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We are all used to people using grape juice to make kiddush. But it’s actually not so clear that grape juice qualifies as the “wine” necessary for kiddush al ha’kos. The story of how grape juice became acceptable for kiddush is fascinating and intersects with Prohibition, which is marking its centennial anniversary this year.

The story starts in the Gemara (Bava Basra 97a), which asserts that for wine to be acceptable for kiddush, it must also be acceptable for wine libations in the Beis Hamikdash. In this context, the Gemara discusses yayin mi’gitto – wine straight out of the press, before it has time to ferment, i.e., grape juice – and rules that it is valid for kiddush. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 272:2) records this ruling as halacha.

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However, modern-day grape juice – the one we know and love – is not only unfermented; it is pasteurized (mevushal) and includes additives such as sulfites that don’t allow it to ferment into wine. The Rambam (Shabbat 29:14) rules that yayin mevushal is not acceptable for kiddush.

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 272:8) cites both the Rambam’s opinion and a more permissive one, ruling like the latter opinion. However, the Magen Avraham (1635-1682) maintains (Orach Chayim 272:3) that using old wine is preferable and the general practice was to try to be stringent in accordance with this position.

Moving from halacha to American history: The Eighteenth Amendment and the associated Volstead Act – both passed 100 years ago in 1919 – prohibited the consumption of alcoholic beverages. This legislation allowed for certain exceptions, including religious usage. The primary activity Congress had in mind presumably wes the distribution of wine at Catholic mass. But kiddush seemed to be covered as well.

Some unexpected developments, however, then took place. Religious ministers – rabbis and priests – were allocated a certain number of barrels of wine to disburse to their congregations. As one might guess, such an arrangement led to abuse. Multiple cases occurred of both rabbis illegally disbursing alcohol for non-religious purposes and pseudo-rabbis somehow receiving permission to distribute wine. In some cases, non-Jews joined synagogues to reap the alcoholic benefits of Judaism under Prohibition!

This state of affairs led to great embarrassment for Jewish communities that simply wished to drink wine for legitimate religious reasons. A great deal of pressure was thus exerted upon American rabbis to find a way out of having to rely on this exception to the Volstead Act. And so the halachic question of using grape juice for kiddush was revived.

Reform and Conservative rabbis were inclined to embrace grape juice. Rabbi Stephen Wise, for one, thought it ill-advised for Jews to continue to drink wine and thus be seen as less moral than other Americans: “No fundamental rights of life and liberty are endangered by Prohibition,” he wrote, “and the Jewish attitude must become one of active opposition to alcohol. Always a moral pioneer, the Jew must not in this case be a moral laggard. Not to prohibit the use of liquor is to sanction it.”

In 1922, Rabbi Louis Ginzberg of the Jewish Theological Seminary wrote that even the Magen Avraham would approve of using grape juice for kiddush considering the chillul Hashem of being associated with criminals abusing the ritual exception to Prohibition.

Orthodox rabbis, however, generally took a different approach. For example, Rabbi Herbert Goldstein, president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations (the OU), wrote that abuse of the ritual use exception does not mean observant Jews should stop following the position of the Magen Avraham.

Addressing the potential for abuse, Rabbi Moshe Zevulun Margulies, an OU founder after whom the Ramaz school is named, successfully lobbied government officials to designate the OU as the only legitimate Orthodox Jewish purveyor of wine.

In 1926 Rabbi Isaac Simha Hurewitz of Hartford, Conn., included a response to Rabbi Ginzberg’s justification for using grape juice in his sefer on Hilchos Shabbos. The response featured polemical attacks on Rabbi Ginzberg as well as incredulity that the Magen Avraham’s position could be set aside so easily. Rabbi Hurewitz argued that grape juice is not even valid bedi’eved since it does not ferment the way the Talmudic yayin mi’gitto does.

Prohibition ended in 1933, but not the prevalence of using grape juice for kiddush. Interestingly, even the most Orthodox of poskim ended up permitting grape juice for kiddush. The Chazon Ish was said to use grape juice instead of wine for several decades, and the posek Rav Menashe Klein (in Mishneh Halachos X:67) argues that one need not follow the Magen Avraham’s position; if one prefers grape juice, one can use grape juice.

While some authorities still maintain that one should not use grape juice for kiddush, clearly it no longer is the mainstream position.

Using grape juice for the Arba Kosos, meanwhile, raises a separate set of halachic hurdles, as some poskim assert that the Arba Kosos demonstrates freedom and should gladden the drinker, which grape juice arguably fails to do. Poskim continue to debate the matter.

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Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier is a doctoral candidate in Judaic Studies at Yale University and a member of Yeshiva University’s Kollel Elyon. He is currently completing a dissertation on atonement in ancient Judaism and an edited volume on Modern Orthodoxy’s recent turn to chassidic thought and practice, but he still managed to keep this book review about the book.