Kosher wine (Hebrew: יין כשר, yayin kashér) is wine produced according to Judaism's religious law, specifically, the Jewish dietary laws (kashrut) regarding wine. However, some non-Orthodox branches of Judaism may be more "lenient". When kosher wine is produced, marketed and sold commercially to Orthodox Jews, it must have the hechsher ("seal of approval") of a supervising agency or organization (such as the "OU" sign of the Orthodox Union), or of an authoritative rabbi who is preferably also a posek ("decisor" of Jewish law) or be supervised by a beth din ("Jewish religious court of law") according to Orthodox Judaism. In general, kashrut deals with avoiding specific forbidden foods, none of which are normally used in winemaking, so it might seem that all wines are automatically "kosher". However, because of wine's special role in many non-Jewish religions, the kashrut laws specify that wine cannot be considered kosher if it might have been used for "idolatry". These laws include Yayin Nesekh-wine that has been poured to an idol; Stam Yainom-wine that has been touched by someone who believes in idolatry or produced by non-Jews. When kosher wine is yayin mevushal ("cooked" or "boiled"), it becomes unfit for idolatrous use and will keep the status of kosher wine even if subsequently touched by an idolater.
In recent times, there has been an increased demand for kosher wines and a number of wine producing countries now produce a wide variety of sophisticated kosher wines under strict rabbinical supervision, particularly in Israel and the Golan Heights, United States, France, Germany, Italy, South Africa, and Australia. Two of the world's largest producers and importers of kosher wines, Kedem and Manischewitz, are both based in the Northeastern United States.
The use of wine has a long history in Judaism, dating back to biblical times. Archeological evidence shows that wine was produced throughout Israel until at least 636 AD when the area came under Muslim control which prohibited alcoholic beverages. The traditional and religious use of wine continued within the Jewish diaspora community. In the United States, kosher wines came to be associated with sweet Concord wines produced by wineries founded by Jewish immigrants to New York. Beginning in the 1980s a trend towards producing dry, premium quality kosher wines begun with the revival of the Israeli wine industry. Today kosher wine is produced not only in Israel but throughout the world including premium wine areas like Napa Valley and the St-Emilion region of Bordeaux.
Requirements to being kosher
While none of the ingredients that makes up wine (alcohol, sugars, acidity and phenols) are considered non-kosher, the kashrut laws involving wine are concerned more with who handles the wine and what they use to make it. To be considered kosher, a Sabbath-observant Jew has to be involved in the entire winemaking process from the harvesting of the grapes, through fermentation to bottling. Any ingredients used, including finings, need to be kosher. This requirement can exclude certain fining agents such as casein (derived from dairy products), gelatin (which is derived from non-kosher animals) and isinglass (which comes from non-kosher fish). Egg whites can be used in the clarification of kosher wine but would not be appropriate for Vegan kosher wine.
As mentioned above, when kosher wine is mevushal מבושל ("cooked" or "boiled"), it thereby becomes unfit for idolatrous use and will keep the status of kosher wine even if subsequently touched by an idolater. This style of wine is frequently used in kosher restaurants and by kosher caterers. Traditionally, this edict was followed literally. The boiling process killed most of the fine mold or "must" on the grapes, and greatly altered the tannins and flavors of the wine. Later, the process was modified to require only that wine be heated to 194°F (90°C). (At this temperature, the wine is not bubbling, but it is cooking, in the sense that it will evaporate much more quickly than usual.) This managed to reduce some of the damage done to the wine, but still had a substantial effect on quality and aging potential.
Recently, a process called flash pasteurization has come into vogue. This method avoids causing the juice of the grapes to simmer or boil, and is said to have a minimal effect on flavor, at least to the casual wine drinker. Indeed, the non-kosher winery Château Beaucastel flash pasteurizes and its wines are considered among the world's finest, although few others have copied this technique. In most territories, the bulk of kosher wine is supplied by wineries producing both kosher wine and wine for the general market. However, irrespective of the method, the pasteurization process must be overseen by mashgichim to ensure the kosher status of the wine. Generally, they will attend the winery to physically tip the fruit into the crush, and operate the pasteurization equipment. Once the wine emerges from the process, it can be handled and aged in the normal fashion.
