16 Mar 2018

Touring the Talmud: Aboda Zara 55-61 – In Vino Veritas

This week’s ‘Touring the Talmud’ is dedicated in honour of Mr David Weitzman who has contributed immensely to the development and production of these essays over the last several months. We wish him much berakha in all his endeavours.


Touring the Talmud

Aboda Zara 55-61

In the discussions of the prohibitions revolving around idol worship the Talmud dedicates a lengthy dialogue regarding wine that was used for sacrificial purposes in idolatrous rites. In this area of prohibition the Sages instituted additional sanctions on any wine that was touched or poured by an idolater[1] (even if not actively used in idolatrous acts). Not only is the wine prohibited for drinking, we are also prohibited from gaining any benefit from it or its proceeds.

Wine is on our minds this week and we seek insight into the restrictions on wine along with the place it holds, and the effects it has, on our lives and thoughts.

 In Vino Veritas

Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation

than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.

Ernest Hemingway

Beer is made by men, wine by God.

Martin Luther



Our world rises and falls with the thoughts of our minds. Mental health therefore, is as important if not more, than our physical well-being. But the mind is fragile and tampering with its chemistry greatly affects our thinking, mood, emotional responses, and ultimately, our sanity.

From Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland to the Wachowskis’[2] The Matrix, we have long wondered with fascination at how, with the simple introduction of chemicals, we can drastically change our perception of reality and our behaviours. As long as humans have been conscious we have found ways to experiment with manipulating that consciousness.

Wine is perhaps the drug that has been with us the longest. From time immemorial, the fermented juice of the grape has opened us up to the most outlandish possibilities.

Wine opens you to the strange and alien…. (Tanhuma, Shemini, 5)


What we find to be acceptable or within the bounds of possibility when sober expands when we drink. Our inhibitions drop and our self-regulating thoughts become more relaxed. When we are ‘high’ with wine the parts of ourselves that we normally lock away are set free.

Wine goes in, and out come the secrets. (Erubin 65a)

A human can be known through his his kos (lit. his ‘cup’ – i.e. when he drinks), his kees (lit. ‘pocket’ – i.e. his use of money), and his ka’as (lit. his ‘anger’ – i.e. how he acts when angry). (ibid 65b)

It would seem, though, that it can’t be all bad. Surely the openness with which wine provides us is an important part of human freedom. After all, without the ability to contemplate possibilities and pursue curiosity, we remain enslaved to the confines of our circumstances and unable to facilitate new realities. It is no wonder that on Passover, the festival of our freedom, we drink not one, but four glasses of wine which correspond to the four verses of redemption relating to our exodus from the slavery of Egypt.

On the night of Passover…one must not have less than four cups of wine. (Pesahim 99b)

 Four cups – Correspond to the four terms referring to redemption from the exile in Egypt mentioned in the Torah:

‘I will take you out…’

‘I will save you…’

‘I will redeem you…’

‘I will take you to Me as a nation…’ (Exodus 6:6-7)

(Rashi, ibid.)

The drinking of wine is an expression of our free ability to create our own lives.

The four cups [of wine] used on the night of Passover must be…enjoyable for the one drinking them. If one did not have enjoyment from the wine, while he fulfils the obligation of having four cups of wine, he does not fulfil the obligation of [experiencing] freedom [through them]! (Rambam)[3]

Our relationship to reality thrives on our ability to move beyond the default of our minds’ confines. The right amount of wine gives us an ability to find greater discernment and nuance in the world that we would otherwise miss when completely sober. Rab Nahman insisted on not missing it!

Rav Nahman said, ‘I do not sit to judge a case without drinking a cup of wine, for without it my mind is not lucid!’

(Erubin 64b)

It is wine specifically, not just alcohol, that holds this unique status. Nothing resembling the restrictions on wine were placed on other alcoholic beverages. Wine itself is something of great subtlety and diversity. The connoisseur seeks to discover a myriad of delicate variations in its innumerable types, vintages and styles. The discerning human mind is the great companion to the manifold manifestations of earth’s wine. It is special and was not chosen for religious worship by chance.

From the perspective of Torah, the inclusion of wine in our diet is so central and important a supplement that we deem those who withhold it sinful.

He (the nazirite) shall atone for having sinned against the soul….(Num., 6:11)

What ‘sin against the soul’? He denied himself the pleasure of wine. (Nazir, 19a)


Wine augments thought. The value of its use depends on our ability to discern between thoughts of reality and fiction. The more we sense real, viable options in life the more we can rectify and develop our lives and the world towards greater health and success. Yet, as we lose our sense of reality and viability we continue to regress into the world of our own heads. One leads to greater awareness and the other leads to greater delusion. Wine opens both of these doors to us.

