Volume 51 Number 64
                    Produced: Wed Mar 15 21:14:43 EST 2006

Subjects Discussed In This Issue: 

Religious and secular education (2)
         [Shimon Lebowitz, Alex Heppenheimer]
Wine in Talmudic Times (5)
         [W. Baker, Akiva Miller, Alana Suskin, Orrin Tilevitz, Leah S.


From: Shimon Lebowitz <shimonl@...>
Date: Tue, 14 Mar 2006 17:34:00 +0200
Subject: Re: Religious and secular education

On 13 Mar 2006 at 21:24, Jay F Shachter <jay@...> wrote:

> For most of our history, when the Jewish community practiced the
> halakha that requires Torah scholars to make their living from
> something other than the Torah, we were protected against the growth
> of a scholarly class of ignoramuses, like the schoolteacher who thinks
> that it was possible in Talmudic times to produce wine that was much
> stronger than the wine we have today, and the resulting perversions of
> Torah that inevitably follow.  Earning your own living in an honest
> manner requires some knowledge of the world and its workings, and,
> even more important, it requires you to associate with other people
> who possess other knowledge of the world and its workings.  In recent
> times, however, it has become respectable to make your living as a
> shnorrer, and entire collections of such shnorrers have sprung up in
> city after city, into which are collected men who devote themselves
> entirely to "religious" study, and whose understanding can be expected
> to be as uninformed by "secular" knowledge as that of the man quoted
> above.

I was under the unfortunate misimpression that I had a fairly rounded
secular education, including a HS diploma and a college degree, and that
rather than be a schnorrer I worked for a living in a professional
capacity not at all connected to learning Torah.

Apparently, the fact that I was under the delusion that in Talmudic
times wine was much stronger than it is today, proves the contrary.

I guess its just that people in those days *enjoyed* watering down
standard 12% wine by a ratio of 3 parts water to 1 part wine so they
wouldn't fall asleep after kiddush.

Purim sameach,

From: Alex Heppenheimer <aheppenh@...>
Date: Wed, 15 Mar 2006 12:19:03 -0800 (PST)
Subject: Re: Religious and secular education

In MJ 51:60, Jay Shachter wrote at some length about religious and
secular education (with reference to the discussion about the strength
of wine in Talmudic times).

>> Actually, the reason wine was diluted so much is because the
>> wine in those days was so strong that drinking it full-
>> strength was impossible.

> If the author of the above statement is using "strong" in its
> common sense of "having a high alcohol content", as I believe
> he is, then he is promulgating a myth.

> Alcohol production is an organic process, requiring live
> micro-organisms.  These organisms die in alcohol
> concentrations higher than 12 - 13 percent.  Therefore, they
> cannot create wine stronger than 12 or 13 percent alcohol.
> Allowing wine to evaporate decreases the alcohol
> concentration of the remaining liquid, as more alcohol will
> evaporate than water; the only way to create alcoholic
> beverages stronger than 12 or 13 percent alcohol is with
> distillation technology.  Distillation technology did not
> exist in Talmudic times.  Therefore, the "wine in those days"
> was no stronger than the wine in our days, regardless of what
> the author of the above statement may have been taught in
> school.

Well, other posters in the same issue of MJ have made reference to the
maximum limit as being 18% (and that's backed up by a Wikipedia article
at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcoholic_beverage, though further down
on the page they make reference to a typical limit of 15%). Eighteen
percent alcohol would indeed be pretty strong stuff to drink neat; maybe
not "impossible," but then again, of course, that will depend on the
drinker. (Some folks are able to knock back a cup of vodka without
flinching; I, on the other hand, find it difficult to tolerate even a
cup of wine with 5- 6% alcohol content.) From other references in the
Gemara itself (Niddah 24b, regarding the effect of undiluted wine on a
pregnant woman's fetus or on the person's own bones), too, it would seem
that their wine packed quite a wallop.

So the "myth" may not be so "mythical" after all, and in any case,
there's not necessarily a great deal of difference between it and the
scientific facts.

