Can we drink whisky in shul on Simchat Torah?

October 17, 2008
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Question: On Simchat Torah, our shul has always had kiddush early with whisky available for the rest of the service. But now our spoilsport new executive thinks the drink is causing too much frivolity and wants to stop it. Surely having a little fun is part of the festival?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

When it comes to alcohol consumption, Judaism walks a very fine balance. The Bible is critical of drunkenness. The degradation of Noah and Lot (Genesis 9:18-29, 19:30-38) are both cautionary tales about the dangers of alcohol. If the reader is left in any doubt about this, King Solomon forcefully drives the point home in Proverbs (23:20-21):

"Do not be among winebibbers, among gluttonous eaters of meat for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and drowsiness will clothe a man in rags."

Yet the Talmud has some very positive things to say about the consumption of wine. Rav Huna believed that wine opens the mind (Bava Batra 12.b) and Rava claimed that drinking wine made him wise (Yoma 76.b). An anonymous passage in the tractate Bava Batra (58b) makes the assertion that wine is better than any medicine.

A balance between these two apparently contradictory views emerges from the Midrash (Tanchuma Noach 13), which sees moderate consumption of alcohol as a blessing but taken in excess, it quickly turns into a curse.

Synagogues have the unenviable task of trying to achieve this balance on Simchat Torah. To ban drinking outright is unnecessarily puritanical and even counter productive, as it will only encourage enthusiastic revellers to flout the ban. Equally, unacceptable is alcohol abuse in the synagogue. Responsible religious leaders must seriously consider the message this sends to impressionable teenagers.

It may be helpful in trying to achieve this balance to bear in mind the Talmud's pithy observation (Eruvin 65b) that "When wine goes in, the truth comes out." What this means is that whatever one feels inside is expressed and magnified by the consumption of alcohol. For those who experience the true joy of celebrating with the Torah, a lechayim will only serve to enhance that feeling. For others, who are oblivious to such joy and use the festival as nothing more than an excuse to get drunk, such consumption is empty and ugly.

I believe every synagogue should have a kiddush on Simchat Torah with good food and ample spirits for those wishing to make a lecahyim. It is the rabbi's responsibility to set the tone by reminding his merry congregants that while alcohol can put one in a relaxed frame of mind, real joy comes from within.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

This touches on one of the few occasions when Orthodox Jews have a definite advantage over Progressive ones (at other times, neither are superior nor inferior to each other, but are two equally valid interpretations of the same tradition).

Reform and Liberal Jews see no problem in driving to synagogue on Sabbaths and festivals. Travelling may have been considered a type of "work" that was banned in former times, but for us that definition applied to the age of donkeys and camels, when travelling was dirty, laborious, and risked the danger of attack by brigands.

Today, however, travelling by car facilitates participation in communal life, especially for those living at a considerable distance or who are unable to walk for whatever reason. What is important is that they come - how they come is irrelevant.

However, the downside is that when we survey the kiddush after services, we not only have to bear in mind the equal rights of those around us to their share of the nosh, but we also have to remember the drink-driving laws.

Still, that apart, I can see little objection to a wee dram (particularly for those who did walk or to passengers in a car) to reinforce the camaraderie of members who have been praying alongside each other earlier.
But I am less sure about having that dram (or drams) during the service, which might introduce a somewhat less than pious atmosphere. Are the executive really being spoilsports or are you just bored and want to start drinking as quickly as possible?

Yes, fun is part of Simchat Torah, but there are other ways of achieving that apart from alcohol, be it through the singing, dancing and general exuberance. They should be the way in which we distinguish the day. The object is to sharpen our appreciation of the Torah, not numb our senses.

It is also worth stating that at Simchat Torah - or any other occasion - non-alcoholic drinks should be available too, not just for drivers, but because every synagogue has congregants who are members of Alcoholics Anonymous, be they male or female, and whether that is public knowledge or not. It is important for them to have alternative options to alcohol - both to avoid temptation, and to avoid the embarrassment of being the only one not holding a glass of wine/whisky and constantly having to refuse offers.

    Last updated: 6:47pm, March 11 2009

    COMMENTS

    Joe

    Fri, 10/17/2008 - 10:09

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    One of the reasons wine may have been so praised in antiquity is because the water was less than 100% pure. Here in Europe people preferred beer and later brewed tea, also to avoid water impurities. Whiskey, of course, is medicinal, but only for men!