Wine and Self-Knowledge
Chapter 5, Law 3
"When the wise man drinks wine, he drinks only enough to accompany
(lit., 'soak') the food in his innards. Anyone who becomes drunk is a
sinner, is disgraced, and loses his wisdom. And if he becomes inebriated
before the unlearned, he has desecrated the Divine Name. It is forbidden
to drink in the afternoon, even a small amount, except as part of a meal,
as drink which accompanies a meal does not intoxicate. [Thus, scholars]
are only careful [to refrain] from wine after the meal."
The Rambam here is continuing to discuss the more proper behavior
appropriate for the Torah scholar. In this law, he recommends that the
scholar be careful to avoid inebriation, especially in the presence of the
unlearned. This law thus parallels many of the other laws of this chapter -
- advising the scholar to refrain from types of behavior not strictly
speaking forbidden by the Torah, yet which the sensitive soul will surely
take care to avoid.
Wine has a curious place in Rabbinic literature. On the one hand, the
Prophets go all out in condemning drunkenness and wild revelry. (See
Isaiah 5:11-14, and 24:9 for a few examples.) Yet wine has a significant
place in Jewish worship. Most of the offerings in the Temple were
accompanied with wine libations. We usher the Sabbath both in and out on a
cup of wine. Wine is a central component of the Passover Seder. And of
course, on the upcoming holiday of Purim, folks who are generally almost
pure teetotalers celebrate the salvation with multiple "l'chai'im's ("to
life!"). (The somewhat dubious justification for such behavior is beyond
the scope of this article.) In fact, the same Scripture which denounces
drunkenness too states, "And wine gladdens the hearts of man" (Psalms
104:15), and "Wine gladdens life" (Koheles (Ecclesiastes) 10:19). And
finally, the Talmud, based on the above verse from Psalms, states: "There
is no true happiness (i.e., truly appropriate way to celebrate a holiday)
without wine" (Pesachim 109a).
I suppose we could simply answer that the distinction is a matter of
degree -- a single cup Friday evening is a far cry from the merriment
decried by the Prophets (although by my standards at least, the four cups
of Passover are hardly moderation (I won't tell you how I found that out),
not to mention the more serious excesses of Purim). But I believe the
message here is far more profound.
Before moving on I should add that needless to say, the Sages are not
going to totally forbid anything which has a place in Jewish life -- even
if the dangers of excessiveness and addiction are so patently obvious.
(During Prohibition in the U.S., my maternal grandfather made wine in the
bathtub (my mother never told me what it tasted like). (It was actually
slightly before her time). My paternal grandfather, who at the time owned
a pharmacy, had no difficulty obtaining wine "for medicinal purposes."
Clearly, prohibiting entirely something which may be harmful in large
quantities (as is almost everything) is generally not the practice of the
Finally, I should reference our recent class (2:2) on the Nazir
(Numbers 6), in
which the Torah sanctions a person who sees he cannot handle his liquor to
go to the opposite extreme -- abstaining from all grape products and even
where required by Jewish law.
We tend to think of wine as only destructive -- allowing man to cast off
his inhibitions and behave in ways totally inappropriate for the sober --
let alone the damage it does to his liver, brain, pancreas, etc. The
Talmud, however, makes the following enigmatic statement regarding
wine: "Enters wine, exit secrets" (Sanhedrin 38a). What wine actually does
is allow a person's inner (and often guarded) thoughts to come to the
fore. It enables him to act out his true self and his secret fantasies --
whom he really wants to be, without the typical restraints of societal
pressures and personal inhibitions.
Now, for the vast majority of us, this would be an enormously dangerous
thing. How much of our proper behavior is our own, and how much is imposed
by society? Will we maintain our dignity while under the influence or will
our many repressed drives roar to break free? Probably, far better that we
not take the chance and find out. And likewise, the Sages generally frown
on drunkenness. And the Rambam here too urges the wise to avoid it to an
Yet even so, it's significant to recognize that the Talmud does not
consider the drunken state evil per se. It's a very strong form of
personal self-expression -- and perhaps even more significantly, it allows
a person to know just who he actually is on the inside. What am I truly
made up of? Who is the true me? When I'm a little high, am I full of
gregarious warmth and friendliness, or self-centered pleasure-seeking? Do
I become more sensitive to the feelings of others, or more caught up with
my own whims and desires?
I'm quite fond of pointing out, having spent many Purims in yeshiva
(rabbinical college) in the presence of several great rabbis, that there
is nothing more beautiful than a truly great person under the influence.
If a person's insides are full of love of G-d, Torah and mankind, there is
nothing more heartening than seeing it burst forth in generous and
uninhibited portions. Far from disgusting and vulgar sot we tend to
imagine, when a truly great human being loses his compunctions, we might
just gain a glimpse of how great he truly is.
(Needless to say, we are discussing people who are tipsy and high but not
those who utterly lose their faculties via spirits. Nothing positive
results from drinking oneself totally senseless (see the story of Lot and
his daughters (Genesis 19) if you actually need proof of this), and great
but responsible people likewise remain in control sufficiently to know
when to stop.)
Based on all of the above, many other statements of the Sages regarding
wine come into fascinatingly clear focus. I quote just a few below.
There is an opinion in the Talmud (Brachos 40a) that the Tree of Knowledge
that Adam and Eve partook of was none other than the grape vine. In eating
the Forbidden Fruit, Adam wanted to become in touch with himself. He
wanted to know evil from the inside. He did not want the trifling
challenge of confronting evil as a foreign entity -- as a Serpent
attempting to seduce him from without. He wanted the desire for evil to
dwell within his very bosom -- and to then conquer it. And so, he ingested
the grapes of the vine. And it led him to self-knowledge -- to gaining an
intimate and personal yearning for the evil drive which now resided
within. (The fact that the challenge was then far too great basically
outlines the rest of human history.)
In Proverbs, Solomon finds a positive use for alcohol: "Give strong drink
to one who is perishing (wasting away) and wine to the bitter of soul"
(Mishlei 31:6). If someone is depressed, give him wine to cheer him up.
The simple explanation is that wine will make him high and cause him to
forget his sorrows. But based on the above, a much more profound thought
arises. When someone is depressed, he becomes overwhelmed with his
troubles, unable to cope with his situation. Wine will cause him to
understand himself better. He will then see that his problems are not
truly him. They do not make his life unbearable. They are merely
external issues he must deal with. He will then become able to put his
problems in perspective and deal with them rather than allowing them to
Thus, to conclude, in the eyes of the Sages wine is as much a positive
force as a negative one. And for this reason Scripture does not level
unequivocal criticism against it. For wine is not a means of misbehaving
per se but a means of behaving -- as my true self. Wine enables
expression, of seeing and acting out who I really am. Of course,
practically, very few of us are so secure in our goodness that we can
afford to risk becoming our true unrestrained selves. And equally self-
evident, as with all powerful forces, too much can easily destroy a person.
And so, certainly the Rambam is well-justified in advising that we avoid
toying with such forces. (Of course, the Rambam lived long before
Chassidus. As a pure rationalist, he had little room for an
occasional "high". (I once heard in the name of my teacher R. Yaakov
Weinberg OBM that whereas spirits intoxicate, wine "brings out the
glow.")) Yet it's significant to recognize that our image of drunkenness
stems less from the true nature of wine than from man's typical inability
to live up to its uninhibiting effects. The Talmud states that the true
reward of the World to Come is "wine guarded in its grapes since the six
days of Creation" (Brachos 34b). Perhaps one day man will again aspire to
become his true unguarded self, yet still in perfect communion with G-d in
the Garden of Eden.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org