The Study of Man: Why Jews Stay Sober
In one respect, at least, the American Jews are not very different from the Israeli Jews who contemptuously dismiss them as assimilated goyim: neither have much use for hard liquor. And therein is wrapped one of the most persistent mysteries of a mysterious people.
The historic soberness of the Jews would not be so mysterious if Jews, like Mohammedans, simply had no use for drink in general. But as a matter of fact, the Jews have been fairly respectable drinkers since Noah’s discovery of the vine (Gen. 9:20). Of course, they had a special prayer required before drinking wine; but this did not mean they had any notion of religious restraint in drinking it, aside from the general rabbinic emphasis on moderation. There are a good number of lushes scattered through the pages of the Bible. Ben Sirah, the great Jewish moralist of the 3rd century B.C.E., took his drinking seriously, and one of his maxims, addressed to the wise man, reads, “In a place for wine, pour not forth talk.” The rabbis of the Talmudic period were against drunkenness but they were properly appreciative of the effects of wine: one rabbi, who gave a dinner to his pupils and found them shy and hesitant to begin discussion, ordered his servant: “Give wine to the young men that they may break their silence.” And in Spain, Jewish scholars seem to have been as thirsty as their Christian fellows across the Pyrenees (see translations of some of their songs by Allen Mandelbaum, in COMMENTARY, “The Cedars of Lebanon,” February 1951).
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