Thought Kiddush required a cup of wine? Think again! Today’s page is a bit … sloshy.
Today the rabbis discuss making Kiddush or Havdalah over beer. Both of these rituals traditionally include the blessing over “the fruit of the vine” (meaning wine), but it turns out this is only because they are usually made over wine.
Havdalah and Kiddush are in fact meant to be recited over any beverages that are considered worthy of the ritual. For the rabbis, the beverage par excellence was wine, so this was what they used. But this didn’t mean they necessarily forbade other beverages. It all depended on the quality of those beverages.
The Talmud relates a story told by Mar Yanuka and Mar Kasisha who hosted their colleague Ameimar and, as was their custom, offered him beer over which to say Havdalah. Here’s what happened:
We brought him beer and he did not recite Havdalah, and he passed the night in fasting. The next day we troubled ourselves and brought him wine and he recited Havdalah and tasted some food.
The assumption is that one may not eat on Saturday night until Havdalah is made. Rather than make Havdalah over beer, Ameimar forgoes both Havdalah and his supper. The next day, his hosts go to a special effort to acquire some wine so that he can make Havdalah. He does so, and break his fast.
But then we get this twist:
The next year he (Ameimar) again happened to come to our place. We did not have wine and brought beer. He said: If so, beer is the wine of the province. He recited Havdalah.
On his next visit, Ameimar is once again offered beer for Havdalah, and concludes that beer is the customary beverage for Havdalah in this province. That is, it is the “wine” of that place.
The Talmud offers two additional beer-related stories wherein the matter of halakhah hangs on personal taste. After we are told explicitly that one may not recite Kiddush or Havdalah over date beer, the Talmud then tells us about some exceptionally high quality date beer (a beer of thirteen soakings!) that Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi liked so much he declared:
Beer like this is fit to recite Kiddush over and to say upon it all the praises in the world!
(We told you this page is sloshy. This daf can feel a bit like a commercial break during a football game!)
This particular story ends on an odd note: Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi gets sick that night, and declares that the beer “pains and soothes.” One could perhaps imagine that the pain is the punishment for declaring any beer to be appropriate for Kiddush.
Further on, after Rava curses those who say Kiddush over beer by declaring that their regular drink should be beer (burn! beer was considered the drink of the poor), he finds Rav Huna doing exactly that and says:
Abba (a name for Rav Huna) has started to acquire coins with beer.
According to the medieval commentator Rashi, this means that Rav Huna has begun selling beer and so the beverage is now dear to him, and thus he can recite Kiddush on it because beer is essentially “wine” as far as he is concerned.
And therein, as any advertising executive knows, lies the rub. What people think of as a “worthy” drink is as idiosyncratic as we humans tend to be. The Talmud (as we know too well!) is not often in favor of this sort of personalized decision making around ritual, but it seems there can be space for taste to matter. If the whole point is to honor the ritual with a drink that is worthy of its grandeur, why not allow an individual to decide which beverage elevates the ritual, and which diminishes it? There is, it seems, no accounting for taste, even in the Talmud. One person’s wine is another’s thirteen-times-soaked date beer. And maybe, the Talmud suggests, at least in this case, that’s not so bad. Cheers to that!