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Shemini – Is wine good or bad?

Apr 13, 2023

As this week’s Torah portion Shemini opens, we read of the end of the opening ceremonies of the Tabernacle. Much of our portion tells of the events of the eighth day of the consecration. Toward the end of this section, the following law is related:

“God spoke to Aaron saying, ‘Do not drink wine or any other intoxicant, you and your sons with you when you enter the Tent of Meeting (i.e. the Tabernacle) and you will not die. This is an everlasting statute throughout your generations. And to distinguish between what is sacred and what is mundane, between what is impure and what is pure. And to teach the Children of Israel all of the statutes that God spoke to them through Moses.’” (Leviticus 10:8-11)

The law here is simple. No drinking of wine or any other intoxicant by any of the priests is allowed either while serving in or immediately prior to entering the Tabernacle and the Temple in Jerusalem in the future. This is certainly an understandable law. We wouldn’t want any drunk priests performing the services.

Based on this law we might assume that wine has no place in Temple services. This would make wine similar to honey and leaven – as we discussed a few weeks ago – in Leviticus 2:11-13. Of course, this is not the case. Wine is, in fact, a central component of many Temple offerings. Most notably, the daily offering brought in the morning and afternoon included a wine libation.

While wine is to be offered as a libation in many offerings – public as well as private – no wine is ever drunk as part of any temple service. It is important to note that many of the offerings are meant to be eaten. Many of the animal offerings are eaten. Meal offerings are eaten as well. Wine, while offered, is never consumed.

This leads to a simple question. Is wine good or bad? If it is offered in the Temple, it must be good. If we are forbidden to drink it in the Temple, perhaps it is bad.

In his comments on the daily offering, Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch, the leading rabbi in the German Jewish community in the 19th century, explained the symbolism of the three ingredients in the daily offering: flour, oil, and wine. Flour represents basic sustenance. Oil represents wealth. Wine represents joy. The purpose of the daily offering is to attribute all of these to God. By bringing this offering daily, we are thanking God for our daily bread (flour), our wealth (oil), and all our joy (wine).

Rabbi Hirsch’s comment reminds us of the verse in Psalm 104.

He makes grass grow for the cattle, and vegetation for the labor of man, for bringing forth bread from the earth. And wine which gladdens man’s heart, oil to make their faces shine, and bread that sustains their hearts. – Psalm 104:14-15

By offering wine we are stating that we attribute all joy to God.

While wine certainly brings joy to people, it does so by altering our senses. If reality as I perceive it is enough to bring me to a joyous state, then I do not require wine. Wine will certainly enhance my joy, but I don’t need it. It is only when reality on its own does not bring me joy that wine is needed to produce feelings of joy. The Jewish sages in the Talmud expressed this idea in the following passage:

“Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira states: ‘When the Temple was standing there was no joy without meat. Now that the Temple is no longer standing, there is no joy without wine.’”(Pesachim 109a)

When the Temple is standing and our relationship to God can be expressed in its ideal form, reality as it is allows for joy. However, in the absence of a Temple, the only hope for joy comes by altering our senses. Reality as it is without a Temple does not allow for joy. It must be enhanced by wine.

Altering our senses with wine in order to feel joyous is not necessarily a bad thing. When we drink wine, we feel happier about whatever we are celebrating. If my favorite sports team just won a championship and I drink, I will feel even happier that they won. If I am drinking four cups of wine on Passover as we retell the story of God’s redemption of Israel from Egypt, I will become even more joyous in my praise of God due to the wine.

It makes sense then that while wine enhances feelings of joy, drinking it is forbidden during Temple service. To drink wine while drawing close to God in the Temple would imply that the experience of closeness to God is not sufficient on its own to bring us joy. The lesson here is that there is no greater joy than the experience of drawing close to God in His service. No artificial joy-enhancer is necessary.

Torah vs. Paganism

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that the great 12th-century scholar, Maimonides, in the Guide of the Perplexed (section III, chs. 45-46), maintains that many of the laws regarding the sacrifices were commanded in order to contradict and counteract the beliefs and practices of ancient pagans.

Maimonides offers many examples of this phenomenon in his book. Although he does not mention the prohibition of drinking wine in this context, this law fits nicely into his understanding.

Wine libations were common in virtually all ancient mid-eastern religious sects. However, just as common was the consumption of wine and other intoxicants by the priests performing the services in their temples. Various intoxicating beverages and herbs were a staple of pagan service. Specifically, the sexually oriented pagan festivals invariably included conspicuous consumption of wine by the participants.

Among the many mentions of wine offerings in the Torah, there is one reference to the drinking of a wine libation.

He shall say, ‘Where is their god, the rock on which they relied for shelter? They ate the fat of their sacrifices, they drank the wine of their libation! Let them arise and help you; let them serve as your shield.’ – Deuteronomy 32:37-38

At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses poetically refers to God meting out justice on the pagan enemies of Israel. This reference to the futility of their false gods mentions two behaviors that are forbidden in the Temple – the eating of fats and the drinking of wine.

The pagans drank wine in the context of religious service and offerings to their gods. The Torah forbids it. Perhaps the lesson is this. Paganism sees the way to transcendence through the altering of the senses in revelry and physical pleasure. Torah sees the way to transcendence through a clear mind drawing close to God.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and cohost of the “Shoulder to Shoulder” podcast.

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