Wednesday, April 20, 2022

That Time American Jews Thought Wine Was Chametz

While researching seder topics I came across this description of the Passover Seder published in an 1868 edition of the Shasta Courier:

Much of the text describes the evening as we celebrate it today. Perhaps this should be unsurprising, as we have texts that are nearly 2000 years old that describe familiar practices. What caught my eye, however, was at least one notable deviation from a modern seder.

Wine, also, to the quantity of four or five cups, was drunk by each person. It has been a disputed question whether the wine used at this feast was ordinary or fermented wine, or was the pure, fresh juice of the grape. Those who hold that it was unfermented wine, appeal mainly to the expression “unfermented things,” which Hebraists assert to be the true rendering of the Hebrew word which is translated “unleavened bread.” The rabbins [sic] interpreted the command as extending to the use of unfermented wine as well as unfermented bread ; and, accordingly, the modern Jews generally use raisin wine at the feast of the Passover.

The 'four or five cups' comment seemed odd at first, as we clearly drink four cups of wine at the seder. However the question of whether there should be a fifth cup goes back to a Talmudic debate:

Back in the second century, when the sages were establishing the rituals of the seder, a disagreement arose as to whether there should be four or five cups of wine.

The custom of drinking multiple cups of wine derived from God's promises to the enslaved Israelites. Four promises follow one another in rapid succession within Exodus chapter six, verses six and seven: " I will free you...", "I will deliver you...", "I will redeem you...", "and I will take you to be My people." Then, after an intervening verse, a fifth promise appears: "I will bring you into the land...." Each cup of wine is a symbol of the joy we feel as beneficiaries of God's promises. But is the fifth promise connected to the prior four, or is it a separate promise? On this the rabbis could not agree. Some said there should be four cups in honor of four promises; others said five cups for five promises.

The Talmud uses the Aramaic word teku to indicate that the rabbis could not reach a decision on a matter under discussion. And so the decision as to the number of cups was left teku, but the Passover haggadah prescribes four cups for us to drink-possibly as a parallel to the four questions and the four sons. But just in case there really should be five, the writers of the haggadah called for an additional symbolic cup.

Ultimately we 'solved' this four or five cups question by drinking four and putting out a fifth.

What's more puzzling is the assertion that unfermented wine somehow matches up to unleavened bread. Any modern seder attendee can tell you that plenty of alchol is consumed at seder, without any fear that it's somehow related to forbidden chametz.

So what's going on here?

For a stretch of history history, American Jews embraced non-alcoholic wine at seder. Their beverage of choice was raisin wine. Consider this recipe published in 1914. The author seems confident claiming that "Passover wine" is made from raisins, a claim that would be laughable today.

A reader asks how the Passover wine is made.

I found this recipe in my file:

Raisin or Passover Wine
Three pounds raisins, seeded and chopped. Place in a jug with one pound sugar and from six to seven quarts cold water. Set' the vessel, covered, on the stove hearth. Skim after four days, filter through a funnel lined with linen and pour into bottles. Add to each bottle stick cinnamon, cloves and lemon peel. Cork tightly and put away for two weeks.

This tradition, like most, almost certainly has practical roots. On the American frontier, finding Kosher wine would have been difficult to impossible. So having an easy, Kosher way to make a substitue would be handy. And the Jews that popularized this practice may very well have come from Muslim countries where alcohol was to be avoided.

Incidentally, this isn't the only case of Jews tweaking their Passover drinking habits due to circumstance. In 17th century Europe, Jews were encouraged to switch from red to white wine to avoid the accusation that they were using the blood of Christian children as an ingredient in their wine.

For Americans, what started as a necessity somehow drifted into a misunderstood religious requirement. Equally surprising is that this once common practice seems to have slipped into obscurity so quickly. I've mentioned the practice to a number of individuals and nobody has ever heard of it.

This blip in Jewish tradition was not without side effects. This article explains the unexpected intersection of raisin wine and the American Temperance Movement.

Whatever its origins, the Jewish preference for raisin-wine was to become a pivotal issue in the American public life of the era.

The latter half of the nineteenth century saw the rise of the Temperance Movement, which fought stubbornly for the limitation, or total prohibition, of intoxicating drinks. Although they were responding to a very real social problem in American society, the leaders of the Temperance agitation were drawn largely from the ranks of Evangelical Christians and were impelled by religious motivations. It was therefore a source of embarrassment to these Bible-thumpers that wine is mentioned so frequently in the Bible as the most common of beverages, to which no serious stigma or censure was attached. Even more painful to the Temperance cause was the story of the Last Supper where Jesus himself partook of wine and shared it with his disciples. According to the widespread view, the Last Supper had been a Passover Seder.

Another commonly held view among Christians naively regarded contemporary Jews as faithful preservers of a fossilized tradition that had remained unchanged since Jesus' days. If it could be demonstrated that their Jewish neighbours drank non-alcoholic juice on Passover, then this could be considered conclusive evidence that the Bible itself was referring to the same beverage, and not to fermented wine.

The upshot of all this was that the American Christian world in the mid-nineteenth century developed a disproportionate interest in the Passover drinking preferences of their Jewish compatriots, especially at the Seder, and Christian tracts would contain frequent interviews with Jews--though not necessarily the most learned or observant of them. Even when the Jewish informants took care to distinguish between their personal practices and the customs of Biblical Israel, the Temperance advocates had no qualms about quoting them selectively and out of context in order to prove their case.

This 'raisin wine' incident shows both the advantages and risks of the decentralized nature of Judaism. The very flexibility that allowed frontier Americans to keep Kosher over Passover, also let them introduce a flawed principle into their lives. But the story doesn't end there. Somehow, the practice also corrected itself, and we no longer treat fermented wine as chametz. Messy? Sure. But it's hard to argue with an approach which has worked for the last 2000 years.

Here's a modern recipe for raisin wine. I'm eager to give this a try next year!

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