Category Archives: Conservative Judaism

Opioids, pain control and suicide

I want to say a perhaps untimely word on being – on occasion – pro- proper medical use of opioids. Although there is a raging, deadly opioid crisis in the USA, it is due to a huge misuse of science and medicine, but not due to medicine itself.
The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the official halakhic body of Conservative Judaism, published a teshuva on suicide and assisted suicide in the summer 1998 issue of “Conservative Judaism” Vol. L, No.4. The authors hold that there are cases – for instance some cancers, where we do need to proscribe very strong pain killing drugs.
The CJLS teshuva notes that suicide is forbidden by Jewish law: this includes assisted suicide. Yet there’s a trend of Americans and Europeans who are asking their friends/family to help kill themselves. As the Conservative teshuva points out, many people get sick, often with terminal illnesses, but most people don’t try and commit suicide. So why do some people ask for this? If we can find out, we should remove these reasons, so people don’t want to do this.
The author of the teshuva, Elliot Dorff, note that “those who commit suicide and those who aid others in doing so act out of a plethora of motives. Some of these reasons are less than noble, involving, for example, children’s desires to see Mom or Dad die with dispatch so as not to squander their inheritance on “futile” health care, or the desire of insurance companies to spend as little money as possible on the terminally ill.”
Some patients want to die because they are pain, but Rabbi Dorff points out that the proper response to pain is better pain control.
There is a new crisis in medical care of elderly and terminally ill patients : Many doctors are keeping such patients in perpetual, constant pain by refusing to grant them adequate pain killers. Some do this out of ignorance, others because they claim they want to avoid any possibility of the patient becoming a “drug addict”. Others claims that a good patient will grin-and-bear-it with the least amount of pain medication possible. The CJLS teshuva states that such reasoning is “bizarre”, and cruel. With today’s medications, there is no reason for people to be in perpetual torture.
The teshuva outlines theological reasons why Judaism is opposed to suicide. Another section discusses the social and economic forces that conspire to drive many people to this decision. Most importantly, the teshuva investigates the psychological reasons for the hopelessness felt by some patients.
It points out that “Physicians or others asked to assist in dying should recognize that people contemplating suicide are often alone, without anyone taking an interest in their continued living. Rather than assist the patient in dying, the proper response to such circumstances is to provide the patient with a group of people who clearly and repeatedly reaffirm their interest in the pateint’s continued life.”
“Requests to die, then, must be evaluated in the terms of degree of social support the patient has, for such requests are often withdrawn as soon as someone shows an interest in the patient staying alive. In this age of individualism and broken and scattered families, and in the antiseptic environment of hospitals where dying people usually find themselves, the mitzvah of visting the sick (bikkur Holim) becomes all the more crucial in sustaining the will to live”
None of this, of course, is to downplay the serious opiate crisis in the united states. It has affected even those close to me. I know that the producers of opiate drugs have engaged in unethical, possibly criminal activity, in pushing these drugs to doctors for the past 30 years, and doctors themselves pushed these drugs unwisely, helping create the current deadly crisis. So I just am noting that there is a legitimate medical role for such drugs, under clearly defined circumstances.
Elliot N. Dorff, “Assisted Suicide” YD 345.1997a
Statement on Assisted Suicide YD 345.1997b

Recreational sports and exercise on Shabbat

May one exercise or play recreational sports on Shabbat?

If so, what kinds of sports and exercise are compatible with Shabbat observance and what kinds are not?

May one pay golf on Shabbat ?

These practical and philosophical questions are discussed in RECREATIONAL SPORTS AND EXERCISE ON SHABBAT
Oreh Hayyim 301:2, by Rabbi Jonathan Lubliner

This is a responsa accepted by the CJLS (Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly)

The religious imperative of oneg Shabbat (enjoyment of the Sabbath) and the duty to differentiate the Seventh Day by refraining from activities associated with the work week — even when they do not violate per se any prohibition of the Torah — first finds expression in the book of Isaiah:
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your affairs on My holy day; if you call the sabbath “delight,” the Lord’s holy day “honored”; And if you honor it and go not your ways nor look to your affairs, nor strike bargains — Then you can seek the favor of the Lord. I will set you astride the heights of the earth, and let you enjoy the heritage of your father Jacob — for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
-Isaiah 58:13-14
The Hasidic master, Rabbi Ya’akov Yitzhak of Przysucha, once observed, “It is almost impossible not to desecrate Shabbat in some minor way, unless one were bound hand and foot. Yet this would offer no solution since it would prevent oneg Shabbat.”
There has always been a dialectical tension between the commandment to enjoy Shabbat while consciously avoiding activities associated with the workaday world. It is this polarity which furnishes the matrix of our discussion in the following pages.
Notwithstanding that the character of specific recreational activities ipso facto render them incompatible with Shabbat observance, many kinds of physical exercise do not entail actual violations of Shabbat law. Indeed, one could credibly argue that
certain types of athletics fall within the rubric of oneg Shabbat; their enjoyable character
enhances rather than detracts from the joy of the day. It remains an open question, however, whether or not such activities compromise the rabbinic concept of shevut, i.e., behaviors to be avoided because they are not in the spirit of the Day of Rest (mishum uvdin d’hol) or because they may lead to actual violations of Shabbat (mishum gezerah).2
To answer the above questions requires an examination of the halakhic literature both
broadly and narrowly. A global understanding of the concepts of oneg Shabbat and shevut as they have evolved through time will afford us the critical context in which to locate generally the permissibility of exercise on Shabbat. At the same time, given the intrinsic differences between various types of athletic activities, it may well be that some are entirely permissible, while others are highly problematic. Accordingly, this teshuvah will explore the larger issues of oneg and its relationship with shevut. A series of separate responsa will follow, each focusing on a different type of recreational activity and its permissibility on Shabbat. Given the common practice of washing after exercise, the final responsum will deal with the halakhic issues of bathing on Shabbat

Neil Gillman “On Knowing God”

One of the preeminent Jewish theologians of the 20th century is Rabbi Neil Gillman

Rabbi Neil Gillman On Knowing God

“What does it mean to experience God?  It would seem that we do not see/experience God as we see/experience an apple…. But is the difference between seeing God and seeing an apple an intrinsic difference?  That is, do we require a dual epistemology, one for knowing natural objects and another for knowing God?  Or is there one basic way for humans to experience, and hence, to acquire knowledge of everything?”

“I claim that a single epistemology is sufficient.  To substantiate that claim, I begin by suggesting three possible analogies for the epistemological process involved in knowing God: seeing the New York Knick’s passing game, seeing an ego, and seeing a quark [a sub-atomic particle, which all protons and neutrons are made of].”

“In each of these instances, what we see is a patterned activity.  in the first, seeing a passing game is different from seeing Patrick Ewing.  We clearly see Ewing as we see an apple; we know what he looks like or we identify him by the name and number on his shirt.  But seeing the passing game involves seeing an in-between activity, a patterned relationship in which the ball is moved back and forth between five players.  A passing game is never static, never immobile; it is intrinsically dynamic….But it is perfectly clear that we do see a passing game, and then pass judgements on its quality: sharp, ragged, sloppy, etc….(all, it should be noted, metaphors)…there is a passing game out there; it is not an invention of basketball coaches and players.”

“Similarly, to see an ego is not see an apple.  An ego is not an entity which we can see if we dig deep enough into a human being…To see an ego is to see one specific, complex, pattern of human behavior, that dimension of the person’s behavior which reveals stability and balance.  Here too the frame is limited: the individual human being and his/her life experience.  Here again the experience is interactional: the psychologist and I see the same behavior, but the former brings forth a wealth of professional training and experience…that enables him to see what I can’t see.”

“To the question “Did Freud discover the ego or invent it?” the answer is clearly both.  Freud discovered the pattern, at least partially because he was looking for it and knew what to look for.  But then he identified it, gave it a name, and fitted it into his broader psychodynamic theory (or myth).  But Freud discovered the ego because it was out there to be discovered.  The ego itself is not a fiction….”

