Wine is not only the fiery liquid that gladdens G-d and men (Shoftim 9:13), but also a medicine, antiseptic, trouble maker, and nation builder. In earlier times, wine was famous for its medicinal qualities – the Shas is full of this subject – and it also served as an important antiseptic agent. Wine caused much enmity and anti-Semitism in medieval times, and in modern times (circa 19th century), it was an important element in the agricultural development of Eretz Yisroel.
Medicine and Antiseptic
Wine was once a universal medicine. Ancient Egyptian and Sumerian records dating back about 4,200 years extol wine’s medical value, making it the world’s oldest man-made medicine ever documented. It remained part of the doctor’s arsenal until the late 19th century when concern over alcoholism and its diseases, and the invention of newer medicines dampened its popularity. Perhaps this inspired the saying, “Penicillin cures, but wine makes people happy.”
Wine and vinegar were the world’s most powerful antiseptics until Arabs learnt to distill pure alcohol in the ninth century. However, the effectiveness of wine as an antiseptic cannot be solely due to its alcoholic content, which would need to reach 15% to eradicate pathogens. Recently, researchers have found that wine contains an antibacterial substance called malvoside. Cloths used to bind wounds were soaked in wine or vinegar since the time of the Greek physician Hippocrates (d. 377 BCE). The Roman physician Galen (d. about 217 CE), whose books were studied by the Rambam, used wine to disinfect horrific gladiator wounds, helping contribute to only six gladiator deaths during the four years of his medical supervision, compared to sixty deaths under the medical supervisor before him.
Yet surprisingly, despite understanding the importance of cleaning wounds, no one thought the same might apply to the hands and instruments of doctors and surgeons until centuries later in 1867, when the British surgeon Joseph Lister published the paper, “Antiseptic Principle of the Practice of Surgery.” Hearing of Louis Pasteur’s germ theory of food purification, he figured that if germs rot food, it might be a good idea to get them out of the surgical theatre.
The anti-bacterial properties of wine also account for its vast popularity in earlier times. People drank it as we drink water or tea. In human settlements, water was easily contaminated with dysentery, cholera, and other diseases and mixing wine with water could be a lifesaver. As late as 1602, one historian, found a correlation between a poor grape harvest and the outbreak of disease, writing: “There was a severe winter, a cold April, a hailstorm in the summer. The wine was scarce and of poor quality. In this year, there was a plague in the Palatinate, through Saxony and Prussia.” The Gemara sings the virtues of wine in stimulating the digestion and warding off disease. Hippocrates, the ancient Greek father of medicine, even advocated giving wine to babies but advised they be “given their wine diluted and not at all cold.” Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), the first person to realize that microorganisms cause decay, called wine “the most healthy and most hygienic of beverages;” it was indeed safer than most water people drunk until the 20th century. Wine was used to sterilize water as late as the Hamburg Cholera epidemic of 1892.
On the debit side, Romans found that mixing lead with wine helped preserve wine and improve its taste and texture. This and the use of lead piping led to chronic lead poisoning, which, some theorize, was one of the reasons for Rome’s decline.
Medical science now claims that red wine may have a number of health benefits, although it is recently suspected that the same benefits may be derived from eating the grapes from which wine is made.
Problems Caused by Wine
No person more profoundly affected the history of wine than Mohammed. Within ten years of his death in 632, Muslims in Arabia and everywhere his influence spread were (officially, at least) avoiding alcohol like the plague. Little known is how this prohibition of wine is connected with the establishment of the first Jewish ghetto. This happened in Fez, Morocco, in 1438, when Muslims rioted after it was rumored that Jews poured wine into a mosque’s lamps. This led to the confinement of the Jews in a separate mellah (ghetto) next to the palace grounds. And this was notthe end of the phenomenon. In 1807, Sultan Sulayman ordered the Jews of a number of Moroccan towns to sell their homes and move into mellahs after Muslims claimed that Jews were spilling wine near mosques.
In Christian Europe, wine caused conflict with the general population for a different reason. Locals were upset that Jews would not drink wine they had touched and sometimes led them to believe that the wine Jews sold them must be inferior. In 1205, we find Pope Innocent III writing to King Phillip Augustus of France, expressing concern over certain aspects of Jewish behavior. One of his complaints was that the Jews shechted animals and then gave the parts they did not want to the general population.
Another complaint was that “at vintage season the Jew, shod in linen boots, treads the wine, and having extracted the purer wine in accordance with the Jewish rite, they retain some for their own pleasure. The rest, which is abominable to them, they leave to the faithful Christians.”
