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03.10.2019 19:37    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parasha  haazinu  alexander klein  

The Proscription of Libation-wine*

Ha’azinu, in the context of warning against idolatry, reads: “He will say:  Where are their gods, the rock in whom they sought refuge, who ate the fat of their offerings and drank their libation wine?  Let them rise up to your help” (Deut. 32: 37-38).  The gemara deduces from these verses that no benefit may be derived from the wine of heathens (lit. “star-worshippers” or idolaters; Avodah Zarah 29b).

Maimonides even includes this prohibition in his enumeration of the commandments[1] and asserts that it is of biblical origin and that its punishment is lashes, but he says one must distinguish between libation-wine, i.e. wine that was actually used for libations to idols, and “ordinary gentile wine,” which is wine that a gentile handled and is not forbidden save by rabbinic injunction, in accordance with what we read in Tractate Shabbat (17b):  “Rather [say] they decreed against their bread and oil on account of their wine, and against their wine on account of their daughters.”  This also follows from elsewhere in the gemara (Avodah Zarah 30b):

Rabbi Assi said in the name of Rabbi Johanan who said it on behalf of Rabbi Judah b. Bathyra:  There are three kinds of wine: [i] libation-wine, from which it is forbidden to derive any benefit, and of which a quantity the size of an olive causes grave defilement; [ii] ordinary wine of heathens, from which it is likewise forbidden to derive any benefit whatsoever, and a quarter [of a log] of which renders drinks [or edibles] unclean; [iii] wine [of an Israelite] that had been deposited with an idolater, which must not be drunk, but the benefit of it is permitted.

Thus we must distinguish between two totally distinct prohibitions:[2] libation-wine = wine which has actually been used for idolatry; heathen wine, which might have been used for idolatrous libations, and Israelite wine which has been handled by a gentile.

Libation-wine is forbidden according to all views, although there are some who disagree with Maimonides that this proscription is from the Torah.[3] Maimonides writes in Mishneh Torah:[4]

When wine has been poured as a libation to a false divinity, it is forbidden to benefit from it.  A person who drinks even the smallest quantity of [such wine] is liable for lashes according to Scriptural Law…as [implied by Deuteronomy 32:38]:  “The fat of whose offerings they would eat; they would drink the wine of their libations.”

In contrast, there are differences of opinion as to the applicability and force of the law regarding “ordinary wine of heathens.”  The question is to what extent the prohibition relates to idolatry and what status gentiles have in this regard from the Middle Ages through our day, idolatry having disappeared from Western culture.  According to Maimonides, the proscription is all-inclusive, as he writes in Mishneh Torah:[5]

When we do not know whether wine belonging to a gentile was used for a libation or not, it is called “ordinary [gentile] wine.”  It is forbidden to benefit from it, as it is forbidden to benefit from wine used as a libation.  [This matter] is a Rabbinic decree.  When a person drinks a fourth part [of a log] of “ordinary [gentile] wine” he is liable for “stripes for rebellious conduct.”  It is forbidden [to benefit from] any wine that a gentile touches, for perhaps he poured it as a libation.  For the thought of a gentile is focused on the worship of false deities.  From this we learn that it is forbidden to benefit [even from] wine belonging to a Jew which was touched by a gentile; it is governed by the laws that apply to ordinary gentile wine.

Under the influence of Maimonides, the Shulhan Arukh says in Hilkhot Yein Nesekh (Yoreh De`ah 123):  “It is forbidden to derive any benefit from the ordinary wine of heathen peoples, and the same applies to our wine that they have touched.”

Rema, however, adds:

This is because of the decree against wine that has been poured as a libation to pagan gods.  In our day, when it is not customary for gentiles to pour libations to pagan gods, some say that a gentile touching our wine does not make it forbidden to derive benefit, only forbidden to drink.  Likewise, ordinary gentile wine is not forbidden to derive benefit and therefore one may receive their ordinary wine from a gentile as payment of a debt because it is saving it from their hands…but it is forbidden a priori to buy and sell it in order to get drunk from it, although some are lenient in this regard, too; but better to be strict.

