Rabbinic Decrees

Rabbinic Decrees – Wine


The rabbis of the Mishna and earlier times instituted a number of decrees concerning the food of non-Jews (e.g. wine, bread, milk, and cooked items) to protect against:

  1. Idolatry.
  2. Intermarriage with non-Jews.
  3. Kashrut violations.

  This article focuses on the decree of wine. Only the first two of the above three factors are relevant to the decree of wine because most wines only contain grape products and do not violate biblical kashrut laws.

Decree – Scope

The rabbis prohibited wine under the following conditions:

  1. Wine owned by a Jew but handled by a gentile.
  2. Wine owned by a gentile.

(Note: The first prohibition only applies if the bottle or container is unsealed.)

The wine prohibition, depending upon different circumstances as discussed below, involves:

  1. Benefit הנאה איסור (concern for idolatry).
  2. Drinking שתיה איסור (concern for intermarriage).

Note: Wine prohibited for benefit cannot be sold to a non-Jew or fed to animals rather it must be discarded.

Decree – Reason

There is a dispute amongst the Talmud commentators as to the primary reason for the decree, idolatry or intermarriage. The majority view is the latter was the primary concern, hence the prohibition against drinking. However the rabbis added the prohibition of benefit because the wine may have been used for idolatry (Ramban on Avodah Zarah 36b).

Decree – Type of gentile

The extant of the decree depends upon the nature of the gentile, involved with the wine. The halacha defines the following classifications:

Type of gentileHebrew TermSeven MitzvothIdolatry
Resident alienתושב גרYesNo
Non- Jewיהודי אינו?No
Idolaterכוכבים עובדNoYes
Resident Alien

The resident alien is a non-Jew who accepts the seven mitzvoth of Noah and therefore does not worship idols. The Talmud (Bava Kamma 38a) highly praises this individual, who has rejected idolatry and embraces monotheism, and compares him to a high priest. He can minister to his fellow gentiles, wean them from idolatry, and lead them to a path of knowing and serving Hashem without converting to Judaism. For his beliefs and actions he receives a share in the world to come (Sanhedrin 105a, Maimonides Laws of Kings 8:11). Even though he is highly regarded by the rabbis for his religious convictions, the resident alien is still included in the decree of wine not because he is morally flawed but because of intermarriage concerns.

Furthermore the Torah (Leviticus 25:35) commands Israelites to help the resident alien financially when he needs assistance because he is a resident of Israel and must be treated with special consideration compared to other gentiles. By contrast assistance to other non–Jews is based upon the Torah principle of reciprocity (i.e. mutual benefit). We help them as they help us. This reciprocity law applies when the Israelites dwell securely in the land of Israel. However when Jews live in the Diaspora as a minority, the rabbis commanded that Jews assist non-Jews to maintain peaceful relations with gentiles even when non-Jews do not help the Jewish people (Gittin 61a).

The codifiers of halacha dispute the actual requirements to be considered a resident alien. As a minimum this person must accept the seven mitzvoth of Noah (six prohibitions and one positive commandment) as follows:

  1. Idolatry
  2. Blasphemy
  3. Murder
  4. Adultery and similar relations
  5. Theft
  6.  Eating a limb from a live animal
Positive Commandment
  • Establishing courts of law

Maimonides adds the following requirements to be formally accepted as a resident alien:

  1. He must accept that Hashem commanded these laws and informed mankind through Moses and not through his own investigation (Laws of Kings 8:11).
  2. The laws of Yovel (Jubilee Year) must apply. This means that all twelve tribes dwell in Israel (Laws of Idolatry 10:6) which is not true in our time.

Despite these requirements, the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 124:2) rules that for purposes of the decree on wine the resident alien must only accept the seven mitzvoth.


For this classification, a non-Jew is an individual who does not fully accept or is not aware of the seven mitzvoth and therefore cannot be considered a resident alien. Many gentiles are in this category because they are not aware of these mitzvoth even though they may fulfill most of them and lead moral lives.  However this person is not an idolater thereby resulting in some leniencies with respect to the wine decree. Maimonides considered adherents to Islam in this category (Laws of Forbidden Foods 11:7). It is interesting to note that Maimonides did not extend this leniency to members of the church.

