Thursday, December 5, 2019

“Prohibition” and the Jews

Today is “Repeal Day,” referring to the repeal of “Prohibition”, the infamous 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The 18th Amendment went into effect nation-wide on January 16, 1920, prohibiting “the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors” in the United States. But, the ban on alcohol was not the social panacea its promoters envisioned. It did not lower crime. If anything, with bootleggers sneaking booze into the country, malfeasance increased. Over time, the nation sought repeal.

On December 5, 1933, the passage of the 21st Amendment effectively repealed the 18th Amendment.

Jews and Christians utilize wine sacramentally. In order to avoid a conflict with the famous First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of worship and religion, section 6 of the Volstead Act, the document detailing how the government would enforce prohibition, permitted wine for sacramental purposes only. Section 6 allowed up to 10 gallons of wine per family per year. As can be imagined, there was widespread abuse, and attempted exploitation of Section 6, despite the Jewish legal obligation of dina d’malchuta dina, following the law of the land.

The Jewish community was very wary of the passage of the 18th Amendment, as it was widely assumed that its promoters sought a type of racial purity that was detrimental to the Jews. Henry Ford’s publication of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” coincided with the prohibition push.

Rabbis, representing Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews and congregations, were appointed to represent of their denominations and would certify to the government that wine would be given to bona fide rabbis of their respective sects. The rabbis in possession of Treasury Department sacramental wine permits were the only ones authorized to purchase the wine from the few remaining wine dealers, and could not receive payment for the wine from their congregants. The congregants had to pay the synagogue directly.

In late 1920, the question of using “unfermented” wine, commonly known as grape juice, was posed by the different rabbinic groups. The Reform Movement’s Committee on Responsa found that grape juice was an entirely acceptable substitute for wine in Jewish ritual. The Conservative movement, in a 71-page responsum authored by the eminent Rabbi Louis Ginzberg, concluded the same. In asserting that Jewish law did not prefer wine over grape juice, Rabbi Ginzburg ignored a ruling of the acclaimed 17th century Rabbi Abraham Gombiner (commentary of Magen Avraham to Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 272:2), who had explicitly ruled the opposite. There was no criticism from the Orthodox rabbinic groups to Rabbi Ginzburg’s conclusion.

Some in the Conservative and Reform movements attempted to shift the entire Jewish community to grape juice, even lobbying for repealing the exemptions set forth in Section 6 of the Volstead Act. These efforts ceased, when it became clear that this move would antagonize Christian groups.

Since Prohibition was repealed, much ink has been spilled addressing the question of whether unfermented wine can be used sacramentally. There are certainly many well-respected halachic authorities who have concluded that it may.

NOTE: As with all Treats dealing with issues of halacha (points of Jewish law), one should consult one's local rabbi for practical application.

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