This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Great Passover Raisin-Wine Controversy*

I don't know whether you prefer to use wine or grape juice to fulfill the requirement of drinking "four cups" at the Passover seder. For most of us this question is more a matter of personal taste than a strictly halakhic issue. This however has not invariably been the case, and several testimonies from and about American Jews in the middle of the nineteenth century tell us about a widespread opinion that unfermented "raisin-wine" was the only acceptable beverage for Passover use, and that alcoholic wine was severely frowned upon by Jewish tradition. Some even went so far as to say that alcoholic fermentation was included within the prohibition of h\ametz.

Now the preference for raisin-wine is not completely unreasonable. After all, commercially produced kosher wines were a rarity at this time, especially in America, so that the only way to procure a ritually satisfactory beverage would be to make it at home. Though alcoholic wine cannot be easily manufactured by amateurs, raisin-wine can be prepared through a simple process of boiling the raisins in a pot. Admittedly, this was not strictly a Passover-related issue, but we all know how Jews often become especially meticulous in the observance of Pesah\ regulations even if they are lax about their dietary rules during the rest of the year.

We should also note that at this time a significant component of American Jews were descended from Sephardic refugees, and that the consumption of home-made raisin-wine was a well-known Marrano practice, designed to avoid the drinking of Christian sacramental wines, at least on solemn religious events occasions like Passover.

Whatever its origins, the Jewish preference for raisin-wine was to become a pivotal issue in the American public life of the era.

The latter half of the nineteenth century saw the rise of the Temperance Movement, which fought stubbornly for the limitation, or total prohibition, of intoxicating drinks. Although they were responding to a very real social problem in American society, the leaders of the Temperance agitation were drawn largely from the ranks of Evangelical Christians and were impelled by religious motivations. It was therefore a source of embarrassment to these Bible-thumpers that wine is mentioned so frequently in the Bible as the most common of beverages, to which no serious stigma or censure was attached. Even more painful to the Temperance cause was the story of the Last Supper where Jesus himself partook of wine and shared it with his disciples. According to the widespread view, the Last Supper had been a Passover Seder.

Another commonly held view among Christians naively regarded contemporary Jews as faithful preservers of a fossilized tradition that had remained unchanged since Jesus' days. If it could be demonstrated that their Jewish neighbours drank non-alcoholic juice on Passover, then this could be considered conclusive evidence that the Bible itself was referring to the same beverage, and not to fermented wine.

The upshot of all this was that the American Christian world in the mid-nineteenth century developed a disproportionate interest in the Passover drinking preferences of their Jewish compatriots, especially at the Seder, and Christian tracts would contain frequent interviews with Jews--though not necessarily the most learned or observant of them. Even when the Jewish informants took care to distinguish between their personal practices and the customs of Biblical Israel, the Temperance advocates had no qualms about quoting them selectively and out of context in order to prove their case.

American Jewish drinking habits were to take on a different significance after the Temperance lobby achieved its purposes and Prohibition became the law of the land in the United States with the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment in January 1920. Under the new law, the government was authorized to issue special permits for religious and sacramental consumption of wine, and these permits became a valuable commodity during the "Roaring Twenties."

The proliferation of permit applications in the names of spurious Jewish "congregations" was given extensive coverage in the press, and the abuses (in which the criminal underworld sometimes had a hand) became a source of grave embarrassment to a Jewish community that was already under attack from antisemites and Nativist bigots.

Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements responded by voluntarily forgoing their rights to permits, arguing that fermented wine was not really required by Jewish law. The Orthodox organizations did not follow suit, though they consistently declined to offer a halakhic justification for their position.

The wrath of the Orthodox was to be ignited to even greater ferocity when the Reform leadership appealed to the American Internal Revenue Department, asking for a total repeal of the religious exemptions for all Jewish groups. At this point a new controversy split the Jewish community, as Jews from all denominations began to feel serious reservations about the Reformers' violation of the sacred separation of Church and State, and about their chutzpah in imposing halakhic positions upon Jews outside their own movement.

The divisions created by this controversy continued to affect Jewish communal life for a long times afterward.

We see then that even an innocent-looking choice between wine and grape juice for the Passover Seder can, under appropriate circumstances, become a focus for complex moral, political and religious issues.

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[1] First Publication: Jewish Free Press, April 13 1995, p. 17.


  • J. Sarna, "Passover Raisin Wine, The American Temperance Movement, and Mordecai Noah: The Origins, Meaning, and Wider Significance of a Nineteenth-Century American Jewish Religious Practice," HUCA 59 (1988), 269-88.

  • S. Yahalom, "Jewish Existence in the Shadow of American Legislation: A Study of `Prohibition,'" Tarbiz 53 (1983), 117-36.