Like most Jewish holidays, wine plays a central role in the traditional observance of Passover—the eight-day spring holiday that, put incredibly simply, honors when the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt liberated themselves from the pharaohs who had long before conquered their ancestors. But, of course, not all people who practice Judaism drink. So what does that mean for the celebration of Passover? Is there anything in Jewish law that actually mandates the consumption of wine when observing Passover?
To answer these questions and explore what it’s like to observe Passover alcohol-free, we turned to a rabbi and Jewish folks in alcohol recovery.
A Very Brief Retelling of the Passover Story
Depending on how people practice, the first one or two nights of Passover are all about the story of the holiday. On these nights, the story is told around the world at seders, which are traditional Passover meals involving many symbolic foods and touchpoints—including four glasses of wine consumed throughout the evening. The story of Passover is told through the reading of a text called the Haggadah. Because the story is also key to understanding the symbolism of wine during Passover, we’re going to provide the briefest of explainers.
Here goes: Moses asks the Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, to free all of the enslaved Jews. The Pharaoh says no, and in response, God sends ten plagues—the worst of which is the death of firstborns. Jews are able to avoid this horrific plague by marking the outsides of their houses with the blood of sacrificed lambs. The plague passes over the Jewish households (hence the name of the holiday), and the Pharaoh says he’ll let the enslaved Jews go. The Jews grab what they can, including bread that hasn’t risen yet (matzoh!), and get out of Egypt. Then Pharaoh changes his mind, sends his army to retrieve the Jews, and is halted by God’s parting of the Red Sea for Jews to get through. Forty years later, the Jews are finally able to make it through the desert to Israel and freedom.
Why Wine’s a Part of Passover Seders
According to Rabbi Binyamin Biber, a chaplain at American University, Jewish scholars have differing ideas about the symbolism of wine during Passover.
“More secular views note that wine was regarded as an obtainable luxury in the ancient world, associated with health, with happy and special occasions, and with joy and freedom,” Rabbi Biber says. “These associations make it fitting for a spring harvest pilgrimage festival such as Passover.”
Rabbi Biber explains that the religious role of wine during Passover is threefold:
- Red wine was what was the most available in ancient times
- The color of red wine connects it with the story of Passover
- The red wine may also be a tribute to the deaths of enslaved Jews
“These are, of course, specific Jewish interpretations of wine,” says Rabbi Biber, “which was in use elsewhere by settled agriculturalists—where it had both the meanings noted by secular scholars above, as well as meanings rooted in specific Greek, Roman, and other cultural traditions.”
What Jewish Law Says (And Doesn’t Say) About Wine During Passover
“Religious law (Halakhah) authorities disagree on this matter, as is often the case in Judaism,” says Rabbi Biber. “Some authorities claim wine consumption by Jewish adults is required; some claim grape juice is an acceptable alternative.”
One ongoing debate revolves around a section of the Talmud, collected texts comprising Jewish law, that suggests the content of squeezed grapes—meaning juice instead of wine—is totally okay to drink.
The truth is that wine isn’t explicitly mentioned in the Hebrew Bible’s Passover laws—simply because it wasn’t common in biblical times, explains Rabbi Biber. “It was added to Jewish rituals and became commonly used throughout the Mediterranean after the Greeks and Romans spread it widely,” he says. “The earliest ceremonial ‘seder’ meal emerged after 70 CE (AD), adding many post-biblical features—including wine.”
What may be more significant than whether Jewish theologians come out for or against grape juice during Passover is the Jewish principle “pikuach nefesh,” in which preserving life takes priority over many Jewish laws. One famous example of this, says Rabbi Biber, is the ability to opt-out of a religious fast when fasting might be harmful to someone’s health. “This type of exception covers the consumption of alcohol too,” they explain. “Those who could be harmed by consuming alcohol are permitted and encouraged not to do so.”
What It’s Like to Abstain From Wine on Passover
Barbara Schiffer, who’s written about being sober and Jewish for the Tempest blog before, had an especially tough first Passover seder after quitting alcohol. She had started drinking again after a period of stopping at a seder the year before.
“But after making it through (the event) sober, it was one of the most emotional and powerful seders I’ve ever been to. I was present and able to fully participate in the experience and was able to spend time with the people I love,” she says. “While I wouldn’t say that it was easy, and I definitely leaned on those around me, I ultimately look back on it as a pivotal moment in my sobriety.”
“For me, alcoholism was my own Egypt.”
The story of Passover provides a unique opportunity for Barbara to reflect on her life and past experiences with alcohol. “I try to take time each year to recognize my own version of leaving Egypt for that year. What was holding me captive that I’ve broken free from,” she says. “Oftentimes, it is related to being sober, and sometimes it has nothing to do with it. But either way, Passover isn’t about drinking. It’s about freedom, which is exactly what I got when I stopped drinking.”
Margalit, who’s also alcohol-free, sees similar parallels between the story of the holiday and their relationship with drinking as Barbara does. “Pesach is about remembering our deliverance from slavery in Egypt. For me, alcoholism was my own Egypt,” Margalit says. “I was completely subservient to my next drink. Remembering that I was given another chance and that I spend my life now healing others [as a healthcare provider] is what makes it so meaningful to me—not the wine.”
Barbara feels lucky to be surrounded by people who don’t push her to incorporate wine while observing Passover. “I think that the Jewish community is slowly coming around to understanding that not everyone drinks and that it is something to accept without explanation,” she says.
At Tempest, we’re firm believers in figuring out for ourselves what’s right for us. We believe the same can be said for how we choose to observe (or not observe) religious holidays and other spiritual practices.
“Being sober is a choice. Being religious is also a choice, and I have found that they can exist together,” Barbara wrote in another article for the Tempest blog. “It’s not always easy but it is definitely worth it. Even if that means that I bring my own grape juice or mocktail to a Passover seder.”
Chag Pesach sameach to all the Kosher-for-Passover grape-juice drinkers out there!