View Full Version : Mead & Judaism

Dan McFeeley
10-26-2004, 09:05 PM
Not intending to turn this into a religious discussion however...

The ancient Hebrews cultivated vinyards and made wine from it. The first Biblical record of wine is in the book of Genesis. It's not necessarily a happy reference and mentions that Noah grew a vinyard, got drunk from the wine and ultimately cursed one of his sons for having seen him naked.

Honey is repeatedly referenced throught the Bible and was obviously a very rich blessing to the Israelites. There are repeated references to the land of Israel as the "land flowing with milk and honey"

Honey throughout these texts is referred to as a food which was eaten. I do not doubt that they knew of the fermentation of honey, I do find it interesting that it is never mentioned.

Hope no one minds, but since this looked like a separate topic, I thought I'd throw it into a new thread.

This is really a good question, and one that hasn't gotten much attention. The late Roger Morse in his publications on mead briefly mentions the sacramental use of mead in Judaism, or the problems in making a kosher mead when kosher law did not recognize the use of yeast, but there's not much more than that.

I think Morse had "sacramental" confused with "kosher." To the best of my knowledge, mead is not used in Jewish liturgy. It does play a part in the Passover celebrations, from what little I've been able to find on the 'net on this subject, however, this would have been during the family gatherings and not part of the worship service itself. Mead does show up in Jewish folklore, more specifically, Ashkenaz Judaism, the Judaism of Eastern Europe. Here, mead as an important part of the culture of Eastern Europe became assimilated into the general culture of the Jewish people.

I've found online versions of the Jewish Talmud and done searches, but there does not seem to be any mention of mead. Honey is given discussion, and there was a honey wine of sorts but not a true mead, i.e., fermented from honey. Mead lore seems to have entered Jewish culture through the culture of Eastern Europe.

10-26-2004, 11:55 PM
From my research I also found the addition of yeast was not known to the ancient Jews, and thus is not a kosher addition to wines. Obviously they were quite fond of the sweetening attributes of honey as they both traded in it and John the Baptist lived off of honey and locusts. Ref:
Ezekiel 27:17
Judah, and the land of Israel, they were thy merchants: they traded in thy market wheat of Minnith, and Pannag, and honey, and oil, and balm.

Matthew 3:4
And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.

You would think that they must have added it to their wine to cover up any bad fermentation flavors but I believe it was too valuable at the time to use to make mead when grapes were so plentiful. Possibly they made pyment but no official documentation could be found to support it. For that they would need no yeast except that naturally found on the skins of the grapes..


Dan McFeeley
10-27-2004, 03:24 AM
A story from Jewish folk lore -- unfortunately, I haven't been able to find the source:

One time, at a farbrengen (gathering) where the Chasidim were sitting and drinking mead (a sweet honey wine that used to be very popular), a Chasid named Reb Moshe told the following story:

"Many years ago," he began, "while visiting Vienna, I sent my servant to a nearby Jewish inn to buy a bottle of mead. When he came back I discovered that it was the most delicious mead that I had ever tasted. In fact, it was so good that I immediately sent him back to buy some more. I gave him enough money for ten bottles, figuring that my family and I would enjoy it for a long time to come.

"But my servant came back empty-handed. I took out a few more coins from my pocket, but he shook his head. 'It isn't the money,' he told me. 'There just isn't any more to be had.'

"I decided to go see for myself. When I entered the inn, I saw a large crowd of people who had apparently just finished eating a festive meal. I approached the innkeeper and asked him to sell me some of his delicious honey wine.

" 'I'm sorry, but there isn't even a drop left of that particular type,' he said. 'Well, when do you expect to get more?' I persisted. 'Quite frankly, never!' " The innkeeper then told me the following:

Many years before he had been a mohel, a ritual circumciser. From the very beginning of his holy work he had set himself one cardinal rule: that he would never refuse a request perform make a brit mila (circumcision), no matter how difficult the circumstances.

One year on the day before Yom Kippur, a Jewish farmer had knocked on his door and asked him to circumcise his eight-day-old son. The farmer lived quite a distance away - six parasangs - and it was the day before Yom Kippur. Nonetheless, the mohel agreed to conduct the brit.

When they stepped outside the mohel realized that the farmer was too poor to have hired a carriage; neither was the mohel himself a man of means. There was no choice but to walk the whole distance. The farmer started out in the direction of his house, but he was walking so quickly that the mohel soon lagged behind. Eventually the farmer disappeared behind a bend in the road.

Hours later the mohel arrived in town and asked some neighbors where the family with the new baby lived. When he walked into the house he found the mother lying in bed with the infant. She was so weakened that she could barely respond. The father, however, was nowhere to be seen. For some reason he hadn't thought it important to attend his own son's brit.

The mohel now faced a serious problem: Who would serve as sandek to hold the baby during the ritual procedure? Time was of the essence; it was the eighth day of the infant's life, and he needed to be entered into the covenant of Abraham immediately. But without a sandek it would be very dangerous. Indeed, the mohel had never attempted such a thing before.

The mohel walked outside hoping to find someone on the street he could ask. For a long time he waited, but the street was deserted. Suddenly, he spotted an old beggar coming around the corner. "I'm in a big hurry," the man replied impatiently when the mohel asked for his assistance. "Today is Yom Kippur eve, and I can collect a whole ruble going door to door if I get to the city in time."

Desperate by then, the mohel promised to pay him a ruble if he would only serve as sandek. The beggar agreed, and the brit mila was conducted without incident. The mohel then left for the long walk back to the city.

After praying the afternoon service the mohel went home for the final meal before the fast, and was astonished to see the very same beggar waiting on his doorstep. He quickly paid him the ruble he had promised, but the beggar also demanded a drink of mead. The mohel was very tired by then and in no mood for entertaining. Nevertheless, but he invited him inside and poured the drink. But even that wasn't enough for the strange old man: he insisted that the mohel join him in a glass of mead, and that they wish each other a good and sweet new year. With no alternative, the mohel complied.

"Tell me, is there any more of this wine left in the barrel?" the annoying stranger persisted. "Very little," the mohel answered, "only a few more drops." "There will always be mead in this barrel," the beggar then pronounced cryptically, "until the last blessing is recited at your youngest son's wedding celebration." The beggar then pointed to the mohel's son sleeping in his cradle.

"The blessing was fulfilled in its entirety," the innkeeper concluded his tale. "There is no explanation other than that the old man was Elijah the Prophet. With my seemingly endless supply of mead I opened this inn, and completely forgot about the rest of his prediction. That is, until today, when the barrel suddenly fell and broke into pieces as we were reciting the Grace After Meals at my youngest son's wedding. And that is why I am telling you that there will never be any more of this particular batch of mead..."

10-27-2004, 03:41 AM
It was common practice in Greece, Etruria, Gaulia Cesalpina and Rome to sweeten wine with honey, especially lower grade wine. So by extension it seems reasonable to expect that the Jewish peoples would have been exposed to the practice, and may have emulated it within their own society.

Here's an interesting link to some information on the wine from the ancient Israelites: