Alcoholic beverages: A way to increase joy versus moshav leitzim

Clarifying the educational approach towards alcohol at parties: *Drinking wine in the atmosphere of a mitzvah brings joy, whereas drinking wine frivolously causes only sorrow. *

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, | updated: 09:16

Judaism מצווה. הרב מלמד
מצווה. הרב מלמד
פלאש 90

The Gezera on Wine in the Past and Present

In the last two columns, I asked a question: As a continuation of the gezerot (decrees) our Sages decreed against drinking alcohol with non-Jews, would it be fitting to forbid the drinking of alcoholic beverages in clubs and pubs whose character is secular, or to emphasize the educational aspect of alcohol consumption outside the framework of a mitzvah? I received many thoughtful responses. I will mention an additional response, and then continue to clarify the issue.

“Rabbi, I am a graduate of a Hesder Yeshiva. During the past two months I have been on educational shlichut … before going abroad, I studied with good halachic advisors … however, Rabbi, nothing was written about the prohibition on drinking alcohol with non-Jews as you wrote in your column. In fact, until now I didn’t even know the prohibition existed! … Regarding the question … One ex-Orthodox traveler who saw how far I went out of my way to obtain kosher wine for Kiddush, asked me if I agree with the prohibition of drinking wine that a non-Jew touched. Rabbi, I think even you would agree that the prohibition of stam yainum (wine which might have been poured for an idolatrous service, but we did not see it happen), which heavily influences governing kashrut, is irrelevant in its current, sweeping form. I answered him that, beyond my general obligation to halakha, I see no reason to forbid buying wine for Kiddush from non-Jews. On another occasion, when chiloni (secular) travelers asked me about the prohibition on wines, I replied that it was forbidden for historical reasons. As the words came out of my mouth, my stomach turned. What are ‘historical’ reasons?! I want the Torah to be a Torah of life, not a museum! On the other hand, I am aware of the difficulty of permitting decrees of our Sages when there is no Sanhedrin, etc.

But in my humble opinion, as long as rabbis are unable to permit decrees that are no longer relevant, it is inappropriate to add new decrees that are not explicitly mentioned in the Gemara and poskim. You cannot hold the rope by both ends! In my opinion, the public (many of whom are aware of the difficulties of the halakhic system I pointed out) will “vote with their feet”, and may not only ignore the new prohibition, but also the old ones, God forbid. Instead, I would focus on strengthening and emphasizing the prohibited aspects of going to clubs, such as the prohibition of mixed dancing, immodesty, etc. Thus, it will be easier to eliminate the bad phenomena from its roots, more successfully.”

Another person wrote it would be proper to elaborate on the various prohibitions of drinking in pubs and clubs that everyone agrees with, for example, playing secular music along with alcoholic beverages, and the dangers of drunkenness.

The Prohibition of Stam Yainum

Before I elaborate on our Sages instructions concerning the drinking of alcohol, I must explain that our Sages decree on “stam yainum” is not for historical reasons, but rather a principled position, according to which Jews should separate themselves from the foods of non-Jews, in order to isolate themselves from too close a relationship that could lead to assimilation. Therefore, they prohibited the wine, bread, and cooked food of non-Jews. True, the prohibition of hana’ah (receiving all types of benefit) from stam yainum has a historical reason, namely, that the gentiles were accustomed to perform libations with wine in order to please their idols, and therefore our Sages ruled that any wine that was touched by them would be forbidden even b’hana’ah. If the non-Jew is not an oved avodah zarah (idol worshipper), his wine is forbidden to drink, but permitted b’hana’ah, for example, to sell it to another non-Jew (Geonim, Rambam, and Rashba). Some say that even if he is an idol worshipper, if offering wine is not part of his custom, the wine he touches is forbidden to drink and permitted b’hana’ah (Rashi, Rashbam and Ri’van).

Frivolous Drinking

And now I will address the educational aspect: our Sages instructed that alcohol should not be drunk lightheartedly or among frivolous people, because alcohol has an immense effect, and consequently, one must be very careful about it. As we have learned in the Torah that even as great a man as Noah, when he was not careful with wine, stumbled and fell into the abyss of shame and disgrace. Also Lot, a relative of Avraham Avinu, as a result of drinking, committed adultery with his daughters (Genesis Rabbah 36: 4). And Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron Ha’Kohen, who were righteous as their father and intended to inherit his position, since they were not careful about wine and entered the tabernacle drunk, they were punished and died (Leviticus Rabbah 12: 1). Our Sages also said: “Nothing else but wine brings woe to man” (Sanhedrin 70a). They said as well that wine is liable to cause a person to sin and commit adultery, and therefore anyone who fears his yetzer(evil inclination) will overcome him, should refrain from wine (Nazir 2a). When our Sages spoke of wine, they meant the alcohol contained in it, since in their times, drinking wine was the way most alcohol was consumed.

Drinking and the Joy of a Mitzvah

Nevertheless, wine also has a positive side, namely, its ability to give expression to true joy, as stated in the section of ‘Thanksgiving to Hashem’ in Tehillim, that in all the good things Hashem gave to man, he also gave wine: “Bless Hashem, O my soul! O Hashem, my God, you are very great… and wine to gladden the heart of man”(Psalms 104: 1, 15). And our Sages said: “A song of praise is sung only over wine” (Berakhot 35a). Therefore, they instituted reciting Kiddush over a glass of wine on Shabbat and Yom Tov, at weddings, and at the Brit Milah (circumcision) ceremony. As written in the Zohar: “There is no sanctity but in wine, and no blessing but in wine” (Vol.3, 189: 2).