(Note: It is not the intent of this article to discuss, analyze, or debate the merits of different faiths which claim to be monotheistic. Rather this article cites different halachic rulings with respect to the decree of wine.)


An idolater does not accept monotheism and therefore the decree on wine is stricter.  Even though this person may be moral in other areas the concern for idolatry taints his involvement with wine. The halachic authorities debate whether followers of current polytheistic faiths are considered idolaters with respect to wine since their adherents do not offer wine libations (Rama on ibid. 123:1).

(Note: It is not the intent of this article to discuss, analyze, or debate the merits of polytheistic faiths. Rather this article cites different halachic rulings with respect to the decree of wine.)

Decree in Halacha

Combining the section titled “Decree – Scope” with the section titled “Decree – Type of non-Jew” results in the following table.

(Note: Wine owned by a Jew, as shown in this table only applies to an opened wine bottle handled by a gentile. If the bottle is sealed then wine owned by a Jew cannot be affected by the handling of a gentile as discussed above.)

                                     Wine owned by a Jew                         Wine owned by a gentile

Resident AlienYes/No (Dispute)YesNoYes
Non-JewNoYes/No (Dispute)NoYes/No (Dispute)
Resident Alien

Since the resident alien does not practice idolatry he cannot render wine forbidden for benefit, whether owned by a Jew or himself. His wine is forbidden for drinking to prevent intermarriage. The Rema (ibid 124:2) records a leniency, although subject to dispute, for a Jew to drink wine handled by a resident alien. Presumably the threat of intermarriage is lessened because the wine is owned by a Jew and the resident alien will respect the Jewish religion.


In principle the non-Jew does not practice idolatry and therefore he cannot render wine forbidden for benefit. However the halachic authorities debate whether or not the nature of the trinity of the church and use of statues represents idolatry. Again the Rema (ibid. 123:1) records a leniency, subject to dispute, permitting benefit from wine handled or owned by a non-Jew. He reasons that even if halacha considers them idolaters in other areas, since they do not offer libations to idols they are not deemed idolaters with respect to this decree. For concerns of intermarriage the wine is forbidden for drinking.


Since this person practices idolatry the wine in all cases is forbidden both for drinking and pleasure. Again Rema’s leniency may apply to adherents of these polytheistic faiths since they do not offer wine libations to their idols.  


In general, the rabbis instituted decrees for common occurrences and were not concerned about infrequent cases (e.g. cooked or heavily flavoured wine), leaving these cases to personal discretion.

Cooked Wine – יין מבושל

Therefore the decree of handling by a non-Jew does not apply to cooked wine owned by a Jew (ibid 123:3) because cooked wine was considered an anomaly. In addition an idolater would not offer this wine as a libation. The degree of cooking is a matter of dispute with the lenient position deeming a slight evaporation of wine through boiling as sufficient to be considered cooked wine. The stricter position requires an actual change in the taste of the wine. As a practical consideration, most kosher wines indicate whether or not wine is deemed cooked with an indication on the label on the back of the bottle. The cooked wine of a gentile is still bound by the decree because the wine was prohibited before the cooking.

Flavoured Wine – קונדיטין

Similarly the Shulchan Aruch rules (ibid 123:4) that the decree of handling by a non-Jew does not apply to flavoured wine (e.g. blended with honey or spices) owned by a Jew, if the taste of the wine is significantly altered by the additives. Even though one could still socialize with non-Jews with this wine, the rabbis only applied decrees for common occurrences. In addition an idolater would not offer this wine as a libation. Flavoured wine of a gentile is still bound by the decree because the wine was prohibited before the additives.

Other Drinks


The reader may ask, “Why did the rabbis only apply the decree against wine?  What about liquor or beer?” Distilled liquor (e.g. whiskey) was not available until the Middle Ages or early renaissance over 1,000 years after completion of the Mishna. Rabbis after completion of the Mishna cannot implement binding decrees for all Jews but may make suggestions for their local communities. Therefore there is not a specific law regarding liquor of gentiles in the Shulchan Aruch. (Later commentators do rule about consuming alcoholic beverages in the company of non-Jews as discussed below.) In addition the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 114:3) rules that there is no decree with respect to apple cider and pomegranate wine because these drinks were uncommon in the Middle East.   


The rabbis of the Mishna did not enact a decree against beer of non-Jews because beer was not the main socializing drink in Israel where the decree was established. However the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 31b) records a prohibition against the beer of gentiles because of excessive socializing leading to intermarriage. Tosafot (ibid. מה מפני) notes that this prohibition is not found in a Mishna or Baraita and was probably instituted in the time of Amoraim (rabbis after completion of the Mishna) as stringency but not a decree. (Perhaps the prohibition developed in Babylonia where the main socializing drink was beer. In addition after the destruction of the temple and the failed Bar Kochva rebellion Babylonia became the principle location for Torah Judaism leading to the importance of beer and its subsequent prohibition.)     

Since this prohibition was against excessive socializing it does not apply to the beer itself rather the venue where consumed. Therefore a gentile may handle beer belonging to a Jew and a Jew may buy beer from a gentile. Rav Yosef Karo in Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 114:1) rules that a Jew may not drink beer in a store or house owned or rented by a gentile, in a regular or formal setting (e.g. party). Therefore a quick or occasional drink would be permitted. Similarly he may consume the beer at home or an inn where he is staying. The Rema (ibid.) rules leniently and allows beer based on grain to be consumed in all locations. He reasons that the decree only applies to beer derived from dates which was common in Babylonia. The Aruch Hashulchan Yoreh Deah 114:11 rules leniently even with respect to whiskey because he considers this drinks as poor man’s fare and would not lead to intermarriage. However other authorities disagree with the Rema and Aruch Hashulchan and maintain the ban.

Of course, the liquor or beer must be free from wine additives. Otherwise the decree of wines will apply to these beverages (ibid. 114:7). Similarly liquors must be free of non-kosher additives. A number of kashrut organizations provide a listing of accepted or preferred liquors from a kashrut standpoint.


The reader may well comment, “The Rabbis have protected Jews from assimilation with gentiles. However what about protecting Jews from attacks by gentiles?” These exclusionary laws may increase enmity between Jew and gentiles. The halacha recognizes both the need to prevent intermarriage and at the same time promote cordial relations with gentile neighbours. For example some rabbis wanted to prohibit Jews from frequenting coffee houses owned by gentiles to prevent excessive socializing. However other rabbis felt that this prohibition exceeds the original intent of the law because:

  1. Coffee is not an alcoholic beverage.
  2. It is important to avoid enmity and not come across as arrogant or exclusionary (Kaf Hachaim ibid. 114:14).

In addition the Talmud itself reflects on the balance between protecting Torah values and not offending our fellow gentile citizens. In Megillah 13b the Talmud explains the phrase in Esther 3:8, “It does not profit the king to tolerate them” as a criticism of the Jews exclusionary practices by Haman. He maligns the Jews by saying, “If a fly falls into the cup of one of them, he will throw the fly out and drink the wine, but if my master the king were to touch the glass of one of them, he would throw it to the ground, and would not drink it, since it is prohibited to drink wine that was touched by a gentile.” (Even though the decree against wine was enacted by the schools of Shammai and Hillel towards the end of the second temple era, some Jews observed this law during the times of Mordechai and Esther.) This argument has been used by anti-Semites throughout the ages to denigrate the Jewish people and undermine Hashem’s Torah. As an antidote to such claims the Talmud Shabbat 33b advises the Jews to follow the example of Jacob when he came to Salem (Genesis 33:18) and contribute to the welfare of society in a material form as follows:

  1. Introduce new coinage – finance
  2. Establish public markets – commerce
  3. Build bathhouses – public health

Similarly Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Rav Yitzchak Elchanan at Yeshiva University comments on the dual expression of Abraham when he seeks a burial plot for Sarah (Genesis 23:4). Abraham considers himself both as a resident תושב and a stranger גר in Canaan. The Rav explains his view on the dual role of a Jew in the Diaspora and especially in America’s open society. On one hand he is a resident of his country and therefore must work and pray for its welfare (Jeremiah 29:7). On the other the Jew is always an alien for his allegiance is to Hashem, his Torah, and rabbinic decrees which protect the Torah. The Jew may sometimes have to resist the culture, that surrounds or even potentially harms him spiritually, to maintain his Jewish identity. By balancing these opposing forces the Jew maintains his connection to Hashem and contributes to the welfare of society.