Furthermore, the same Wikipedia article refers to other methods (besides
distillation) of obtaining higher alcohol content, which have been known
"since the fourth millennium BC in Babylonia." Not being an archeologist
or a chemist, I can't evaluate whether that claim is correct, or what
those methods might have been; but if true, it would mean that
Talmudic-era wine might indeed have been stronger than the 15-18%
possible with simple fermentation.

In any case, though, I disagree that the propagation of this myth (if
such it is) can be blamed on the disconnect between secular and
religious education, and on the "fact" that teachers of Torah prefer to
"know nothing of the world." I'm reasonably well secularly educated, for
example, but I wouldn't have known about the maximum alcohol tolerance
of yeast without looking it up. It's perfectly true that the Talmud
"assumes...  a certain level of knowledge of the world and its
workings," but the knowledge that it assumes is based on daily life, not
necessarily on specialized study - and the fact is that knowledge of the
wine-making process was a lot more common back then, when it was their
regular beverage, than it is today.

To make up for that loss of common knowledge of Talmudic realia, we're
blessed today with a variety of good resources keyed to the relevant
sugyos (e.g., Steinsaltz, Artscroll, and various specialized works on
individual topics such as weaving or animal anatomy). There are indeed
cases where such knowledge is pretty much indispensable for
understanding the sugya - examples being the laws of shechitah and
treifos, or the geometric discussions in tractate Eruvin - and by all
means a teacher has a responsibility to acquire that knowledge in order
to teach these subjects. However, I'm not sure that in the case at hand
this is so necessary; does it really make a difference, in understanding
the Talmudic discussions about wine, whether its alcohol content was
12%, 18%, or 30%? Either way, it wasn't the kind of stuff that you'd
want to drink a lot of without dilution.

Jay further writes:

> If you raise your son in a cave, and teach him nothing but Torah, he
> is apt to grow up to be a professional informer, making his living by
> handing over petty Jewish criminals to be crucified by the Roman
> government.  This is a perversion of Torah, and an abomination, but it
> is what happens, when you raise your son in a cave.

Several comments:

* Where exactly do we get the idea that R' Elazar the son of R' Shimon
(since that's who Jay is referring to - see Bava Metzia 83b) came by
this vocation as a result of being raised in a cave? The Gemara there
states no such thing, and I'm not aware of any of the commentaries who
do so either. The same sugya (83b-84a) refers to another Tanna, R'
Yishmael the son of R' Yose, who also took up such a job; where is there
any suggestion that his upbringing was anything out of the ordinary?

* Does anyone believe that R' Shimon voluntarily hid in the cave for
ideological reasons, to separate himself from the outside world? He was
simply trying to avoid being executed for remarks he had made in all
innocence and in a private conversation, after all. To put it in
contemporary terms, is he any worse than families who hid in attics or
in cellars to escape the Nazis?

* As a matter of fact, both R' Shimon (Shabbos 33b) and R' Elazar (Bava
Metzia 85a) derived tremendous spiritual benefits from their stay in the
cave, to the point that one who hadn't been with them wasn't worthy
enough to be admitted to their company after death (loc. cit.). This
would seem to demolish any notion that the Talmud saw their stay as "a
perversion of Torah, and an abomination" (or as leading to one).

* While it's true that R' Elazar's contemporaries criticized him for his
actions (R' Yehoshua ben Korchah: "Vinegar son of wine!... Let the Owner
of the vineyard come and clear out His thorns" - ibid. 83b; and they
remained angry with him even long afterwards - ibid. 84b), and indeed
the final halachah follows R' Yehoshua (Choshen Mishpat 388:9), that
hardly makes R' Elazar the "perverter of Torah" that Jay makes him out
to be, when after all, even R' Yehudah HaNassi conceded that R' Elazar's
accomplishments in Torah exceeded his own (Bava Metzia 84b).

This, of course, points up the problem with judging our Sages as though
they were our colleagues. While it's true that they weren't perfect -
"there is no tzaddik on earth who does good and never misses the mark"
(Kohelet 7:20) - they were also on a far higher level than us, and their
mistakes need to be looked at with that in mind.