The difference, therefore, is between the joy and drinking for the purpose of a mitzvah, and the joy and drinking for frivolous purposes, or as our Sages said (Shabbat 30b), the proper joy is the joy of a mitzvah, as it is written: “So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad” (Ecclesiastes 8:15). But one must be careful of joy that is not a mitzvah, as it is said: “Of laughter, I said, “[It is] mingled”; and concerning joy, what does this accomplish?” (ibid. 2: 2), and Rashi explained: ‘Of laughter, I said, “[It is] mingled”, i.e., mixed with weeping and sighs. ‘And concerning joy, what good does it accomplish’: behold, its end is grief.

Frivolous Drinking Accompanied by Music

When drinking alcohol in a group of people along with music, the fear that a person will become rowdy, forget his purpose in life, and be dragged after his desires greatly increases, as our Sages said that several troubles, including exile, come upon Israel as a result of this (Sotah 40a). And as it is written, “Woe to those who rise early in the morning to run after their drinks, who stay up late at night till they are inflamed with wine. They have harps and lyres at their banquets, pipes and timbrels and wine, but they have no regard for the deeds of Hashem, no respect for the work of his hands. Therefore my people will go into exile for lack of understanding; those of high rank will die of hunger, and the common people will be parched with thirst (in place of the wine that they drank). Therefore Death expands its jaws, opening wide its mouth; into it will descend their nobles and masses with all their brawlers and revelers. So people will be brought low and everyone humbled, the eyes of the arrogant humbled” (Isaiah 5: 11-15).

The Cancellation of Singing since the Annulment of the Sanhedrin

We also find our Sages instructed halachically that it is forbidden to sing or play musical instruments while drinking alcohol, unless it is for the joy of a mitzvah (S.A., O.C. 560: 3). The source of the Sages’ words is from the Mishnah: “When the Sanhedrin ceased to function, song ceased from the places of feasting, as stated in the prophecy of calamity in Isaiah, “They shall not drink wine with a song, etc.” (Sotah 38a). In the Talmud (Gittin 7a), Mar Ukva also instructed that zimra, i.e. singing, was also forbidden while drinking wine, as it is stated (Hoshea 9: 1): “Do not rejoice Israel; do not be jubilant like the other nations” (Gittin 7a). The Yerushalmi explains: “At first, when the Sanhedrin was functioning, it was able to impose discipline and prevent the introduction of inappropriate content in song.  When the Sanhedrin ceased to function, it could no longer impose discipline and people would introduce corrupt lyrics into music” (Sotah 9:12).

In other words, it is clear that even before the destruction of the Temple it was forbidden to sing vulgar and corrupt words over wine, as we learned in the Prophet, that because they were not careful of this, they were punished with destruction and exile, however, singing secular songs over wine was permitted. But after the destruction and the annulment of the Sanhedrin, wine was also forbidden over “songs of love and friendship, and praise of man’s beauty,” as Rav Hai Gaon wrote (Teshuvot HaGeonim, Harkabi 60), and quoted by Rif (Berachot, beginning of chapter 5) and Tosephot HaRosh (Gittin 7a).

But service and praise to Hashem is permitted while drinking wine, and it is even a mitzvah to do so at a joyous mitzvah occasion, such as a wedding.

‘Moshav Leitzim’

Mundane drinking in a group of frivolous people along with laughter is considered moshav leitzim (idiomatically, ‘in the company of fools’),” as it is stated: “Wine is a maligner; alcohol leads to brawls. And whoever is deceived by either will never be wise” (Proverbs 20: 1). Rabbeinu Yonah explained: “Drinking leads to three bad things: First, it causes you to malign. Second, it makes you rowdy and talkative, and as our Sages said: “Speaking a lot encourages sin”(Avot 1:17). And third, whoever is deceived by it will never be wise” (Sha’arei Teshuva 3: 177).

Therefore, one should not drink in clubs and parties with friends as is customary in secular society, while the entire goal is to get “wasted” and to “unwind” from the bonds of morality, thus leading to great danger, because someone dragged after this is liable to distance himself from Torah and mitzvoth, and eventually sin. This is what our Sages meant: “Distance yourself from an evil neighbor, and do not befriend the wicked one” (Avot 1: 7). However, sometimes people who frivolously drink in clubs, in other areas of life act righteously, and then it is proper to form relations and friendships. However, when they drink frivolously, the bad sides of disbanding Torah and mitzvot come to fruition, and at that time they are considered bad friends who are liable to distance themselves and others from Torah and mitzvot. This is the meaning of the verse: “Blessed is the man who doesn’t walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand on the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers” (Psalms 1: 1). Our Sages interpreted that a person should not say, “I will go only once to the feast of scoffers”, for if he goes, subsequently, he stands with them, and if he stands, he will at the end sit with them, and if he does sit, he will also come to scorn (Avodah Zarah 18b).

Sometimes a person is invited to a secular event that takes place in a frivolous atmosphere in the company in which he works, and it seems that if possible, it is preferable to refrain from participating in such an event. And if one cannot avoid it, he should at least be careful not to drink alcoholic beverages.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. For a more in-depth look at the relationship between Jews and non-Jews, please read Rabbi Melamed’s article: