Just because God has given us a weekly lifetime subscription to paradise, we should not take Shabbat for granted. No gift should go unacknowledged and no giver should go forgotten. “Remember the Shabbat and bless it.” We bless the Giver by reciting Kiddush and Havdalah, and we remember the Shabbat by drinking wine, which, in Scripture, is the beverage of fond memories. Like us, the Shabbat guest wants to be welcomed when she arrives and missed when she leaves.
But you are vacationing on Cape Cod and the local liquor store does not carry kosher wine! And the next Shabbat morning, back in town, you hover over the synagogue Kiddush table and are about to recite Kiddush. And you wonder, “The whisky or the wine?”
In determining whether there is any acceptable alternative to wine, the rabbis differentiate between Kiddush on Friday night, Havdalah on Motzaei Shabbat and Kiddush on Shabbat morning. In view of the fact that Friday night Kiddush is a biblical requirement, the only alternative to Kiddush wine on Friday night is to recite Kiddush over bread. The connection between the Shabbat and the Mishkan, the Temple Sanctuary, which defines the 39 prohibited melachot on Shabbat, may also explain why only wine and bread are acceptable.
Both wine and bread were used in the Temple sacrifices. When reciting Kiddush over bread in the absence of wine on Friday night, the following procedure is followed: One washes one’s hands, covers two loaves of bread with a cloth, places one’s hands on the cloth and recites “Vayechulu.” One then removes the cloth, places one’s hands on the challot and recites the blessing for bread instead of the blessing for wine. The blessing for wine, which would otherwise precede the Kiddush blessing, is replaced by the blessing for bread.
Havdalah, according to most opinions, is of rabbinic origin. Accordingly, the rabbis have a more flexible approach. The preferred beverage for Havdalah is still wine. Nevertheless, if one finds oneself without wine, one may use other beverages which qualify as chamar medinah, which, loosely translated, means the “popular beverage of the location.” The precise meaning of chamar medinah, and which beverages qualify as chamar medinah and under what circumstances they may be used instead of wine, are subjects of animated halachic debate.
According to the Shulchan Aruch, all drinks except water qualify as chamar medinah. According to Rav Moshe Feinstein, what sets chamar medinah apart from other beverages is that it is principally a social libation rather than a thirst-quenching drink. Accordingly, soda and water, which people do not drink as a rule unless they are thirsty, do not qualify as chamar medinah and cannot be used for Havdalah. Conversely, whisky, beer, tea, coffee and perhaps even milk, do qualify as chamar medinah, inasmuch as people might drink them for social reasons, even when they are not thirsty. These drinks may therefore be used for Havdalah.
Rav Ovadiah Yosef, however, vehemently disagrees. A drink is not considered chamar medinah, he says, unless it is both bitter in taste and intoxicating. The only reason, he argues, that one is allowed to drink non-alcoholic beverages before Kiddush on Shabbat morning is precisely because they are not considered “drinks” for the purpose of Kiddush. It follows, therefore, that they do not qualify for Kiddush or Havdalah.
And the debate continues regarding the circumstances that justify using chamar medinah for Havdalah. According to most opinions, chamar medinah may only be used if wine is totally unavailable, at any price, in town or a distance of a one-day journey from town. According to the Rambam, however, once a drink qualifies as chamar medinah, it may be used for Havdalah even if wine is available in town.
The situation with Shabbat morning is the most lenient of the three. This is because it is of rabbinic origin and the Kiddush that welcomed Shabbat has already been made on Friday night. Accordingly, the accepted practice is to allow chamar medinah for Shabbat morning Kiddush, where wine, though available, is either not easily accessible or too expensive. And on Shabbat morning, whisky is in a category all of its own. Unlike other beverages that qualify as chamar medinah, whisky can be chosen over wine, even where the two bottles are standing side by side. According to the Mishneh Berurah, however, one would have to use a wine-size Kiddush cup which holds between three and six ounces and drink most of it in one shot. According to other authorities, a small whisky glass is sufficient.