Nature of Decree


The students of Shammai and Hillel decreed against wine as part of the eighteen enactments (Shabbat 17b) to strength Torah observance. As the sages have said, “Make a fence around the Torah” (Avot 1:1). In fact the Torah permits rabbis to make decrees based upon the verse in Leviticus 18:30, “You shall safeguard My charge משמרתי את ושמרתם, provided that they indicate that these laws are not directly from the Torah (Maimonides Law of Rebellion 2:9). Otherwise these decrees would be in violation of the prohibition to add laws to the Torah (Deuteronomy 4:2).


Even though the rabbis have permission to add restrictions the following conditions must be met to validate the decree:

  1. Majority of authorized rabbis (from the time of the Mishna or earlier) agree to the decree.
  2. Majority of (observant) Jews accept the decree.   

When both conditions are satisfied then the decree is binding. If both conditions are not satisfied the decree may be accepted as a personal stringency but not binding as halacha.

In times of the second temple, torah sages of great moral standing and erudition debated decrees and then voted on them with the law following the majority (Shabbat 13b). In this respect legislation follows a democratic system where each vote is of equal value. However the sages are not elected by the people. Rather they are appointed by leading sages of Israel and some were presumably members of the Sanhedrin. In this manner the system is theocratic with the expectation that the sages are divinely inspired, aiming to fulfill the will of Hashem by applying torah principles to the challenges of their generation. In addition the Sanhedrin itself convened on the temple mount thereby receiving divine direction according to the verse in Isaiah 2:3, “The Torah will come from Zion and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem”. The sages were also prudent before issuing decrees (i.e. be deliberate in judgment Avot 1:1) taking in to account the will of the people and the impact of these decrees over future generations.

The sages cannot impose decrees against the will of the people because the ways of the Torah are pleasant and its paths are peace (Proverbs 3:17). The reader may ask, “How did the sages actually determine if the majority of Jews followed their decrees? In addition were non observant Jews included in this tally?” The Talmud does not directly answers these questions. One can reason that a full survey of the Jewish people would have been nearly impossible to implement. The sages must have relied upon observation in their immediate communities of torah observant Jews. This tally would not include Jews that did not follow the Torah, written or oral (e.g. Sadducees), since they would not accept rabbinic decrees. The Talmud Avodah Zarah 35b notes that the rabbis did not provide reasons for their decrees until the passage of a year after a vote, lest some authorities dispute their rationale and not accept the decree. However after a year has passed and people have accepted the decree then the decision is binding.   

The reader may also ask, “With changing conditions can these decrees be repealed by a later group of rabbis?” The Mishna in Eduyot 1:5 addresses this issue and considers repeal if the later court (beit din) is greater than the original court in terms of both:

  1. Wisdom – head of court (Chief Justice).
  2. Number – number of scholars who agree with the repeal – collective wisdom (Maimonides Laws of Rebellion 2:2), or the age of the head of court (Raavad ibid.).

In effect the later court must be greater in terms of quality and quantity.

If a decree is binding then it cannot be overturned. The type of decree is debated by the Talmud commentators as follows:

  1. Maimonides (ibid.) all decrees to protect Torah law.
  2. Tosafot (last one on Avodah Zarah 36a) only the 18 enactments.   

This disagreement is a moot point with respect to wine since this decree is one of the 18 enactments.


The rabbis enacted a decree against wine handled or owned by a gentile to prevent intermarriage. This decree does reflect on the moral standing of gentiles. Rather this decree is a fence around the Torah to protect the Jewish people over the ages with numerous halachic considerations and debates. The sages considered the possibility of this social barrier increasing enmity between gentiles and Jews and therefore recommended specific actions for the benefit of society. According to halacha, this decree is binding and may not be overturned. However cooked wine or other liquors may be served at a Jewish celebration, even with gentiles serving the wine, as is commonly done.  

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