The case of the nazir quoted above strikes at both sides of the viticultural coin. The nazarite vows to stay away from wine and all associated with it for a minimum of thirty days[4] and while we see that there is a negative element in the nazir’s voluntary oath to withdraw from the benefits of wine, at times, that dose of abstinence is nonetheless therapeutic and outweighs the benefits of openness and engagement that wine facilitates.

Shimon HaTzadik said: In all my days as a priest, I never ate the guilt-offering of a ritually impure nazirite, apart from the offering of one man who came to me from the South, who had beautiful eyes and a fine countenance, and his locks were arranged in curls. I said to him: My son, what did you see to become a nazirite, which would force you to destroy this beautiful hair? (as a nazirite must cut off all his hair at the conclusion of his term)

He said to me: I was a shepherd for my father in my town, and I went to draw water from the spring, and I looked at my reflection in the water. And my evil inclination quickly rose against me and sought to drive me from the world. I said to my evil inclination: Empty one! For what reason are you proud in a world that is not yours, as your end is to be [for] maggots and worms when you die. I swear by the Temple service that I will become a nazirite and shave you for the sake of Heaven.

Shimon HaTzaddik relates: When I heard his response, I arose and kissed him on his head, and said to him: May there be more nazirites like you in Israel, it is about you that the verse states: When either a man or a woman shall clearly utter a vow, the vow of a nazirite, to consecrate himself to the Lord” (Numbers 6:2)

(Nazir 4b)

The nazir often came into his[5] vow in order to divert his thinking and actions away from deceitful and detrimental paths. He chose to keep from drinking wine because he noticed a path before him that seemed like it would be unmanageable and in order to avoid further self-sabotage the person became a nazir in order to pull away from a world full of intriguing and fantastical possibilities exposed by wine. He grew his hair out, letting things be so that he might rest his plotting mind in hopes to recover his stability of thought.


The provision of nazir in Torah aims at clearing the way for someone to reconnect to that which is good and holy. It therefore keeps away even the slightest stimuli for such a mind so that balance can be regained and the workings of rational, realistic thought can emerge again.

God, may His name be exalted, led us by giving us commandments that aim our thought away from desire and lust which ruins the ultimate wholeness of a person. This is one of the great purposes of the Torah. Notice…Refraining from wine brings one sanctity as it says regarding the nazir – ‘He shall be holy’ (Num. 6:5). (Moreh Nebukhim, III:33)

When one has trouble managing and controlling certain drives and behaviours, those elements that stimulate the behaviour must be utterly avoided.

If a person was at an extreme with a particular attribute, he should distance himself from that extreme to the other extreme and act in that [opposite extreme] for a great deal of time, until he [is able to] return to a good path which is the balanced, middle. (Rambam, De’ot, 2:2)

 Among the pathways to return is to…keep far away from the object of transgression. (Rambam, Teshuba, 2:4)

Regardless of the issues that the nazir wishes to address, however, wine and everything relating to it is to be completely avoided for it facilitates and perpetuates the thinking that induces the behaviour.

He shall refrain from wine…he shall not drink vinegar of wine…neither shall he drink anything in which grapes have been steeped, nor eat grapes fresh or dried. Throughout his term as a nazirite, he may not eat anything that is obtained from the grapevine, even seeds or skins. (Numbers 6:3-4)

Wine expands our confines of thought, whether positive or negative. If my thought is rooted in reality, wine helps me become more open to the possibilities of that reality.

One who allows himself to be won over by wine, shares something in common with the knowledge of his Creator. (Erubin 65a)

One who grows stable in his wine has the knowledge of all seventy elders of the Sanhedrin. (ibid.)

If my thought is rooted in fantasy and self-centredness, wine augments it into unstable proportions.

People are shameless when drunk, for their sense of reality becomes unstable and shifting… (Tanhuma, Shemini, 5)

When wine is abused, and we completely submit our consciousness to its alcoholic control, any viable possibilities it might have afforded us in measured portions disintegrate into a full, indiscriminate openness that is so wide we no longer care for our connection to, or even the appearance of, reality.

Nazir, interestingly is raised in our pages in the midst of discussions of idol worship several times. Particularly the adage:

We say to the nazir: Go around, Go around! Do not come close to the vineyard!(Daf 58b, 59a)


Idol worship is the stuff of fantasy. It begins and ends in our own minds. Adding wine to that mix is dangerous because wine maintains the illusion of fictional thought and the belief that it is real and viable. It helps us believe our delusions are true.

