When Tradition Met Prohibition | The Jewish Week | Food & Wine

When Tradition Met Prohibition

When Tradition Met Prohibition

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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Lots of folks—even some of my good friends—eschew alcohol, either for dietary or lifestyle reasons. So what does one do for kiddush if wine is off the menu? Answer: kosher grape juice. Seems like a silly question, right? Well, yes, at least today. But was it always so simple? What, for example, did Jews do during Prohibition (1920-1933)?

The Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified on January 18, 1920, prohibiting the “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors… for beverage purposes.” So congress enacted the National Prohibition Act. The Act defined intoxicating beverages, and carved out three important wine exemptions—wine could still be produced and sold for medical purposes, for use in religious services (sacramental wine), and households were allowed to make up to 200 gallons of wine per year for “non-intoxicating” family consumption.

Not desirous of religious exceptions and fearing, potential criminal abuse of the exemptions, the Reform movement issued a ruling as early as 1920 allowing for the use of unfermented grape juice instead of wine for kiddush. The Conservative movement followed suit in 1922, when Rabbi Professor Louis Ginzberg of the Jewish Theological Seminary issued an unusually lengthy (71 pages) and technical responsa in Hebrew on the matter, also ruling leniently in favor of unfermented, non-alcoholic wine, aka, grape juice (he issued a greatly abbreviated English language version too). The Orthodox community largely ignored the grape juice alternative and stuck with wine produced under the “sacramental wine” exemption and also with the lawfully permitted homemade raisin wine (already an age-old tradition throughout Eastern Europe where fresh grapes were often hard to obtain).

Although the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 272:2) writes that one may even squeeze a cluster of grapes (before Shabbat) and recite kiddush on the fresh juice, Rav Avraham Gombiner (1635-1682), known as the Magen Avraham, ruled that it is preferable or optimal (“Mitzvah Min HaMuvchar”) to use aged wine for kiddush, at least forty days old (this was codified by the Mishna Berurah 272:5 and the Aruch Hashulchan on Orach Chaim 272:1).

Nowadays the substitution of grape juice for wine for kiddush is more or less universal even in the Orthodox world (though some concerns remain for use of grape juice for the “four cups” of the Pesach seder), this was hardly the case when the darkness of Prohibition descended on the land.

For one thing, grape juice wasn’t a terribly familiar beverage. After all, shelf-stable, commercial unfermented grape juice didn’t really exist until the latter half of the nineteenth century. In 1869, Dr. Thomas Welch, a dentist in Vineland, New Jersey produced 12 quart-sized bottles of unfermented Concorde grape juice in his kitchen. He applied Louis Pasteur’s theory of pasteurization in an effort to preserve the juice, and boiled the bottles in water to kill off the yeast and prevent fermentation. His effort pioneered what became an industry of canned and bottled fruit juices in the United States. His son, Charles Welch, founded Welch’s Grape Juice Company in 1893. Prior to Welch, however, unfermented grape juice as a widely commercially available beverage simply did not exist. Welch, incidentally and unsurprisingly, was a big supporter of the Temperance movement.

Unfortunately, the sacramental wine loophole in Section 6 of the Volstead Act, which created a legal framework for the production and sale of kosher and communion wine (up to 10 gallons per family per year for religious use), was abused. As historian Marni Davis noted in Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition (NYU Press 2012), “Violation of Section 6 was often as flagrant and egregious as could be. ‘Rabbis’ (some of whom were not in fact Jewish) claimed new and enormous congregations filled with members named Houlihan and Maguire.

Real rabbis requested wine on behalf of fictitious or long-dead congregants, or sold their legitimately acquired wine permits to bootleggers. The sacramental dispensation also made available a far wider variety of alcoholic beverages than is traditionally present in Jewish practice.”

The whole episode was rather shameful. In 1926, for example, a federal grand jury investigated 600 rabbis in New York City for greatly exaggerating the number of people in their congregations. Even worse, some rabbis actively perpetrated fraud in league with dishonest wine production companies. An especially embarrassing 12-month period in 1926 and 1927 saw widespread media reporting of rabbinic arrests and indictments for violations of Prohibition.

All of this is now, of course, ancient history, and kosher grape juice is sold far and wide across the United States, and seems—anecdotally—more widely used for kiddush today than wine.


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