“Finally, seeing a quark.  Again, seeing a quark is not like seeing an apple.  But a trained nuclear physicist brings his interpretive structure (theory or myth) to look at the computer print out of the activity that took place in his super-collider and then claims to see a quark.  I look at the same print-out and see a chaotic mass of numbers; he sees a quark.  Or, what he interprets what he sees as a quark, or he sees through the print-out to the “invisible” quark.  Again, the experience is interactional;  without the theoretical structure, the physicist would be like me, seeing nothing of significance….Does the physicist invent the quark or discover it?  Again the answer is both:  he discovers the pattern, but because his theory provides him with a name and a way to identify it when it is there, he can then see the quark.  But the quark pattern is out there to be discovered; it is not a fictitious creation of the physicist.”

“Seeing God is like seeing any of these patterns, probably most like seeing an ego, in the sense that God is a pattern of activity that is “in” history and nature, as an ego is “in” a person…Again the experience is interactional: the believer brings his interpretive structure (the Torah’s religious myth) to his seeing, and see the pattern that we call God.  Do we discover God or do we invent God?  Both.  We discover the patterns and then identify them, name them, and the names our are inventions, just as we invent the names ‘ego’ and ‘quark’.  But if the patterns are discoverable, they are out there to be discovered.”

-> from “On Knowing God”, Conservative Judaism, Volume LI, No.2, Winter 1999.

Gillman writes :

My Seminary education had successfully subverted any literalist understanding of the central Jewish revelational event as described in Exodus 19-20. I was taught that the Torah was a composite document, edited around the 5th century C.E., borrowing from the literature of the surrounding ancient Near Eastern cultures. That “critical” approach to the study of the Bible also questioned the historicity of the biblical narratives, including the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai. The evidence for these conclusions struck me as persuasive.

In addition, I had begun to question the very possibility of any human attempt to capture God’s nature or activity in literal terms. I could no longer believe that God literally “descends” on Sinai or “speaks” the words of Torah. If God were truly God, then God could not literally “speak.”

But then what was Torah? Whence its sanctity? Its authority? More broadly, what was the epistemological status of any theological claim? Finally, as a rabbi, how could I justify teaching and advocating the bulk of Jewish practice which, I continued to believe, remained central to any authentic understanding of Judaism? It was in this context that I reverted to the notion of myth.

To this day, my use of the term troubles many of my students. The main problem is that, in American parlance, a myth is synonymous with a fiction, a fairy tale, or worse, a lie – as in the common practice of contrasting “the myth” with “the facts” or “the reality.” That conventional use of the term haunts me whenever I use it.

When I teach “revelation,” I provide my students with a wide range of options, including the traditionalist literal understanding of the issue, along with the more liberal positions from the writings of Heschel, Kaplan, Buber, and Rosensweig. I also teach my own position – that the biblical account of the event at Sinai should be understood as myth. This is what I mean by the term….

The Problematics of Myth, Sh’ma (Sh’ma website)

The Problematics of Myth, Sh’ma (BJPA website)

Are All Wines Kosher?

Part I: The history of how non-kosher wines came to seen as plausibly kosher, within the Orthodox Jewish community – a censored history, revealed by Professor Marc Shapiro

Part II: The Use of All Wines, Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff.

Part III: Are All Wines Kosher? Rabbi Israel Nissan Silverman


I: The history of how non-kosher wines came to seen as plausibly kosher, within the Orthodox Jewish community – a censored history, revealed by Professor Marc Shapiro

Excerpted from “Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History”

Marc Shapiro raised some interesting points on this from the Rema – “Let me begin with one of the most famous examples of halakhic censorship.The first edition of R. Moses Isserles’ responsa was printed in Krakow in 1640. In this volume, Isserles included a fascinating responsum defending the Jews in Moravia who were accustomed to drink non-Jewish wine. Isserles was not dealing with run-of-the mill sinners, concerning whom there would be no reason to try to come up with a justification. Rather, the question concerned otherwise halakhically observant people who nevertheless ignored the prohibition against no-Jewish wine. Isserles had previously found it necessary to permit (or at least not protest) when Jews did business with non-Jewish wine, since this was vital for them to make a living.

