nof was asked

About the custom of the bachurim on Shabbat to leave the synagogue after the Torah is removed from the ark to drink whisky before the mussaf, is this permitted?

If they do not sit down for a meal this is permitted because the law does not follow Rav Huna who prohibits tasting prior to mussaf.[4]

According to this responsum, groups would leave to drink during the prayers.[5][5] From this responsum we can glean a few important facts about the custom during that period. First, such gatherings probably would not be called Kiddush clubs because they did not make Kiddush at all. Second, R. M'zia does not condemn the practice and expresses no outrage or suggestion that it stop. Instead, it appears so long as it was halachikally ok, R. M'zia was unwilling to challenge this practice.



[1] For more on the topic of unfermented wine (raisin wine) on Passover and its connection with the temperance movement see Jonathan Sarna, "Passover Raisin Wine, The American Temperance Movement, and Mordechai Noah," HUCA, 59 (1988), 269-88. Additionally, see the fascinating article by Hannah Sprecher, "'Let Them Drink and Forget Our Poverty': Orthodox Rabbis React to Prohibition," American Jewish Archives 43:2 (Fall-Winter, 1991): 134–179. Sprecher discusses the one Orthodox response to Ginzberg. Id. at 158. See, as well, Marni Davis, "'On the Side of Liquor': American Jews and the Politics of Alcohol, 1870-1936," (PhD dissertation, Emory University, 2006), esp. chap. five ("'A House Divided Against Itself': American Jews Respond to Prohibition"), 190-250. Finally, see J. David Bleich, Contemporary Halakhic Problems, vol. V, 2005, chap. viii, "The Whiskey Brouhaha," where he takes issue with the monkier used by a drinking club - the Glatt Cigar Society.

Aside from actually drinking, Jews also authored parodies on drinking. One such parody is devoted to prohibition Gerson Kiss, Massekhet Prohibishon (Brooklyn, 1929), a description of which is found in in Sharon Liberman Mintz & Gabriel M. Goldstein, eds., Printing the Talmud: From Bomberg to Schottenstein (New York: Yeshiva University Museum, 2005), 300. And, Y. Friedlander, the possible author of the well-known forgery Yerushalim on Seder Kodshim, also authored a drinking parody. This parody, however, focused on the hassidic custom of drinking for the purposes of tikkun. The parody is titled Sefer ha-Tikkun and is a "Shulhan Orakh" on all the various times and occasions to make a tikkun. See Baruch Oberlander, "Ha-Yerushalmi le-Seder Kodshim vehaMotzei le-Or Shelo," Or Yisrael 15 (1999), 174-75; see also Boaz Haas, Ke-Zohar ha-Rakiyah, Jerusalem, 2008, 353 n.330 who also discusses the Sefer ha-Tikkun. For other examples of parodies see Eliezer Brodt's post on the topic here.

[2] As an aside, it worth noting that Ginzburg was originally a student of Telz Yeshiva and later in life went on to teach at JTS. However, after Telz relocated to the United States, he helped with the publication of the Teshuvot R. Eliezer from R. Eliezer Gordon, Rosh ha-Yeshiva of Telz. Ginsburg was thanked in the back of this edition in a full page, it appears that in some copies, (perhaps those disturbed to Telz students) Ginzberg's name was pasted over. Additionally, on the topic of Ginzburg and Telz Yeshiva, Ginzburg authored an excellent five volume work on the Yerushalmi, Pirushim ve-Hiddushim al ha-Yerushalmi. R. Gifter and Ginzberg carried on a correspondence regarding this work which still remains in manuscript - but is facinating in its content.

[3] See Y.S. Speigel, Amudim be-Tolodot Sefer ha-Ivri Ketivah ve-haTakah, Ramat Gan, 2005, 273 and the notes therein.

[4] This responsum was first published by Assaf in his Mekorot l'Tolodot ha-Hinukh be-Yisrael, (in the original version it appears in vol. 4. no. 39:6, p. 43 and in the latest version, edited by Shmuel Glick, Jerusalem, 2002, it appears in vol. 1. P. 111). R. M'zia's responsa remained in manuscript until 1986 when Mechon Yerushalim published them. This edition includes a biography of R. M'zia by Professor Eric Zimmer. Additionally, Zimmer authored an article on M'zia. See E. Zimmer, "The book Yefeh Nof of R. Yitzhak M'zia," Kiryat Sefer 56 (1981), 529-545; E. Zimmer, Gahalaton shel Hakhamim, Jerusalem, 1999, 84-105.

[5] This is distinct from the custom of stopping the prayers and everyone, not just the bachurim, going home to eat a snack and then study prior to the start of the Torah reading; this custom is discussed at length by R. Y Goldhaver. See R. Y. Goldhaver, Minhagei ha-Kehilot, Jerusalem, 2005, vol. 1, 200-208. R. Goldhaver's work includes notes by the prolific and encyclopedic R. Shmuel Ashkenazi. On this topic of taking a break during services, Ashkenazi notes that Goldhaver made a common bibliographic mistake of attributing the Shu"t Hut ha-Meshulush to the author of the Tashbetz, R. Shimon b. Tzemach Duran, because both works were published together. See R. Shmuel Ashkenazi comments id., vol. 2, 316.

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