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Q&A: Wine Is The Hamar M’dina of Israel

August 3, 2015

Question: Why did you oppose using anything but wine or grape juice for havdala? Doesn’t the halacha say that one can use chamar medina for havdala? We were taught that drinks like beer, coffee, and even cola could be used.

Answer: The Torah and the sages attached special importance to grapes and wine. Wine, alone among all other beverages, has unique pre- and post-consumption blessings that reflect its status, and the sages ordained that sacramental rituals be conducted over a cup of wine (or grape juice). The Hebrew language has many words for various grape products, and to this day, the grape is one of the most abundant wildly-growing fruits in the country. I myself own two grape vines that I do not have to tend, and they produce many bottles of wine each year. Many of my neighbors enjoy similar circumstances. Grapes and grape products are very nutritious, and as long as one moderates his consumption of alcohol, they can also grant many other health benefits.

By Second Temple times, our ancestors mostly lived in places where wine was not as commonplace. It had to be imported, and it had to be paid for. Thus, in the Parthian Babylonia of the early common era, they had access to imported wine, and used it for qiddush, but then as now, they did  not really cultivate their own grapes or make their own wine. Instead, they fermented the juice of dates, for example, which were far more plentiful. This is the date beer mentioned frequently throughout the Talmud. The sages dispensed with the strict requirement that wine be used for havdala, and allowed for using the beverage that held wine’s place in Babylonia.

Later, as scholars flourished in even more far-flung locales, they applied this dispensation to their own locally fermented beverages which substitued for wine. In Ashk’nazi lands they made schnapps or beer, in Russia they made vodka, and in other places they made cider, and these were all used at some time or another for havdala, and the halachic record is full of various opinions as to what constitutes hamar m’dina, lit. “provincial wine.” But note this very well: all of those opinions were born in places distant from the Land of Israel and far removed from Temple times. It is very telling to read how Maimonides summarizes the matter, which reflects the simple law as mandated by the sages, and not affected by later applications (Laws of the Sabbath 29:17):

מדינה שרוב יינה שיכר–אף על פי שהוא פסול לקידוש–מותר להבדיל עליו, הואיל והוא חמר המדינה

[In] a province where the majority of its wine is beer: Even though [beer] is disqualified for qiddush, it is permissible to recite havdala upon it, being that it is the hamar m’dina, the provincial wine.

The nuance of the Hebrew is not entirely reflected in the English, but it is similar to the way someone might say, “my other car is a bicycle” or as the father of only girls might say, “all of my sons are girls.” Hamar m’dina was meant for places where something else occupies wine’s niche. The entire assumption of the whole discussion is that in the Land of Israel, where the Torah was meant to be observed and where the sages enacted qiddush and havdala, wine was the wine! It is only elsewhere that we can begin to discuss what “their wine” is. Therefore, here in Israel, we can only use wine for havdala.


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