L’chaim, ‘To life’: Judaism and wine


By Gideon

The Jewish relationship to wine is rooted in religious practice.The most characteristic toast of the Jews is L’chaim, ‘To life’. It meant, “May you be consigned to life”.

Since Biblical times, the use of wine to celebrate life has been an important part of Jewish traditions. Wine plays a great role in Jewish life and tradition as well. It is considered a holy drink – the only liquid drink that, before consuming, has its own special blessing. Wine is part of all life cycle events in Jewish life. It appears at weddings and circumcisions, redemptions of the first-born and in Talmudic times at the house of the mourners.

Kosher wine laws are the oldest winemaking laws in the world. Wine occupies a special place in the laws of Kashrut, compared to food. The grape is placed above all other fruits because of the precious wine that is pressed from its skin. Kosher wine is traditional Jewish wine made with either the grape, black cherry, blackberry, purple plum, logan berry, black raspberry, strawberry, apple, rhubarb, or black currant fruit, or any combination of these and may include various spices as well as other ingredients.

To ensure wine’s purity, the codification of koshering wine began in the days of Maimonides. For a wine to be kosher, strict regulations must be followed. Grapes from new vines may not be used for making wine, until after the fourth year. Every seventh year the fields must be left fallow and there is a prohibition on growing other fruits and vegetables between the vines. All the equipment, tools and winemaking storage facilities must be kosher. During the harvest, only Sabbath observant male Jews are allowed to work on the production of the wines. In order for a wine to be kosher, it must be created under a rabbi’s immediate supervision.

If the winery is owned and operated by non-Sabbath-observing Orthodox-Jewish males, they must hire Sabbath-observing Orthodox-Jewish males when making kosher wine, whereupon the Sabbath-observing Orthodox-Jewish males take over the entire wine-making process for kosher wine while the regular workers watch from the sidelines. Once the wine is sealed, it can be handled by anyone until the seal is opened.

During the production of kosher wine, no animal products may be used. Gelatin or egg whites are sometimes used by non-kosher wine makers, to clarify the wine, while kosher wine makers use a clay material, called bentonite, which pulls suspended particles to the bottom of the barrel. For wine to be kosher one percent of the wine must be discarded, a symbolic remnant of the 10% tithe, paid to the Temple in Jerusalem in days gone by. Additionally, barrels must be cleaned three times.

The main style of Kosher wines is Mevushal, which means cooked in Hebrew. The tradition originated in Temple times, where wine was used for pagan worship, and to protect the Jewish community and its religious and social culture, the Talmudic Sages wanted to prevent any Jewish person from using wine that could otherwise have been used for pagan worship by issuing a ban on the use of all wines that were not cooked or boiled. Since wine that was cooked or boiled rendered the wine unfit for pagan worship, then this type of wine was distinguished from the wine used by pagans, and so the Talmudic Sages only permitted the use of cooked or boiled wine by Jewish people.

In this style of Kosher wine the slurry of grapes (prior to fermentation) are quickly heated to 185 degrees Fahrenheit usually in a flash pasteurizing unit. It is quickly cooled and then they undergo the fermentation and wine making process. This is important since Kashrut law stipulates that in order for a wine to retain its ‘kosherness’ once opened and poured by a non-Jew, (such as a waiter, for instance) the wine must be Mevushal.  A wine that is produced in this manner retains its religious purity, regardless of who opens or pours it. A study at the University of California at Davis, has proven that it is not possible to consistently taste the difference between non- mevushal and mevushal wine.

Most kosher wines produced in the United States are Mevushal wines to safeguard against the kosher wine being touched and handled by non-Sabbath-observing Jewish people and those of other faiths which would otherwise render the kosher wine non-kosher. However, in Israel, there are more non-Mevushal wines available since there is a much better chance that the non-Mevushal kosher wine will remain in the hands of Sabbath-observing Orthodox-Jewish males from the time of its bottling up to and including the time that the kosher wine is drunk.

Kosher for Passover wine is a subset of kosher wine as long as the kosher wine was not made with and does not consist of and has never come into contact with products and or by-products derived from any of the five grains that are forbidden for use during Passover (barley, oats, rye, spelt, and wheat) and is unopened. Yeast grown from either sugar or fruit are permitted to be used for making Kosher for Passover wine. Ashkenazi Jews have further food restrictions for Passover, known in Hebrew as kitniyot (Kitniyot means either “bits”, “small things”, or “little things”), and so yeast or any other wine ingredient derived from kitniyot cannot be used by Ashkenazi Jews in making Kosher for Passover wine. Furthermore, many common preservatives are forbidden to be used in making Kosher for Passover wine, an example being potassium sorbate.