Kol tuv,


From: W. Baker <wbaker@...>
Date: Tue, 14 Mar 2006 15:55:09 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Re: Wine in Talmudic Times

> From: Martin Stern <md.stern@...>
>> Actually, the reason wine was diluted so much is because the wine in
>> those days was so strong that drinking it full-strength was impossible
> I am aware of this hypothesis but find it extremely difficult to
> believe since yeasts nowadays cannot tolerate alcohol concentrations
> above 15% at most and so do not produce such strong wines. Perhaps the
> Talmudic yeasts were on a higher spiritual plane and could produce wines
> with an alcohol content of at least four times distilled single malt
> of 95%!

After reading Jay and Martin's posts on the strength of wines in
Talmudic time, I wonder if the issue with the wine was simply strong
flavor, say very acidic tasting, you know, the scrape your tongue kind
of thing or, on the other hand, excessivley sweet.  In this case,
diluting the wine makes it more palatable, if not delicious.  This is
pure speculationon my part, but seems to make sense.  I have experienced
some pretty dreadful wines called "dry" (my general preference) that
would have benefitted from dilution to make it possible to actually
drink them.

Wendy Baker

From: Akiva Miller <kennethgmiller@...>
Date: Tue, 14 Mar 2006 15:16:23 GMT
Subject: Re: Wine in Talmudic Times

In Mail-Jewish 51:60, four different posters claimed that it is not
possible for wine to have more than 12-15% alcohol (unless it is
artificially distilled or "fortified"), and that the reason for this is
that the alcohol is formed by yeasts which die when the alcohol is at
higher conentrations.

Yet we do have abundant references throughout our books to the
widespread belief that wine in talmudic times was undrinkable without
being substantially diluted, in a ratio of three parts water to one part

I can see two ways to resolve this. One, perhaps the wine was powerful
in some way other than alcohol content, and that is why it had to be
diluted; any suggestion what that other strength might have been?
Alternatively, perhaps the yeast back then was more resistant to alcohol
than our yeasts, allowing for more alcohol to be formed?

Akiva Miller

From: Alana Suskin <alanamscat@...>
Date: Mon, 13 Mar 2006 20:00:24 -0800 (PST)
Subject: Wine in Talmudic Times

I just assumed he meant strong as in "so thick as to be nearly
unimbibable" - if you've ever had Conditon, you'll know exactly what I
mean. It's like drinking cough syrup mixed with motor oil. Eeeew.


From: Orrin Tilevitz <tilevitzo@...>
Date: Tue, 14 Mar 2006 13:38:15 -0800 (PST)
Subject: Wine in Talmudic Times

Previous posters correctly observed that wine can't get to more than
about 13% alcohol through fermentation because the yeast dies, and
distillation was unknown in Talmudic times, so if "stronger" means more
alcoholic, the statement that wine in Talmudic times was undrinkable
because it was "stronger" than now is likely a myth.  However, alcohol
is not the only product of fermentation.  Some of the byproducts, called
'congeners', have physiological effects.  For example, my biochemistry
professor once told us that it was congeners, not alcohol, that causes
headaches.  The precise congeners in the wine depend on the type of
grape, the method and conditions of fermentation, and (I'd guess) how
the wine is handled after fermentation is finished.  For example, the
professor said, red wine generally has more congeners than white wine.
(So if you're drinking four cups of wine at the seder, you may be better
off with reddened white wine than with red wine.)

AFIK, wine today in Israel, at least the better wine, is made not with
indigenous varieties but with varieties imported from Europe.  It would
not be at all surprising if the grapes used in Talmudic times, combined
with the winemaking methods, resulted in congeners that made the wine
undrinkable ("strong") because of the physiological effects even at a
13% alcohol level.  I had also understood that raw Talmudic wine had a
jelly-like consistency.  I do not know if this is true.  I also have not
experimented, but I would not be surprised if slurping semisolid 13%
alcohol is an unpleasant experience even in the absence of congeners.

From: Leah S. Gordon <leah@...>
Date: Tue, 14 Mar 2006 11:36:18 -0800
Subject: Wine in Talmudic Times

Granted that the Talmudic/Roman era wine was not super-alcoholic, as
people have explained.

But then what was it that was so concentrated about it (lots of grape
chunks?  impurities?  something else?) that necessitated dilution, which
I've heard not only from Talmudic sources but also in Roman history
according to what we learned in Latin class?



End of Volume 51 Issue 64