Off the Shelf: Wine, beer and other beverages by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When you hear hoof beats, do you think of horses or zebras? Unless you live in Africa, the answer for most people is horses. Yet, according to Jordan D. Rosenblum, the ancient rabbis were more interested “in the anomalous rather than the mundane. In short, when they hear hoof beats, they think zebra not horses.” In his excellent “Rabbinic Drinking: What Beverages Teach Us About Rabbinic Literature” (University of California Press), Rosenblum uses rabbinical texts about drinking – wine, beer, water and breast milk – as a way of introducing common themes found in that literature. 

Rosenblum is aware that many people are unfamiliar with ancient rabbinic culture and the internal logic of the written material that culture produced. For those with no background, he offers a chapter focusing on “The Literature and History of the Rabbinic Movement.” He compares looking at rabbinic texts without this knowledge to working as an umpire in baseball before learning the rules of the game. This is the first of his frequent analogies and comparisons, which not only help readers understand the material, but make the book great fun to read. Rosenblum also suggests that the rabbis rarely offered binary answers: rather than a simple yes or no, the answer often is “it depends.” In fact, “for the Rabbis, it is about the journey as much as it is about the destination, so they often detour from the direct path in order to take the scenic route.”

For readers unfamiliar with rabbinic interpretation, some of Rosenblum’s comments may be startling. For example, he notes the questions that arise when the text contains misspellings or grammatical errors. Since the ancient rabbis considered the Torah text to be of Divine origin, they did not consider these mistakes real mistakes, but rather something deliberately placed that needs to be interpreted. Rosenblum writes, “In order to deal with such instances, a practice developed known as qere and ketiv, which is well summarized by the two Aramaic words that form its title, qere (“that which is read”) and ketiv (“that which is written”). This practice therefore results in the biblical text written (ketiv) on a Torah scroll remaining in its present form, while a separate tradition records how a given work is read (qere) when the Torah portion is read aloud.” 

The rules surrounding wine were important because wine was used for specific ritual purposes in the Temple in Jerusalem, and is still used as part of home and synagogue rituals. Rosenblum noted that “the entire process – from the beginning of production to the transport, storage, and eventual consumption of wine – is heavy regulated. At every step of the way, these regulations serve to erect a social boundary, reminding all parties that there is a difference between Us and Them.” One big concern was drinking the wine of idolaters, particularly wine that may have been used as a libation to a pagan god or gods. Another rule focuses on the relationships between Jews and non-Jews: although the two groups were not completely forbidden to drink together, restrictions were placed on when they were allowed to share meals and beverages. 

Rosenblum also writes about beer, which was the beverage of choice for Babylonian Jews. In fact, that beverage was such a part of daily life that there was a debate about whether it could be used in place of wine for saying the Kiddush. (The answer is no, but some opinions say it’s OK to use beer for Havdalah. Of course, other opinions say it can’t be used for either the Kiddush or Havdalah.) The discussion of beer led to another question: what should a Jew do when invited to the wedding of their non-Jewish neighbor? Rosenblum notes that even if Jews bring their own food and beverage, and have their own servants attend to them, the rabbis still felt people should not attend. That’s because sometimes the situation matters more than the food or beverage: “Even when the fear of actual idolatrous libation is removed, the social fear of celebrating at an idolater’s wedding (referred to herein as a ‘drinking party’) [Hebrew mishteh] generates a social boundary. And this barrier is justified on the basis of a biblical passage, which is parsed to indicate that the one invited will end up consuming – and hence participating in – an idolatrous sacrifice.” 

The discussions of breast milk are fascinating and complex, and offer insights into the rabbis’ thoughts about the relationship between men and women. Rosenblum notes “The Rabbis imagined breastfeeding as a wife’s duty to her husband. Remember the texts were written by men, for men, and about men. Therefore, it is not surprising that they envision breastfeeding in terms of their wives’ obligation to them, rather than in terms of a mother’s obligation to her own biological child. Modern conceptions of breastfeeding often depict it in terms of maternal attachment and benefit to the child... For the Rabbis, however, it is about the wife’s obligation to her husband, and the father’s obligation to his child.” Some discussions focus on whether or not a husband can force his ex-wife to breastfeed their child. Others tell stories of men who were magically able to breastfeed their children. One rabbinic idea seems particularly odd in contemporary times: the rabbis felt that breast milk was transformed menstrual blood. Since the rules of menstrual purity are biblical ones, the rabbis then had to decide if the laws of ritual purity applied to a woman who was breastfeeding. 

“Rabbinic Drinking” contains far more interesting material then it’s possible to discuss in a short review. Rosenblum offers entertaining examples and writes so clearly that even those who have no knowledge of rabbinic literature should be able to understand the material. Perhaps the most important lesson his work offers about the world of the ancient rabbis is that in their literature, “they portray the world the Rabbis wished to live in, not necessarily the one in which they actually lived.”