Wine central to Jewish and Christian rituals for thousands of years

As sure as Purim is coming, some religious Jews will soon be drinking wine until they can’t tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys.

Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig

Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig

KITCHENER, Ont. As sure as Purim is coming, some religious Jews will soon be drinking wine until they can’t tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys.

The upcoming binge (falling on Saturday and Sunday) is a spiritual practice rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures’ Book of Esther.

According to the narrative, the evil prime minister Haman plots to exterminate Jews who were living throughout the Persian Empire. But Queen Esther, a Jew, saves the day by pleading with King Xerxes to spare her people and to hang Haman.

To commemorate their victory over their enemies, religious Jews observe Purim each year.

Wine flows freely throughout the Book of Esther.

The Hebrew text indicates they drank wine until they didn’t know any better, said Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig, spiritual leader of Beth Jacob (Orthodox) Congregation in Kitchener.

“So we have a custom of drinking so that we can’t tell the difference between … the hero and … the villain.”

Some Jews take the custom more seriously than others, Rosenzweig noted.

“I’m a strong believer in tradition,” he said with a laugh. “My personal celebration will have a designated driver.”

Wine is woven throughout narratives in the ancient Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. So fermented fruit of the vine has been a central part of Jewish and Christian religious rituals for thousands of years.

For many people in the pews on any given Sabbath, wine just magically appears at the altar.

But the path to choosing a wine to celebrate sacred mysteries of the universe is often paved with pedestrian concerns. Sacramental wine comes in many styles. So does the rabbi or priest choose red or white? (It often depends on whether you’re worried about staining the altar linens or giving members of the congregation a tannin-induced headache.) Sacramental wine can be a high-octane port or fruity muscato that tips the scales at a mere five per cent alcohol. It can be a sweet Manischewitz or a dry Chardonnay.

And of course, the price comes into play. One bottle of wine will serve about 100 parishioners at communion. So a large church could go through a $100 case of wine in a weekend.

Some synagogue members simply pick up a bottle of kosher Cabernet at the LCBO. In some congregations, hobbyists make the wine themselves. And some parishes load up on sacramental wine at church supply stores.

But when it comes to consuming wine for religious purposes, it’s rarely drunk to the point of intoxication.

For many Christians, wine is none other than the blood of Christ. At the Last Supper Jesus tells his disciples to drink from a cup of wine, which he calls his blood (Matt. 26:27; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20).

For Jews, using wine during rituals is based on a biblical command to remember, said Rosenzweig.

Whenever the Bible commands Jews to remember, a declaration must be made out loud, Rosenzweig said.

So observant Jews usher in the Sabbath and other biblical holy days with a blessing called a Kiddush using wine. Children and people who cannot drink wine get grape juice.

Rosenzweig said blessings must be made with an intoxicating beverage to elevate a person spiritually. And the most common intoxicating drink in the ancient Middle East was wine.

“We don’t necessarily get drunk,” Rosenzweig said. “But we … give portions of it to everyone who is present.”

These days, very few people get drunk during Purim celebrations, Rosenzweig said.

Those who do, he added, often recite verses of the Torah (first five books of the Bible).

Wine used for sacramental purposes must be kosher. For some Jews, for a wine to qualify as kosher it must be made from grapes gown on land owned by an observant Jew and all aspects of its production must be conducted by observant Jews.

Others consider wine to be kosher if it has not been handled during its production “by anybody who is involved in a worship of a god that is not the Jewish God,” Rosenzweig said.

So Jews are allowed to drink wine made by Muslims “because Allah and God are synonymous,” Rosenzweig said.

But Christians can’t be involved in kosher wine production because they worship God in the human form of Jesus.

Various rabbinic councils judge whether a specific wine is kosher. The label on a bottle of kosher wine from France, for example, includes the depiction of a French rabbinic council’s seal.

Christian congregations obtain sacramental wine from a number of sources. In some churches, wine enthusiasts make wine and donate it to the parish. Others buy wine in bottles, or four-litre jugs, from church supply stores.

It’s usually up to individual pastors to decide which wine eventually makes it into his or her chalice.

Roman Catholic priests have discretion to use red or white, sweet or dry wine, said Msgr. Murray Kroetsch, director of liturgy for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Hamilton, which includes parishes in Waterloo Region and nearby Guelph.

But Roman Catholic canon law states wine for the eucharist must be made from grapes (no fruit wine) and must contain no additives.

Not all churches use wine for communion. Some denominations use grape juice instead of wine when celebrating the eucharist. And the Salvation Army church doesn’t include a bread-and-wine communion ritual in its worship.

For some Christians, communion wine is a symbol of Jesus’ blood. Some churches teach that Jesus’ presence is within the wine.

And for Roman Catholics, God’s spirit turns bread into the body of Christ and the wine into the blood of Christ — despite the fact the communion bread and wine continue to taste like bread and wine after the transformation is to have taken place.

Many churches use red wine for communion because of its association with blood, said Rev. James Brown, pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Waterloo.

But doctrine doesn’t dictate whether to use red or white, said Brown, who has helped plan eucharistic celebrations at church conventions since 1980.

White wine is often served at large services, Brown said, because it doesn’t give people the headaches some get from the tannins in red wine.

Brown said his own church bends the rules for people who are alcoholics or are allergic to alcohol.

“We serve them grape juice,” he said.

In Ontario, kosher wine can be found on Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) store shelves. But products labelled sacramental wine are sold by vendors licensed by the LCBO. Vendors charge taxes on the wine, but churches can apply for a rebate of provincial taxes and a partial rebate on the GST, said James McLean.

For the past two decades, McLean has been selling various supplies to about 600 churches. More than half of them buy sacramental wine.

But before he hands over any sacramental wine, buyers must sign a declaration that it will only be distributed by clergy, or other authorized people, during religious services.

McLean sells about 10 styles of alcoholic sacramental wine (and one brand of non-alcoholic grape juice) to more than a dozen congregations in Waterloo Region and another half-dozen or more in Guelph.

All the wines are mass produced in California.

“They are not plonk,” he added.

McLean estimates 98 per cent of his Roman Catholic customers use white wine most of the time. Anglican and Lutheran congregations tend to use red wine except in cases where red wine induces headaches in the priests or parishioners. And the vast majority of United churches use grape juice for communion, McLean said, because of their historic association with Methodist churches that traditionally shunned alcohol. But it’s difficult to generalize about wine trends among churches, McLean said.

“It’s all personal choice and taste.”

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