Since, in pre-modern Europe, water was not generally safe to consume, beer and wine became the basic drinks. We can easily imagine how difficult it was at that time to abstain from non-Jewish wine, a point mentioned by Isserles. The halakhists first confronted this problem in medieval times, and Haym Soloveitchik has described how, despite halakhic openings to void the prohibition, the medieval Jews’ ritual instinct refused to go that far. Yet a few centuries later things had changed and otherwise pious Jews were indeed violating the prohibition.

In order that the communities whose members, consumed non-Jewish wine not be regard as wilful sinners, with all the halakhic consequences this would entail a justification for their behaviour, which he tells us was a continuation of the practice of previous generations. His argument has a few points, the most fundamental of which is that there is no longer a concern that the wine would have been used in an idolatrous ritual. He acknowledges that despite his justification, which is known in rabbinic literature as limud zekhut, what he has proposed is not in accord with the settled halakhah and should not be relied upon.

He is more certain, however, when it comes to one who is ill (but not to any danger (holeh she’ein bo sakanah)). In such a case, Isserles has no problem affirming that it is permitted to drink non-Jewish wine. This permission as well as his justification of those who were healthy and drank such wine, was quite shocking to later halakhists. Many of them feared that Isserles’ responsum would weaken the taboo against non-Jewish wine and lead to its consumption. Understandably, there were those who thought that this responsum was too dangerous for publication by the renowned scholar R. Aryeh Leib of Amsterdam (c.1690-1755)….

Although consumption of non-Jewish wine was opposed by most of the Italian rabbis, a few of them, including R. Samuel Judah Katzenellenbogan of Venice (1521-97), the leading halakhist of his time, were able to provide some justification. Katzenellenbogan even drank this wine himself. Another Italian halakhist, R. Shabetai Be’er (seventeenth century), ruled that it is permissible to use non-Jewish wine for kiddush and havdalah (but not for general consumption). The official communal rules of Pisa and Livorono from 1637, while forbidding Jews to eat in non-Jewish inns or taverns, specifically permit Jews to drink non-Jewish wine in small shops. This Italian practice continued, and in a book published in 1872 R. Nahman Nathan Coronel (1810-90) advised those who travel in Italy and see the local Jews drinking non-Jewish wine not to protest.

Apart from Italy, I have found other permissive opinions as well. R. Netanel Weil (1687-1769) of Karlsruhe writes: ‘In our time it is not forbidden to drink non-Jewish wine, since those who do not offer wine to idolatry were not included in the decree.’ In the nineteenth century there were North African rabbis who also declared that in contemporary times there is no prohibition against drinking non-Jewish wine. ”


II. The Use of All Wines, Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff

Adopted by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, on December 4, 1985 by a vote of thirteen in favor, and two opposed.

Question: Can we trust the kosher and pareve status of all American wines? The problem arises in the process of clarifying, or “fining,” the wine. Because of the enormous influence of the wine lobby in Washington, there are no “truth in labeling” laws requiring a winery to label its products or to divulge anything in writing or by telephone about the ingredients or process it uses.

Teshuvah (Response): This responsum will be divided into four parts: the ingredients and process used for making wine and their halakhic implications; the issue of stam yaneem; the production of wine on the Sabbath; and, finally, my recommendations for a Law Committee ruling.

This is a long and detailed teshuvah, and one needs to carefully read the entire paper. However I want to excerpt this section:

This means that we must squarely face the issue of whether we intend to be concerned any longer with what remains of the rabbinical prohibitions against drinking wine made by Gentiles. I believe that the answer should be “no.” The reason for the Tannaitic prohibition against Yayin Nesech was to prevent Jews’ involvement in idolatry. When the Rabbis instituted the prohibition, they had in mind the Roman idol worshippers familiar to them at that time. Such people constantly thought about performing acts of idolatry- to the extent that one could assume that “the thoughts of a heathen are usually directed towards idolatry. ” 40

As we have noted, however, Maimonides and those who followed him excluded Muslims from the category of “idolaters” for purposes of this prohibition even if they did not openly embrace the seven Noahide laws.41 Centuries later, Isserles explicitly assumes that the Christians of his time are not idolaters so that if they touch wine made by Jews, Jews may still drink it. It is interesting that Isserles never explicitly restricts his exclusion to those Christians living around him but rather says that Gentiles “in this time” are not idolaters. Although one could read that as including all of the world’s non-Jews, I doubt that he was making that kind of sweeping statement- if only because he must surely have realized that he did not know much about the people of the Orient.