The Hakhamim were deeply concerned about even considering such possibilities. Therefore, when it comes to wine that is even touched by an idol worshipper, any benefit at all that one might gain from that wine is prohibited so that no perception of benefit can be gleaned from the idolatry whatsoever.


Benjamin Franklin said: ‘Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom’. The allowance of license — the openness to think about and act on possibilities can only be beneficial to those who care about truth and viability. Such people who are fundamentally committed to reality would do well at times to expand their

understandings of truth through wine. In a drink of wine opportunities and possibilities that once were deemed invisible or impossible can be entertained anew. And vistas to a successful future that eluded us can emerge prominently before us. It is no wonder Rab Nahman insisted on a glass of wine before judging his cases.

But as helpful as wine may be to a person of truth, it is a poison to one who lives lies. All the wine will do is augment, verify and confirm the lies. And the openness to fantasy that the wine provides becomes the iron gate that seals a person away from a true and free life.

There are few fantasies more toxic to us than the fantasies of imagined gods. They, like none other, firmly position us at the centre of the universe and make us its masters. Idol worship makes us impervious to reality because we always have our god on our side and it engenders in us a dangerous and, at times, deadly hubris. We begin to hear the god speaking to us, believe that the god has desires that we spread the belief — our manufactured belief. We build a world after our own imaginations but do not treat it as imaginary. And we begin to lose tolerance for those who do not believe in our fantasies. The slope of idolatry leads to oblivion. No, there was no room that the Hakhamim could find for such ‘grapes of wrath’. Indeed, we say to the nazir — ‘Go around, go around! Don’t come close’.

The Nation of Israel have long committed their faithfulness in covenant to Primal Existence, and they have served that Existence with an unrelenting search for truth in Its expressions of creation. Its Sages only wished to ensure that that faithful legacy remains in its full integrity and that the vineyard of Israel remain in its dedication to truth in its full integrity.

God has no vineyard other than Israel as it says: ‘The House of Israel is the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts, and the seedlings He lovingly tended, are the people of Judah’. (Isaiah, 5:7)

(Vayikra Rabba 32:1)

Touring the Talmud


Avoda Zara

Chapter #1: Teaches us the proper mannerisms for business with idol worshipers.

 Chapter #2: Deals with some more personal interactions (which includes eating their food).

Chapter #3: Begins to deal with prohibitions regarding actual items of worship.

 Chapter #4: Speaks of how items can be regarded or disregarded as items of worship, and how wine can become ‘wine used for sacrificial libation’.

Chapter #5: Deals with the prohibition of having any sort of benefit from ‘libation’ wine.

In the second half of the fourth chapter the Talmud begins its discussion on idolators’ wine. Wine was commonly used as an offering to idols as well as in the Holy Temple, and therefore it is prohibited to derive benefit from wine that has been used as an offering to a foreign deity. It was rabbinically instituted that it is prohibited to derive benefit from any wine of an idolator (or the wine of a Yisrael that has been touched bean idolator) as it may have been used for sacrifice. This portion of the chapter examines certain concerns we have during the process of making the wine, and also discusses the definition of the idolator’s ‘touch’ and intent that would prohibit the wine of a Yisrael.

Daf 55


One may purchase a wine press from an idolator even if the idolator has already crushed the grapes (with his feet), as long as the wine has not trickled down into the vat. Once the wine has trickled into the vat, whatever is in the vat is prohibited while what remains in the press is permitted.

The Mishna discuses certain rules regarding the (disputed) rule that it is prohibited to make impure even not-holy foods grown in Israel.


The Gemara explains that our Mishna is an outdated version and that the rule has become that whatever is in the winepress becomes prohibited once the juice begins to flow.

Daf 56

The Gemara discusses other opinions regarding when the juices from the winepress are regarded as ‘wine’ (it is noted that the opinions are brought from a context other than idolatry and therefore the discussion may be inappropriate for our purposes).

The Gemara explains that the issue with an idolator stepping on the grapes to make wine is not that he is touching the wine with his feet, rather that we fear that he may touch it with his hands.

Daf 57

There is an argument about the status of wine touched (indirectly) by an idolator without any idolatrous intent, or if a baby touches the wine (all agree that it is prohibited to drink, the argument is about whether or not benefit may be derived from it).

Argument about the status of wine touched by idolators who have gone through the entire conversion process but still have not had idolatry eradicated from them.

Daf 58

The status of wine touched directly by an idolator without idolatrous intent is discussed, and it is proven that it is prohibited to derive benefit from it.

It is permitted to derive benefit from wine touched by an idolator who was unaware that the substance he was touching was wine. If he touched it indirectly it is permitted even to drink.

