The Bible’s initial stories about wine are so decidedly negative that one might have expected Judaism to harbor only scorn for drinking. But Jewish tradition reads these — the drunkenness of Noah and the wine-induced seduction of Lot by his daughters — as tales of inebriation rather than condemnations of drinking. The key is moderation.
The destruction of the Temple, the site of copious wine libations, prompted ascetic urges to forgo wine.* Common sense argued against this because the ascetic position logically demanded abstaining from necessities such as bread and water, both of which figured prominently in Temple rites. Besides in ancient times wine was a beloved beverage. As the Talmud put it, “A person in whose house wine does not flow like water has not reached the ultimate stage of blessedness.”*
In that light it’s not surprising that wine plays a prominent role in many Jewish rituals. The Sabbath begins and ends with blessings over wine. At the Passover Seder, drinking four cups of wine is required. Many explanations have been given for this requirement, some relating to God’s fourfold promise in Exodus to redeem the Israelites, others to four biblical references to cups of salvation, and so forth.* As part of the celebration of Purim, a holiday that commemorates the triumph of the Persian Jewish community over a plan to wipe them out, the Talmud mandates drinking to the point that one cannot distinguish between the hero and the villain of the tale.* At a wedding the bride and groom drink from two cups of wine. One cup is drunk at a circumcision. If drinking wine endangers one’s health, grape juice may be substituted.
It would be dishonest to ignore the long history of conflicts that have arisen between Jews and Christians over issues connected with wine. During the Middle Ages and much later as well, Jews were periodically accused of murdering Christian children and using their blood to make wine (or matzah) for Passover. In Blois, France (1171) dozens of Jews were killed after one such accusation. For centuries Passover was a frightening time for Jews throughout Europe. The Church’s response varied. Pope Gregory X (1271-1276) wrote a letter condemning blood libel, but little was generally done to stop anti-Jewish violence.
The traditional Jewish prohibition of drinking wine that has been touched by non-Jews unless it has been boiled is not at all comparable to the blood libel. But it added to Jewish/Christian tensions over wine. European Jews produced wine and sold it to Christians, but Jews refused to purchase wine made by Christians. The issue is that ancient Jewish sources forbid using wine for sacramental purposes that has been touched by “idolaters.”* The current relevance of this concern is clearly dubious. Suffice it to say, it is a practice followed nowadays only by the Orthodox and one that the Conservative Movement explicitly repudiated in 1985.*
Mary commented on the influence of the Temperance Movement on drinking wine in the Eucharist. In that context, it’s worth noting that in nineteenth century America some Jewish supporters of the Temperance Movement advocated drinking nonalcoholic raisin wine at the Seder.*
Just as Jewish reflections on wine consider the importance of the four cups drunk at the Seder, Christian reflections center on Jesus taking the cup of wine at the Last Supper and saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” Here the wine symbolizes his blood poured out in death, a death his early followers interpreted as “for our sins” (see Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 15:3).
Even before Christianity became separated from Judaism—a lengthy process over several centuries—followers of Jesus gathered to eat a ritual meal in which they blessed and broke bread and shared the common cup. As the excerpt from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth shows, some abused this ritual, either by ignoring the needs of the hungry or by excessive drinking:
For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you! For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11:21-26).
Over the centuries, Christians have differed with one another over precisely how to celebrate and understand this ritual—but at its core is the memory of Jesus’ self-giving, of the continued presence of Jesus, and of the call, in the words of Saint Augustine, “to be what you receive.”*
Just as we Christians have often failed to be the presence of Christ in the world, we tend to lose sight of one meaning of communion as a meal shared with others: “Thus, at the Eucharist we come together in communion, sharing the Bread that is the body of Christ and the cup of wine that is the blood of Christ. It is a shared meal—“an antidote to the selfishness and violence that could be signified by eating only for oneself.”*
A note on wine in the Eucharist: Since the 19th century and the rise of various temperance movements, some Christians use only grape juice in their celebration of the Last Supper. And some churches (e.g., the Southern Baptists) do not allow their members to drink any alcohol. This, however, is not the case in Catholicism, as well as in a number of other Christian churches. Hilaire Belloc wrote a piece of doggerel that expresses a popular Catholic notion of wine:
Wherever a Catholic sun doth shine
There’s always laughter and good red wine
At least, I’ve always heard it’s so
Benedicamus Domino . (“Let us bless the Lord”)
Other sayings from the Christian tradition involve the relationship of the grapevine to its fruit. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” One of the desert fathers, Abba Ephrem, had a dream and a vision that plays on that imagery: “A branch of vine came out of his tongue, grew bigger and filled everything under heaven. It was laden with beautiful fruit. All the birds of heaven came to eat of the fruit of the vine, and the more they ate, the more the fruit increased.*
Drinking wine is strictly prohibited in Islam. The Qur’an says: “O YOU who have attained to faith! Intoxicants, and games of chance, and idolatrous practices, and the divining of the future are but a loathsome evil of Satan’s doing: shun it, then, so that you might attain to a happy state!” (5:90). Drinking wine was very common in the pre-Islamic Arabia. The prohibition of wine was gradual in Islam. The first revelation told the early Muslims to rationally evaluate the benefits and dangers of drinking wine. The Qur’an told them that its benefits are few and dangers are many (2:219). The second revelation prohibited the believers from worshiping when intoxicated because they would not know what they would be saying (4:43). Finally, verse 5:90 regarding prohibition was revealed.
In verse 4:43 cited above, the word for “intoxicated” is sukara, derived from the word “sukar” and meaning drunk or intoxicated. The drink is al-Khamr in verse 5:90 cited above, which is often translated as wine. The word khamara literally means to “to cover, to conceal, to ferment or to create commotion.” Drinking or smoking or other types of inhalation that cover or impair or become an intoxicant to human intelligence and senses are prohibited in Islam. This prohibition applies to most modern intoxicants such as narcotics and other types of drugs.
Using intoxicants is a grave sin and punishable by Islamic law if applied. It is considered the mother of all evils in Islam (Sunan Ibn-I-Majah Volume 3, Book of Intoxicants, Chapter 30 Hadith No. 3371). Even using a small amount of any intoxicant in prohibited (Sunan Ibn-I-Majah Volume 3, Book of Intoxicants, Chapter 30 Hadith No. 3392). For this reason, most observant Muslims avoid intoxicants in any form, even small amounts that are sometimes used in cooking. The Prophet (peace be upon him) is reported as saying: “God’s curse falls on ten groups of people who deal with alcohol. The one who distills it, the one for whom it has been distilled, the one who drinks it, the one who transports it, the one to who it has been brought, the one whom serves it, the one who sells it, the one who utilizes money from it, the one who buys it and the one who buys it for someone else” (Sunan Ibn-I-Majah Volume 3, Book of Intoxicants, Chapter 30 Hadith No. 3380).
However there is a law of necessity (Darurah) where some quantity of intoxicants could be used as a medicine or to relieve pain in chronic diseases depending on the doctor’s decision. Non-Muslims who live in a Muslim country are permitted to use wine and beer within their own living quarters.