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Wine and Religion

by Staff Writer - A. Heinzman | May 21, 2012

The exact moment in history when wine was discovered is unknown, however historical references indicate that wine was known to the ancients. Wine was likely developed by accident from grapes collected for consumption during ancient times. Evidence of wine production can be found in Middle East archeological evidence from 5000 BCE. As wine has been appreciated since ancient times, it comes as no surprise that wine fits prominently in many major religions.

Wine plays an important role in the various religions developed in the ancient Middle East. Over time, specific religions spread and attracted many followers. Today there are three major Abrahamic religions that were formed in the ancient Middle East. These religions described in order of formation are Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Each of these Abrahamic religions has a unique and fascinating history with wine and alcohol.


Wine is an important part of Judaism. Passages in the Hebrew Bible demonstrate that wine was associated with the divine. In addition to divinity, the importance of wine can be seen with Bible passages threatening of barren vines if the word of God is disobeyed. As wine is an important feature of Judaism, wine can be found in various rituals still practiced today. In a Kiddush blessing, wine is blessed in order to sanctify Jewish holidays. Also during the Jewish festival of Passover, Rabbinic obligations exist where men and women consume four cups of wine. In other areas of Judaism, wine is used in a sacrificial capacity within religious services. In addition to the use of wine in Judaism, specific Jewish dietary laws require that wine be produced a certain way. These wines are known as kosher wines and must be produced by Sabbath observant Jews. In the production of kosher wines, all components must conform to religious rules and regulations.


The relationship between wine and Christianity is one not seen with other religions. In Christianity, wine serves as one of the most important symbols within the church. Stories in the New Testament of the Bible tell of Jesus Christ--recognized as the Son of God by the Christian faith--turning water into wine. At the Last Supper, Jesus shared bread and wine with his disciples. During the Last Supper, Jesus explained the forgiveness of sins and requested that the rituals of the supper be continued in his memory. Due to these events, bread and wine are representative of the body and blood of Christ. In the practice of Christian ritual, wine and bread are consecrated and become the body and blood of Christ. This practice, which is completed with a parishioner consuming the body and blood of Christ, is known as Holy Communion. As Holy Communion is a major component of Christianity, most Christian denominations still to this day utilize sacramental wine in Church services. A testament to the importance of wine and Christianity can be seen with the United States act of Prohibition in the 1920s. During Prohibition, wineries were allowed to produce sacramental wine for the church.


As an Abrahamic religion, Islam shares many of the same beliefs as Judaism and Christianity. It is therefore curious that alcohol consumption is prohibited in the Islamic religion. Prior to the birth of Muhammad--the Meccian prophet who united Arabia--wine was consumed within various cities of the Middle East. As Islam spread throughout the Middle East, the teachings found within the Qur'an--the religious text of Islam--were observed. The Qur'an has several passages and revelations concerning alcohol and wine. In one of the early revelations of the Qur'an, wine is praised as a gift to mankind. Subsequent revelations speak of the abuse of the gift of alcohol. The last revelation concerning wine in the Qur'an specifies that due to disruptions of drunken behavior, wine--among other things--must be avoided. Due to the revelations of the Qur'an, the consumption of alcohol is generally forbidden under Islamic law. While the consumption of alcohol is prohibited, not all Islamic individuals (Muslims) or Islamic societies practice prohibition. Middle Eastern countries at different times have had different legal stipulations concerning alcohol. For example, Egypt and Morocco both produce wines for consumption by non-Muslim individuals. Also, Muslims who find themselves in non-Islamic societies will often consume wine and other forms of alcohol.


Other religions exist in different parts of the world. In Asia a religion known as Daoism is practiced. As a complex religion, Daoism's relationship with wine is also complex. At different points in the history of Daoism, the use of alcohol has been cherished and frowned upon. The effect of alcohol was sometimes appreciated but was also sometimes viewed as a hindrance concerning the goal of spiritual perfection. Some Daoist scriptures even prohibit alcohol consumption. Wine's use in Daoist rituals stems from a long history of involvement. Today, wine is a standard offering at funeral services as well as the Jiao ritual. The Jiao ritual is a multi-day event where deities are presented wine as well as other offerings.


The non-theistic Asian ideology of Confucianism utilizes alcohol in its traditional rituals. Alcohol use is historically significant within various forms of Confucianism, and continues in modern society. Wines are utilized in funerals and marriages. In funerals, wine is viewed as an offering to the earth as well as the deceased. Alcohol is also offered on ancestral altars and ancestral halls. At weddings, wine can be found in the wedding banquet. Wine stored at the time of the bride's birth is presented at her wedding. In Chinese tradition, wine is shared by the bride and groom in a special nuptial cup.


The religion of Buddhism is practiced in China, Japan, Southeast Asia as well as South Asia. The teachings of Buddhism expressly prohibit the consumption of alcohol, as it is contradictory to the goal of enlightenment. Some Buddhist disciplines have allowed the drinking of wine, namely the Tantric traditions found in Tibet. In Tantric Buddhism, wine is viewed as a tool in enlightenment. As with any religion, different regional customs and individual interpretation is observed. For example, in Meiji Japan Buddhist clergy were allowed alcohol consumption. Also in Sri Lanka, the consumption of wine and alcohol is tied with a higher social status and is therefore accepted.


India and its various religions share a long history with wine. Hinduism had originally viewed the consumption of wine as a mortal sin. This eventually changed as different standings within the caste system were allowed different policies concerning alcohol consumption. Eventually, only the highest Brahmin caste was prohibited from drinking wine. It should be noted that Indian wines were not made from grapes but from palm sap. Indian wines--also known as Toddy Palm Wine--are locally produced and consumed.

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      Feb 08 2013 12:22 PM
    • Dear Mr (Mrs?) Heinzman, this spring I will make a lecture at the University of Mayence/Germany about the topic "Wine and Religion - a Comparison". Do you have any information about helpful publications? Thanks a lot in advance and best wishes Martin



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