The Gemara discusses some prohibitions that, although quite removed from the core prohibition of deriving benefit from ‘libation wine’, were rabbinically prohibited:

•   The prohibition for an idolator to dilute (strong) wines with water even though he is not at all coming into contact with the wine.

Daf 59

•   The prohibition for an idolator to bring grapes from the vineyard to the wine press.

If these prohibitions are transgressed it is permitted to benefit from the wine.

If an idolator intentionally uses the wine of a Yisrael for worship, prohibiting the wine from benefit, it is nonetheless permitted to sell it to the idolator who used it. This is because the money that the idolator pays is regarded as covering the cost of damages he inflicted upon the Yisrael, not as payment for use of the wine.

It is not enough for an idolator to simply touch the wine, he must move it in some way (stir, shake etc.). The Gemara discusses different ways that this may be applied:

•   If the spout of a barrel falls off and an idolator holds back the wine with his finger until something to keep it from spilling is brought, all the wine above the hole is prohibited and the wine below the hole is permitted.

Daf 60

•   If an idolator pours wine for a Yisrael, the wine is prohibited, but if the Yisrael pours the wine for an idolator, the wine is permitted so long as the idolator does not shake the cup.

•   A closed vessel that us shaken is still permitted since that  libation cannot be done using a closed vessel.

•   Indirect and doubly indirect interaction with the wine, both prohibited:

•   Pressing grapes by stepping on boards placed atop them.

•   Pressing grapes by turning a level that presses down on the boards to press the grapes.

If an idolator is found at the site of a wine press and there is enough moisture to wet an object and have that object in turn wet another object, the wine press must be rinsed and cleaned. If there is less moisture than that, just a rinse is enough.


When an idolator is found standing beside a vat of wine: If the owner of the wine owes the idolator mone (Gemara – and that there was an agreement that the debt should be paid from the wine of that specific vat), the wine is prohibited, if not, the wine is permitted.

If an idolator falls into the vat, or indirectly touches its wine not for the purpose of idol worship (uses a spoon to take out a fly or mix it), the wine is permitted for sale.

(Gemara – if the idolator who fell comes out alive, the wine is not permitted for sale since the idolator will praise his deity for saving him).

R”Shimon holds that such wine is permitted even to drink.

If an idolator throws a barrel of wine into the vat out of anger, it is permitted for sale.

Daf 61


A Yisrael is given a wine press full off grapes by an idolator in order to make wine (and maintain its kosher status) and sell it to other members of Yisrael, but the wine press remains on the property of the idolator: If the property open to a public domain, and there are other members of Yisrael in the city, the wine is permitted.

R”Shimon ben Elazar says all the domains of idolators are the same (explained in the Gemara).

A Yisrael is given a wine press full off grapes by an idolator to make wine and sell it to other members of Yisrael, and though the wine press remains on the property of the idolator, his property is visible from a public domain and there are members of Israel in the city: If the idolator writes to the Yisrael “I have accepted from you the payment”, the wine is permitted, as the idolator is afraid to touch the wine. But if not, the idolator is not afraid to tamper with the wine press, since it is his, and the wine is prohibited.


The Gemara outlines additional situations that wood qualify as ‘public domain’ for our purposes.

The Gemara brings a source that shows that the ruling in the first half of our Mishna is not the only opinion, and clarifies the argument.

The Gemara explains that the argument between the first opinion in the Mishna and R”Shimon ben Elazar is when the wine press is on the property of a third party idolator, and brings two ways of understanding the argument.


[1] It is important to recognise that this is not the case with wine touched by a gentile who is not an idolator. In such a case we are only concerned about boundaries regarding marriage. We will not drink the wine touched by a gentile so as not to consider ourselves drinking with them, thus potentially opening the lines of companionship and marriage. But benefit from that wine is permitted since there is no concern regarding idolatry and the mere benefit from the wine does not facilitate relationships in the way drinking it does. Cf. Last lines of Tosafot, 57b. See also, Halikhot Olam, VII, Balak, p. 132.

[2] Considering their exploration in the Matrix series of expanding the mind and its relationship to reality, the (former) Wachowski Brothers and are now, ironically, both trans women.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wachowskis

[3] Hilkhot Hamets uMatsah, 7:9.

[4] Rambam, Hilkhot Nezirut, 3:1-2 – The standard nazir period is thirty days. If one specified a time less than thirty days saying: ’I am hereby a nazir for one day or ten days, he is obligated to keep thirty days for there is no nazir for less than thirty days.

[5] Both men and women can become nazirites. (Numbers, 6:1)