Wine also played a part in the medieval Christian’s love-hate relationship with Jewish doctors. On the one hand, half of medieval doctors were Jews, even though Jews constituted about one percent of the general population. On the other hand, while Jewish doctors were respected for their knowledge, the Church inculcated fear of Jews among the populace to the extent that their medicinal wine was sometimes suspected of being poison. A regulation of Provence in Southern France stipulated that “a Jewish surgeon has to taste from the same wine given to sick ones” and warned not to accept the Jew’s ruse of claiming the wine was not kosher and forbidden to him.
While on this point, it is worth noting that in ancient Greece, dinner hosts took the first sip of wine to assure guests the wine was not poisoned. This, it is said, led to the phrase “drinking to one’s health.”
Wine in Eretz Yisroel
You can’t wander too far in Eretz Yisroel without coming across ancient wine presses carved into solid rock. But the Muslim conquest of the seventh century put an end to the land’s prosperous wine industry. During the 19th century, Sir Moses Montefiore helped and encouraged Jews to plant vines, leading to the establishment of two Jewish wineries in Yerushalayim, Schorr (1848) and Tepperberg (1870). Three wineries in Mishor Adomim near Yerushalayim, Hacormim, Arza, and Zion, stem back to the old Schorr winery founded a century and a half ago.
An American wine lover traveling in Palestine during the 1850s gives us a description of the vineyards of those days.
“Approaching Hebron from the north, I passed for two miles through vineyards, exhibiting the great care of their proprietors,” he writes. “Each vineyard had in its center a stone tower used in the summer season by the owner as a sleeping place for himself and his family. They come out of town, and pass the hot weather in these rude huts, for they are nothing else. The Jews are the only cultivators of grapes here. The Mohammedans do not grow or use wine.”
He reports that there was also plenty of wine in Teveria: “At Tiberius, on the sea of Galilee, I found the largest variety of wines and had an opportunity of examining a Jewish wine cellar that, I have no doubt, was a fair representation of the same repository of ancient times.”
Wine production in Israel went through two more stages, first, when Baron Edmond de Rothschild developed a wine industry based on French vines and knowledge, but they generally weren’t of the highest standard. When British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli sipped some red wine from Palestine in 1875, he said it tasted “not so much like wine but more like what I expect to receive from my doctor as a remedy for a bad winter cough.”
In 1972, it was suggested that the soil and climate of the Golan Heights might prove ideal for cultivating grapes. This led to the founding of the Golan Heights winery whose kosher wine production that began in 1983 reached international standards and has changed the face of the whole wine industry in Israel. Israel is now firmly planted on the world wine map.
An Unraisinable Mistake
Far from the sun of Eretz Yisroel, Jews of northern and eastern Europe did not have access to wine and relied on wine extracted from raisins. The Jewish Encyclopedia of 1906 writes: “Jews are required to offer over a cup of wine the Sabbath prayer for the sanctification of food. But in many countries wine is too expensive a luxury for the majority of Jewish families.
A cheap preparation, made of boiled raisins, is therefore substituted, which, though it is far from resembling wine, satisfies all the requirements of the ritual.”
The custom of using raisin wine spread to the US. and was so common on Pesach that one famous, but not so learned American – Mordecai Noah, who tried to found an independent state for Jews on an island in the Niagara River – thought its use was related to the prohibition against chometz. Raisin wine, he wrote, “is the wine we use on the nights of Passover because it is free from fermentation, as we are strictly prohibited not only from eating leavened bread, but from drinking fermented liquors.”
Moses Stuart, a theological scholar of Noah’s time, made the same error, writing, “The great mass of the Jews have ever understood this prohibition as extending to fermented wine or strong drink, as well as to bread. The word is essentially the same, which designates the fermentation of bread and that of liquors. Hence the Jews, the world over, with few exceptions, have kept the Passover with unfermented wine.”
Raisin wine has another plus: its low alcohol content can facilitate the drinking of the arba kossos of Seder night for those who are wary of alcohol. This, of course, saddles it with a tremendous disadvantage – as a Purim beverage it comes in at zero on the Richter Scale.
(Harpers Magazine 1857, “Celebrated Wines;” Frank Heynick, Jews and Medicine: an Epic Saga, Ktav Publishing House, 2002; ; J.D. Sarna, Passover Wine, the American Temperance Movement, and Mordechai Noah, 1988; Keven A. Estreicher, Wine from Neolithic Times to the 21st Century, Algora Publishing, 2006.)