What makes wine Kosher? Ask the rabbi

October 26, 2015 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi  Raymond Apple tackles a question about kosher wine.

Q. What can be non-kosher in ordinary wine?

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

A. Two considerations are relevant. The first is that wine was part of worship rites from ancient days. Judaism feared that ordinary wine could have been used or at least made for libations at heathen worship (“yayin nesech”). Hence, wine for Jewish purposes had to be stringently controlled.

A second factor is “s’tam yeynam”, wine made or handled by gentiles. Wine as part of social interaction loosens one’s inhibitions and a Jew who got involved in wine-drinking could find him/herself caught up in non-Jewish ways (Talmud AZ 29b, 36b; Shulchan Aruch YD 124:7). There is a Jewish proverb, “nichnas yayin yatza sod”, “When wine comes in, discretion goes” (Sanh. 35a, Eruv. 65a).

For both reasons “kosher” wine was necessary, and it had to be prepared, handled and served by dependable Jewish persons. If, however, the wine is boiled to a temperature of 80 degrees (“m’vushal”) the prohibition falls away.

When kosher wine is made, the mashgi’ach (kosher supervisor) plays a crucial role with the professional winemaker guiding the personnel through the pressing and fermenting process.

To the two considerations we have elaborated was added a third, that wine-making is liable to involve additives that are grain-, blood- or milk-based, and it is obvious what complications these cause. Even inadvertently there can be problems with fruit drinks that can be given a tastier and bulkier consistency by the addition of fruit (e.g. pineapple) pulp which is not necessarily of the same species as the fruit drink itself, so sometimes grape pulp can be used, which raises halachic questions.

Until a few decades ago there was no guarantee that wines served at otherwise kosher functions would themselves be kosher, but this anomaly has now been corrected. It should be added that there are today a range of high-class kosher wines of world standard. Where once “yayin m’vushal” was considered inferior, this is no longer the case.

An apparent paradox is that though wine-drinking is an acceptable feature of a Jewish Sabbath or festival, or of life-cycle events such as a circumcision and wedding, very few Jews are alcoholics. Partly this is because alcohol as a symbol for sin never had a wicked fascination for Jews.

Jews also took their alcohol in moderation: the Talmud says, “Do not drink to excess, and you will not fall into sin” (Ber. 29b). Like so many other things, this became part of the Jewish mentality, even amongst people who otherwise were not too particular about Jewish observance.

ONCE A JEW ALWAYS A JEW?

Q. Someone I know who converted to Christianity insisted on saying Kaddish at his mother’s funeral. Should the rabbi have stopped him?

A. Halachic authorities began seriously debating in the Middle Ages whether a Jew who became a Christian or Muslim was still to be treated as a Jew.

The consensus was that such a person was residually Jewish, not entitled to Jewish privileges like being called to the Torah but not exempt from obligations like clearing the chametz from his house before Pesach.

This applied even if the former Jew no longer counted himself as Jewish. The rabbis quoted a passage from the Talmud, “Though a Jew has sinned he is still a Jew” (Sanh. 44a); on the verse in Joshua (7:11), “Israel has sinned”, the sages said that even though Israel sins he is still called Israel.

A convert to another faith is legally or technically not deemed to be a non-Jew except that he is not entitled to the privileges of being Jewish, as stated above.

The convert you mention could have excused himself from saying Kaddish, but since Kaddish is an obligation the rabbi was right not to stop him saying it, especially since it is universal in theme and language.

There is however the symbolism of Kaddish, generally understood as a commitment to honour a parent’s memory by being a faithful Jew, and whether this applies when to a person who has officially turned his back on Judaism is a question.

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles.

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