According to Conservative Judaism
In the 1960s the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards approved a responsum ("legal ruling") by Rabbi Israel Silverman on this subject. Silverman notes that some classical Jewish authorities believe that Christians are not considered idolaters, and that their products cannot be considered forbidden in this regard. He also noted that most wine-making in the United States is fully automated. Based on 15th–19th century precedents in the responsa literature, he concluded that wines manufactured by this automated process may not be classified as wine "manufactured by gentiles", and thus are not prohibited by Jewish law. This responsa makes no attempt to change halakhah in any way, but rather argues that most American wine, made in an automated fashion, already is kosher by traditional halakhic standards. Some criticism was later made against this teshuvah, because (a) some wines are not made by automated processes but rather, at least in some steps, by hand, and (b) on rare occasions non-kosher fining ingredients are used in wine preparation.
A later responsum on this subject was written by Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, and also accepted by the CJLS. (Elliot Dorff, "On the Use of All Wines" YD 123:1.1985 ) Dorff noted that not all wines are made by automated processes, and thus the reasoning behind Silverman's responsum was not conclusively reliable in all cases. He explored rabbinic thought on Jewish views of non-Christians, also finding that most poskim refused to consign Christians to the status of idolater. Dorff then explored the traditional halakhic argument that avoiding such wine would prevent intermarriage. Dorff asserted, however, that those who were strict about the laws of kashrut were not likely to intermarry, and those that did not follow the laws would not care if a wine has a heksher or not. He also noted that a number of non-kosher ingredients may be used in the manufacturing process, including animal blood.
Dorff concluded a number of points including that there is no reason to believe that the production of such wines is conducted as part of pagan (or indeed, any) religious practice. Most wines have absolutely no non-kosher ingredients whatsoever. Some wines use a non-kosher ingredient as part of a fining process, but not as an ingredient in the wine as such. Dorff noted that material from this matter is not intended to infiltrate the wine product. The inclusion of any non-kosher ingredient within the wine occurs by accident, and in such minute quantities that the ingredient is nullified. All wines made in the USA and Canada may be considered kosher, regardless of whether or not their production is subject to rabbinical supervision. Many foods once considered forbidden if produced by Gentiles ( such as wheat and oil products) were eventually declared kosher. Based on the above points, Dorff's responsum extends this same ruling to wine and other grape-products.
However, this teshuvah also notes that this is a lenient view. Some Conservative rabbis disagree with it, e.g. Isaac Klein. As such Dorff's teshuvah states that synagogues should hold themselves to a stricter standard so that all in the Jewish community will view the synagogue's kitchen as fully kosher. As such, Conservative synagogues are encouraged to use only wines with a heksher, and preferably wines from Israel, such as the Golan, where a considerable percentage of Israel's vineyards are located.
Role of wine in Jewish holidays and rituals
Almost all Jewish holidays, especially the Passover Seder where all present drink four cups of wine, on Purim for the festive meal, and on the Shabbat require obligatory blessings over filled cups of kosher wine that are then drunk. (However, if no wine is present, the blessing over challah suffices). At Jewish marriages, circumcisions, and at Redemption of First-born ceremonies, the obligatory blessing of Borei Pri HaGafen ("Blessed are you O Lord, Who created the fruit of the vine") is almost always recited over kosher wine (or grape juice).
According to the teachings of the Midrash, the "forbidden fruit" that Eve ate and which she gave to Adam was the grape from which wine is derived, though many would contest this and say that it was in fact a fig. The capacity of wine to cause drunkenness with its consequent loosening of "inhibitions" is described by the ancient rabbis in Hebrew as nichnas yayin, yatza sod ("wine enters, [and one's personal] secret[s] exit"), similar to the Latin "in vino veritas". Another similarly evocative expression relating to wine is: Ein Simcha Ela BeBasar Veyayin—"There is no joy except through [eating] meat and [drinking] wine".)
- Jewish dietary restrictions on grape products at Judaism 101 (jewfaq.org)
- "What makes a wine Kosher?", Gems in Israel, August/September 2001, ISSN 1527-9812
- "What makes kosher wine?", Jerusalem Post, Mar 7, 2007
- "The Art of Kosher Wine Making", Star-K Kosher certification website.
- "Video: Kosher wine reviews" Kosher wine video reviews