Wine has always been an integral part of the Jewish religion. The grape was one of the blessed species in Biblical Israel. Wine is part of every Jewish festival and lifecycle event. There is even a special Blessing devoted to wine, thanking G-d for the ‘fruit of the vine’, which Jews say every time they drink wine in a religious context.
Kosher wine is made so a Jew who observes the Jewish Dietary Laws, may drink it. The main aspect of making kosher wine is the handler at the winery, who has to be a religious Jew, but the same methods of harvesting, fermentation, aging and bottling are used for both a kosher and non-kosher wine. The kosher designation is irrelevant to quality. A bad kosher wine may be bad quality, but that is because it is badly made, not because it is kosher. A good quality kosher wine may be award winning, receive high scores and recognition from the world’s leading critics.
It is important not to confuse quality table wines, that happen also to be kosher, with sweet, sacramental kiddush wines, which are really in the same category as Altar and Communion wines. Kosher wines are made in most wine producing countries in the world and even some famous wineries also make a kosher batch or cuvee. It is true though, that Israel arguably produces the best quality and largest variety of kosher wines. New Zealand specializes in Sauvignon Blanc, and France in Champagne sparkling wines, and Israel specializes in kosher wines. However not all Israeli wine is kosher, neither is all kosher wine Israeli.
In the main lifestyle events of a Jew, wine plays a major part.
CIRCUMCISION – BRIT
A Jewish baby boy is circumcised on its 8th day and will, as is the custom, get some sweet Kiddush (sacramental) wine rubbed on his gums, to ease the pain and sweeten the experience.
A blessing over wine precedes the betrothal ceremony, and the nuptials. The celebration reaches a climax when the groom stamps on a wine glass.
THE SABBATH – SHABBAT
Wine plays a part in the weekly ritual of every Jewish person during ‘Shabbat’.
Every Sabbath, which starts on Friday evening, Jewish families will start the proceedings by lighting candles, then saying the Blessing over wine, drink from an ornamental silver cup, and eat bread with salt. To the Jewish family, the Friday night meal is a time for family, and is a similar occasion to the Sunday lunch.
SEPARATION – HAVDALAH
At the closing ceremony every Sabbath, on Saturday evening, a wine glass is poured to over flowing. This also involves lighting a braided candle and sniffing aromatic spices.
For both Shabbat and Havdalah, families may traditionally use sacramental wine or grape juice, but there is nothing written to prevent them from using a quality, dry table wine and going on to drink it with the meal afterwards. More and more wine drinkers are doing this.
Furthermore, virtually every Jewish Festival opens with the blessing over wine. The Jewish Festivals are set according to the lunar calendar, therefore dates will be different each year.
Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year that will likely be in September. To the winemaker, the festival is regarded with dread, because it occurs slap in the middle of the harvest. This is the second largest wine buying period in the Jewish world, after Passover. The theme of the festival is sweet things to symbolize a sweet year. Therefore, along with the traditional apple and honey, a quality dessert wine is recommended, served ice cold.
This relates to Tabernacles. It usually occurs in October and it is the festival that celebrates the grape harvest. Jews celebrate this festival eating and sleeping in a succa, a flimsy half hut, half tent structure open to the stars. In ancient times, there would be dancing in the vineyards. In modern times, it is a time for hiking and wine tourism in Israel.
This is the festival of the menorah or hannukiah – the eight candled candelabra. It normally takes place in December. It is normally caught up in the build up to Christmas. More than wine, this is the festival of olive oil, so the main thing is to drink wines with good acidity, like sauvignon blanc, that go well with dishes cooked in olive oil. It is also winter, so warm wines with good fruit. For this, some restaurants in Israel may hold a festival of Syrah, including Israeli Syrah, Shiraz and Petite Sirah. This is a relatively new idea, that has not caught yet, but may do so in the future.
Tu B’Shvat is the Festival of Trees, when Israelis will hold tree planting ceremonies. This may occur early February. Young families may hold a special seder (festive meal) at which wine or grape juice are drunk in stages with different shades of color, in a spectrum from white to red.
This will be at the end of February or beginning of March. Purim is the only festival where Jews are encouraged to drink to excess. They should drink until they can’t tell the difference between the sentences: “Cursed be Haman” and “Blessed be Mordehai.” These are two of the main characters in the Purim story. This festival is most observed in religious circles, in particular by orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jews. They will purchase grape juice and wine in small size bottles for gift boxes they send (called Mishloach Manot) and will drink wine to fulfill the need of this particular festival.
Passover is the main wine festival in the Jewish religion. Jesus’ Last Supper was a Passover meal, so the dates may match up to Easter. Families sit down to a banquet and tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. During this Seder Night, Jews have to drink and make blessings over four cups (glasses) of wine. The build up to Passover, usually held in April, mirrors Christmas as it is the main wine selling period of the year. There are no rules as to the wines chosen. Family custom dictates more than religion. Many insist on red wines, some will only buy whites. There are people who like a kiddush wine (sweet sacramental wine) for the first glass and afterwards table wines. There are those that take it like a banquet starting with a sparkling wine, going on to a white wine, then red wine and finally a dessert wine. For the children, some use grape juice and others use a Moscato style wine. Many, even non-religious families, may prefer a kosher wine and even an Israeli wine for this important event in the Jewish calendar. This is the main wine buying time in the Jewish faith, equivalent to the pre-Christmas period in the drinks trade in the west.
ISRAEL INDEPENDENCE DAY – YOM HATZMAUT
Israel’s Independence Day is normally held in May. This is the festival of the barbeque, grilled food, usually a great deal of meat. Israelis are experienced in the art of the barbeque. Many Israeli families and Jewish organizations will hold a party. For this are recommended light and medium bodied fruity reds, roses and whites of all descriptions….and of course a great deal of beer. It is also a day of celebration, so sparkling wines ranging from quality traditional method to less expensive, fun styles, are popular at Independence Day parties.
This is a festival of the giving of the law (Torah), and the harvest of the first fruits. It normally takes place at the end of May or beginning of June. The tradition here is to eat dairy products, and for this reasons cheese and wine parties are very popular in the Jewish world to celebrate this festival. Owing to the hot weather in Israel, and the fact that they accompany cheese better, white wines are normally drunk at this time.
Therefore, wine is programmed in to the regular lifestyle of every Jewish person. This brings many occasions to imbibe both for reasons of ritual and celebration.
Whenever Jews are together with wine they will say: “Le’Haim!” which is Jewish (and Israeli) equivalent to Cheers, A Votre Sante, Prost, Salute, Nostrovia and Kanpai.
Le’Haim means ‘To Life!’
Photos – Dani Kronenberg