19-5768: Mitzvah N-15

Talmidav Shel Aharon
19-5768: Mitzvah N-15
March 17, 2008

Negative Mitzvah 15 – This is a negative commandment: Eat or drink nothing from an offering to an idol.
Hafetz Hayim: For Scripture says, “Take heed to yourself, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land… and one will call you and you will eat of his sacrifice.” (Ex. 34:12, 15) Included in this is wine that was offered up as a libation to an idol. From an offering to an idol and wine of libation it is forbidden to have any benefit. If a person eats or drinks anything at all from an offering to an idol or from wine of libation, he should receive whiplashes. From a heathen’s general, unspecified wine it is forbidden to derive any benefit by the law of the Sages, and if one drinks a rivi’it, he should be flogged with whiplashes of disobedience. If a heathen deliberately touched the wine of a Jew, it is forbidden to have any benefit from it. And it is forbidden to eat at the feast of a heathen, which he makes as a banquet at the wedding of his son or daughter, in their company. Even if he eats his own food and a servant of his stands and attends upon him, it is forbidden. It is in effect everywhere, at every time, for both men and women.

Let us start with the entire quote from Exodus 34, which may help us understand why the Mitzvah is so strict. Verses 12-16 read, “Beware of making a covenant with the inhabitants of the lands against which you are advancing, lest they be a snare in your midst. No, you must tear down their altars, smash their pillars, and cut down their sacred posts; for you must not worship any other god, because the Lord whose name is Impassioned, is an impassioned God. You must not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, for they will lust after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and invite you, and you will eat of their sacrifices. And when you takes wives from among their daughters for your sons, their daughters will lust after their gods and will cause your sons to lust after their gods.”
From here we see clearly that the issue is assimilation. That we will see them worship their gods and we will join them and our children will be married and our sons will be led astray and we will eventually forget our God and become pagans. You may think this is far fetched but consider: In the pagan world, each location had a god that was responsible for making sure that the crops grew and the cattle were healthy. If you were plagued with lousy crops and sick cattle, you might begin to wonder if there might be something to the local religion that has affected your cattle and if you joined in a sacrifice and things got better, well, I guess they were right and we were wrong. Or perhaps it would be more likely we would say, I will join them, after all, it is better to be safe than sorry. After all, they could be right and we are wrong! If you don’t like the psychological approach than maybe history can inform us. In Parshat Balak (See Numbers chapter 25) we have just such a seduction by the followers of Baal-peor. We see it again in chapters 17-19 of Kings I and we know from the history of the third century of the common era that Jews were not allowed to have Christian servants because they might cause them to forsake their Christianity and become Jewish. We see that contact with another faith that is a majority faith, brings about assimilation. The threat was very real.
How did Judaism respond? By making sure that we had no contact with pagan religion. We did not attend their temples. We did not eat their sacrifices. We did not drink pagan wine and did not socialize with them. It was all too dangerous for our faith.
It is forbidden by the Sages to even sell to pagans three days before their festivals since it could be assumed that stuff bought three days or less before a festival was going to be served on that festival and we could derive no benefit from it, including the money we earned selling the food to them.
Wine was a particular problem. The manufacturing of wine was steeped in superstition and religion. In thanks to wine gods, libations would be poured out in front of idols as an offering to the gods. This wine would then be bottled and sold. If it was sold to a pagan, that pagan could also pour some of it aside for pagan gods. It was best to only use wine manufactured and handled only by Jews. If a pagan knew this and touched your wine, that made the entire container useless and hand to be destroyed. To this day there are caterers who are directed to not let non-Jewish waiters pour wine at a Jewish party lest they make the kosher wine unsuitable.
To solve this problem, many Kosher wine makers took to “cooking” their wine. “Cooked” wine was not fit for a libation and could be handled by non-Jews. Alas, it also killed the taste of the wine. Jews wanted good tasting wine and non-Jews made all the good tasting wine. Does that matter? Well, remember, many monasteries and churches were in the wine making business and that could very well be a problem for Jews and wine. (A “revi’it equals 68.88 cubic centimeters or 2.33 fluid oz.).
More modern authorities have removed the issue of pagan wine since we don’t consider idol worship to be going on anymore. This leaves only the precaution of not letting non-Jews handle wine. The Rabbinical Assembly Law and Standards Committee investigated the process in 1964 and discovered that most wine is manufactured in an automated process that lets nobody handle the wine until it is sealed in bottles. Therefore there is no reason to be concerned with it being handled by non-Jews. The only real consideration was to support Jewish winemakers and wines made in Israel. It was determined that only Kosher wines should be used when a blessing is called for but not when consumed outside of ritual occasions. The opinion was raised again in 1985 when some questions were raised about the filtering and “fining” of wine using non-Kosher or dairy agents. Once again while there may be reasons to permit non-certified kosher wine, for ritual purposes and to support Kosher winemakers, only certified kosher wines should be used in Jewish rituals. Because there are all kinds of issues with agents used in the wine making process, it is best to only use certified Kosher wines. However, if one finds him or herself in a situation where only non-certified wines are served, it is permitted to drink them and not embarrass the host.
Once again I remind readers that Christians and Moslems are not considered to be pagans and the rules that once kept Jews away from their food and parties have long ago been overturned. In cases of Eastern religions such as Hindu and Shinto, one should be very cautious of their food and festivals. I am not an expert in such religions and do not feel I can comment on them for this purpose. If it becomes an issue, your rabbi should be consulted.
Synagogues and other Jewish institutions may have other reasons to be stricter about wine being served so be sure to ask before bringing wine into such institutions.

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