Wine and Intoxication: A View from Jewish Sources

The sages of classical Judaism sought to warn us about the influence of alcoholic beverages, even as they encouraged its moderate use for celebrations.

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In this passage, the author mines the Bible and rabbinic lore for stories and teachings that reveal attitudes toward alcoholic beverages, of which wine is the classic representative. Reprinted from A Book of Life: Embracing Judaism as a Spiritual Practice (Schocken Books).

The story of Noah continues immediately [after laying out new rules for what foods may be consumed]: Noah, the tiller of soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. "He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent" (Genesis 9:20-21).

wine and intoxicationNo life is taken to produce wine [in contrast to the preceding rules about restrictions on eating meat], and yet wine is a potent representative of the complexity of food and drink. Wine is outstanding; both in the pleasurable feeling it can give to the drinker and [in] the persistent and pervasive problems it can create for those who drink too much. Through wine we are to sanctify the Sabbath day and to celebrate weddings. We are told "No rejoicing before God is possible except with wine" (Babylonian Talmud [=BT], Pesahim 109a). Yet the loss of self-respect in drunkenness is portrayed beginning with Noah and continuing in every Jewish teaching on food.

[Among these teachings are the following:]

"We have been taught that R. Meir said: The tree whose fruit Adam ate was a vine, for nothing brings as much woe to humans as wine." [BT, Sanhedrin70a]

"As wine enters each and every part of a human's body, it grows lax, and his mind is confused. Once wine enters, reason leaves." [Numbers Rabbah 10:8]

"When Noah began planting, Satan came by, stationed himself before him, and asked, 'What are you planting?' Noah: 'A vineyard.' Satan: 'What is its nature?' Noah: 'Its fruit, whether fresh or dried, is sweet, and from it wine is made, which gladdens a person's heart.' Satan: 'Would you like the two of us, me and you, to plant it together?' Noah: 'Very well.' What did Satan do? He brought a ewe lamb and slaughtered it over the vine; then he brought a lion, which he likewise slaughtered over the vine; then a monkey, which he also slaughtered over the vine; and finally a pig, which he again slaughtered over the vine. And with the blood dripping from them, he watered the vineyard.

"The charade was Satan's way of saying that when a person drinks one cup of wine, he acts like a ewe lamb, humble and meek. When she drinks two, she becomes as mighty as a lion and proceeds to brag extravagantly, saying, 'Who is like me?' When he drinks three or four cups, he becomes like a monkey, hopping about, dancing, giggling, and uttering obscenities in public, without realizing what he is doing. Finally, when she becomes blind drunk, she is like a pig; wallowing in mire and coming to rest among refuse.” [Midrash Tanhuma, Noah, 13]

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Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan, co-author of The First Jewish Catalog, The Second Jewish Catalog, A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah, and author of The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary.