Prohibition (alcohol)

Grape juice or wine? Is grape juice perfectly acceptable for Kiddush, or is it better to use wine? This innocent question was deemed of critical importance during the Prohibition years, when trading in alcohol was as illegal as drug dealing in our time.


During the nineteenth century, alcoholism in the United States was an even more severe problem than it is today, and it was getting far worse. Whiskey was cheap, the country was prospering, and the nation wanted to slake its thirst. Whereas the average American was downing 4.7 gallons of spirits a year in 5570/1810, thirteen years later, the figure had increased to

  1. gallons per annum. Compare this to modern times, when the average American knocks down a measly
  1. gallons of spirits every year, and you’ll appreciate that the country had a huge problem on its hands.The concept of Prohibition gathered steam during the nineteenth century, enlivened by vociferous debate between the “Drys” and the “Wets.” While everyone agreed that the level of alcoholism was intolerable, the Drys agitated for the total abolition of alcohol and the Wets favored less draconian measures.
  2. The most colorful personality of that era was the “Famous Bar Room Smasher,” Carrie Nation, an impassioned, muscular, 6-foot- tall woman who regularly invaded saloons, smashing their furniture and mirrors.
  3. The problem was what to do about it. Since it is so easy to plunge into drink and so difficult to surface from it, many church leaders argued that there was only one effective solution – to outlaw every inebriating beverage. This makes perfect sense considering that the same logic is applied to chemical substances nowadays. In fact, this idea was no novelty; already back in 5417/1657, the General Court of Massachusetts had illegalized the sale of strong liquor, “whether known by the name of rum, strong water, wine, brandy, etc.”


When her husband jokingly suggested that she use a hatchet for maximum damage, she took his advice seriously, remarking, “That’s the most sensible thing you have said since I married you.” Bars everywhere subsequently put up signs stating, “All Nations Welcome But Carrie!”

The Drys gradually gained the upper hand, starting with a statute passed in Indiana in 5576/1816, which forbade alcohol sales on Sunday. This created a trend that spread like wildfire through dozens of towns and communities, fanned by associations like the National Prohibition Party and the Anti-Saloon League; by 5674/1914, thirty-three of America’s forty-eight states had gone bone- dry. However, since these laws were provided with inadequate legal teeth, they existed more in the breach than in practice.

The climax came with the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, stating:              “After one

year from the ratification of this article, the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.” From now on, American citizens would be expected to live on nothing but food and water.


This was the beginning of the Prohibition Era that lasted from 5680/1920 until 5693/1933.

“The reign of tears is over,” one pious proponent announced to a rejoicing audience. “The slums will soon be a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent!”

However, this utopia was not to be, since illegalizing liquor was in defiance of a law of nature. Does the Maharal of Prague not write that the gematria of yayin is seventy, symbolizing the dependence of the Seventy Nations upon wine for the
sort of ethereal experience that Jews achieve with spirituality?

Removing liquor from the shelves of shops and saloons only drove it under the control of powerful mobsters, such as Al Capone, who controlled 10,000 speakeasies (illegal saloons) in Chicago alone, and raised violent crime to unprecedented levels. Instead of making a nation of teetotalers, Prohibition created a nation of law­breakers. Illegalizing alcohol obviously sent the thirst-maddened masses running for legal loopholes; fortunes awaited the entrepreneur smart enough to cut corners and get round the law.

Mindful of the adage that a bartender is just a pharmacist with a limited inventory, within seven months of Prohibition, over 72,000 purveyors and manufacturers of medicinal alcohol and doctors applied for special licenses, and with good reason – the public had suddenly discovered that this substance was the miracle panacea for all ills. During the Prohibition’s duration, Americans swallowed over a million gallons of this healing elixir every year!

Since Section 29 of the Volstead Act, which reinforced the prohibition of alcohol, allowed families to consume 200 gallons annually of “nonintoxicating cider and fruit juices,” people suddenly became ardent enthusiasts of grape juice. Countless acres of vineyards were planted to satisfy this newfound thirst and the price of grapes skyrocketed from $10 a ton to a stupendous $100 a ton! Many grape growers included brochures in their shipments that warned buyers of the legal hazard of their juice turning into wine, carefully describing the winemaking procedures they should avoid.

A newly invented “Vine-go” grape jelly, which had the unfortunate proclivity to ferment with the addition of a little water, also became wildly popular. For the benefit of the ignorant, yeast tablets were often included with the juice and jellies, to ensure that people know what to avoid.

People took the hint; a New York Times article reports what it was like to stroll down a less prosperous Los Angeles street during the Prohibition Era:

“A walk through the Italian Quarter reveals wine presses drying in the sun in front of many homes. The air is heavy with the pungent odor of fermenting vats in garages and basements. Smiling policemen frequently help the owners of these wine presses to shoo away children who use them for improvised rocking horses.”


Another loophole had special relevance for observant Jews. This was Section 6 of the Volstead Act, which specified:

“Nothing in this title shall be held to apply to the manufacture, sale . or distribution of wine for sacramental purposes or like religious rites. . The head of any conference . or other ecclesiastical jurisdiction may designate any rabbi, minister, or priest to supervise the manufacture of wine to be used for the purposes and rites in this section, etc.”

As vital as this exception was, it soon fell into misuse, since who was to define who was or who was not a rabbi? Many rabbis had received semicha in Europe from people totally unknown to the US authorities. This enabled unscrupulous people to set themselves up as rabbis with fictitious kehillos gathered from the pages of telephone books, each member needing to be supplied with gallons of ceremonial wine.

One of these fake clergymen, obviously gifted with a sense of humor, gave his kehillah the dubious moniker of “Congregation L’Chayim.” By 5685/1925, the distribution of holy wine reached 1.8 million gallons, three times the volume of three years earlier, prompting one Prohibition official to joke that the new laws had created “a remarkable increase in the thirst for religion!”

By 5683/1923, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz had already decried these goings-on in an article in Dos Yiddishe Licht:

“… How much shame, how much degradation, how much desecration of the honor of the Torah lies therein! .

If truth be told, even if wine for ritual purpose were a Biblical commandment, the current desecration of G-d’s Name would still not be justified; how much more so that it is only a Rabbinic commandment, and it can be fulfilled by using raisin wine .”

As if things weren’t bad enough, anti-Semitism – which was always on the lookout for a pretext to demonize Jews – was now provided with a new weapon against the Jews. Publications like Henry Ford’s infamous Dearborn Independent threw grotesquely exaggerated accusations at the Jews and their misuse of “rabbinical wine.”

Terrified by this anti-Semitic trend, Conservative and Reform leaders took action. The Conservative movement took a “halachic” approach, submitting to its “Committee on Responsa” the question whether using wine was necessary at all. Why not simply use grape juice or nonalcoholic raison wine for religious rituals? In response, a 71-page argument was produced that grape juice was perfectly acceptable, in explicit contradiction to the ruling of the Magen Avraham (Orach Chayim 272:3) that it is a mitzvah to use wine.

Similarly, a year earlier, the Reform movement had appealed to the Prohibition authorities to rewrite Section 6 of the Prohibition law, applying the loophole of ceremonial wine only to Christians and not Jews, since the latter could manage perfectly well with grape juice.

Although the government did not accept this Reform suggestion, by 5686/1926, the Prohibition authorities had tightened their rules and regulations so drastically that, within a few years, the volume of holy wine in use dropped precipitously from 1.8 million gallons to under 400,000 gallons.


To the relief of millions, Prohibition was repealed in 5693/1933, with President Roosevelt remarking at the time, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.”

(Sources include: Hannah Sprecher, “’Let Them Drink and Forget Our Poverty’: Orthodox Rabbis React to Prohibition, ” American Jewish Archives 43:2, Fall-Winter 1991)

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