Turei Zahav (Rabbi David ha-Levi) explains: “Drinking it was forbidden on account of their daughters, and even deriving any benefit from it on account of the decree against libation-wine; therefore, it is now permitted.”

Shakh (Rabbi Shabtai b. Meir ha-Cohen) writes in the same vein:

It is well known that the non-Jews outside of Israel are not really idolaters.  Rather, they follow the custom of their ancestors.  That being so, the wine which they pour for their heathen religion is not considered libation-wine, since we have decreed about them that they do not know the nature of idolatry.

Thus there is a fundamental disagreement between Maimonides and the Shulhan Arukh on one side, and Rema and his followers, on the other.  It turns out that many posekim (halakhic authorities), first and foremost the tosafists,[6] were inclined to rule leniently in the matter of deriving benefit from the wine of gentiles.  Their lenient view is based on several principles, as follows:

  • Essentially there are two proscriptions, with different reasons underlying them.  The proscription against drinking wine is “because of their daughters,” i.e., to limit social contact between Jews and gentiles; this proscription has remained valid from the time of the tosafists to our day.  On the other hand, the prohibition against deriving benefit from heathen wine pertains to idolatry, and this reason has not been applicable in Western society since the Middle Ages, as explained below.
  • The members of the Christian societies of the Western world should not be viewed as idolaters, for several reasons.
    • The Sages held that even if Christianity is viewed as a pagan religion, the Christians themselves do not take the pagan elements of their religion seriously: “The heathens are not so devout in their pagan worship.”[7] Also, “gentiles who live outside the land of Israel are not idolaters; they only continue the customs of their ancestors.”[8]
    • According to another view, libation is not done in the Christian religion: “The gentiles of today are not accustomed to pour libations for idolatry.”[9]
    • Some go even further and exclude Christianity from avodah zarah (religious worship that is alien to Judaism) altogether.  After all, the Christians acknowledge the supremacy of the Holy One, blessed be He; only they adjoin two more entities—the Son and the Holy Ghost—to form the Trinity.  Therefore, some have ruled that it should not be considered actual heathen worship, since “the descendants of Noah were not cautioned against adjoining.”[10]

Additionally, it follows from the remarks in Tosefot that the lenient practice had already become widespread, making it hard to forbid that which had already come to be viewed as permissible.  Therefore, they relied on the well-known principle: “Better a Jew should transgress inadvertently than willfully.”

Jacob Katz explains in his books that the leave given to benefit from “ordinary gentile wine,” for the reasoning presented above, was influenced by the economic conditions of the Jewish communities in Western and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages.  He writes:[11]

It is forbidden for a Jew to drink and, theoretically, even to trade in, a gentile’s wine.  In the Middle Ages this restriction was still observed.  The rabbis had found it quite difficult to find a way to permit trade even in a Jew’s wine if it had been touched by a non-Jew and thus rendered forbidden for Jews to drink.  Similar difficulties had been encountered in trying to allow Jews to accept gentile wine in payment for a debt.  In this period, on the other hand, license to engage in this trade gradually spread, especially in areas such as the Polish cities near the Hungarian border and in the Moravian communities, where the wine trade was an important part of the Jews’ livelihood.  At first the more stringent among the rabbis objected to this development, but they were not able to prevail in the face of increased economic pressure.  With time, this proscription gradually disappeared altogether, and the wine trade became a typical Jewish occupation in many regions of eastern and western Europe.

Katz’s remarks should not be taken to indicate that economic reality dictated halakhic rulings,[12] rather, that social conditions undoubtedly had an impact on the halakhic rulings insofar as the prohibition was rabbinic, so that if there was a way to be lenient the halakhic authorities would do all they could to discover that way and rule accordingly.  After all, we saw above that the tosafists went so far as to ultimately cite the justification, “better a Jew transgress inadvertently than willfully.”[13]

Thus we have seen an interesting example of halakhic ruling that was markedly influenced by economic conditions.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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