I just finished A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically, which recounts his adventures living strictly according to every law found in both the Hebrew and Christian testaments. I don’t personally take a lot of the Bible as literally true, but his memoir is a fascinating (and funny) read.
When his wife becomes pregnant and asks him to swear off booze with her, the biblically mandated rules concerning alcohol consumption become an issue. Pondering his response, Jacobs notes a study by “conservative Christian oenophile Daniel Whitfield,” who has apparently identified 247 alcohol references in Judeo-Christian scripture and found the majority — nearly 60 percent— are generally positive, while only about 16 percent are negative. (The rest are categorized as neutral.) In the end, he decides that scripture ultimately favors imbibing but agrees to water down his wine a bit.
Now, Christian attitudes toward alcohol vary pretty widely. Many fundamentalists eschew all consumption, while others — Catholics and Episcopals (like me) — make it a central part of every religious service through the celebration of Holy Communion, the miraculous transubstantiation of wine into the very blood of Jesus Christ.
Of course, there are communities of faith all along the spectrum. While playing golf with a Presbyterian minister, I asked why churches of that denomination seem to use grape juice rather than wine when celebrating communion. He told me about Thomas Welch, a 19th-century temperance advocate and Presbyterian minister who advocated the use of “non-fermented wine” (i.e., Welch’s grape juice) in religious ceremonies. His idea spread reasonably well among certain protestant churches but really caught on as a secular beverage and made his family a fortune.
Oddly (for a former editor of Esquire’s wine page), Jacobs doesn’t discuss the arcane rules surrounding kosher (“pure”) wine. My personal favorite is the rule that only “Sabbath observant Jews” handle all aspects of production from the crush through fermentation and bottling. In addition, all ingredients used to fine and clarify the wine must also be kosher. This is an important point for vegans, too, since these ingredients can include egg whites, gelatin and isinglass (derived from fish).
Mevushal wine, on the other hand, is made kosher by boiling. This process traditionally created wines that were all but undrinkable, although the advent of flash pasteurization can satisfy the letter of the law with minimal deleterious effect on the final product.
At points in his memoir, Jacobs shifts away from biblical prohibitions and focuses on good deeds. For instance, he brings a bottle (non-kosher!) to a co-worker who has had a run of bad luck, as mandated by Proverbs 31:6, “Give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress.”
Jacobs refers to such scripture as “Emily Post-like tips that are both wise and easy to follow.” It’s certainly the kind of biblical literalism I can get behind.
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