In any case, in the modern, largely secular world, one doubts whether the Talmud’s characterization can fairly be applied to non-Jews, at least those living in the areas of Western Europe and North America from which most of our wines come. Moreover, that wine used by the Catholic Church for purposes which come closest to “idolatry” in our sense is specifically kept from the general market. There are some contemporary cults which could legitimately be classified as idolaters, but few of them produce wine. If a Jew bought only from the major wineries or from those known not to be owned or operated by such a cult, the issue of idolatry would become moot- at least as far as the prohibition of wine is concerned…


III: Are All Wines Kosher?  Rabbi Nissan Silverman

Translated from the Hebrew by Rabbis Seymour Siegel and Elliot Gertel
Published in “Conservative Judaism and Jewish Law”, Ed. Seymour Siegel, The Rabbinical Assembly, 1977


Enter a caption

Part I: By Rabbi Nissan Silverman

The Question:
Many of my colleagues in the Rabbinical Assembly have asked whether it is permitted to drink the wine known as champagne. Although champagne bubbles when it is poured into a glass, and therefore is different from ordinary wine, it is produced from grapes and therefore is included in the category of stam yeenam. [wine made by gentiles falls into two categories: ye’en nesekh-wine used for offering libations to idols, and stam yeenam-wine of which it is not known whether it has been dedicated to an idol. (ed.)](1)

The Responsum.

Rabbi Moses Isseries (1525 or 1530-1572) was asked:(2) “In regard to the custom which has spread in the province of Moravia as well as in other provinces, namely, being lenient in drinking the wine of non- Jews [s’tam yeenam]: The authorities apparently do not object. Is there something which those who follow this custom can rely on?”

Rabbi Isserles answered:

We have learned [in the Tractate Bava Batra 89b]… Regarding the deceptive methods employed by some unscrupulous merchants, that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said: “Woe to me if I should speak of them, for knaves might thus learn them (the methods]. Woe to me if I do not speak, for knaves might say that the scholars are unacquainted with our prac-tices.” They asked the question: “Did he or did he not say it?” Rabbi Shmuel ben Rabbi Yitzkhok said: “He said it, relying on the verse: ‘for the ways of the Lord are right, and the just walk in them, but the transgressors do stumble therein!'[Hosea 14: 10].”

I share the sentiments of Rabbi Moses Isseries as I approach the task of finding a heter (leniency) for drinking non-Jewish wines currently produced in America – “Woe to me if I say it [leniency], woe to me if I do not say it.”

Rabbi Moses Isseries, however, went on to state in his teshuvah: “I have seen that there is some good to find justification for their leniency in this matter.”  It is also incumbent upon us to find some justification.

First of all, in regard to ye’en nesekh (the wine of libation, i.e., wine specifically designated for ritua.I use in idolatrous worship), the gaonim and the majority of the later authorities have written in their response that non-Jews in our time are not experts on libations and their use.(3)  Thus it is clear that the general category of ye’en nesekh does not exist in our time, especially in America. Therefore, all wines produced by non-Jews in America are classified not as yeen nesekh but as stam yeenam, “non-Jewish wine.”  No one today denies that it is permitted to benefit from such wine (mutar b’hana’ah)(4) but is it permitted to drink such wine as well?

In the Mishnah of Avodah Zarah (2:6) we read: “These things of the gentiles are forbidden [i.e., they may not be eaten], though it is not for- bidclen to [otherwise] benefit from them: their bread and their oil… stewed or pickled vegetables…”  These prohibitions were made, according to Rashi and the gemarah, “because of marriage” (i.e., due to the prohibition against eating these foods, Jews and non-Jews would have no social contacts and thus would avoid intermarriage).

In the Mishnah preceding the one cited above, it is written: “These things of gentiles are prohibited, and it is also prohibited to have any benfit from them: wine…”  According to Rashi, this prohibition is due to the possibility that “perhaps he used it [the wine] as a libation (in an idolatrous rite].”  In our day, however, when non-Jews are not experts on libations, the reason for not drinking gentile wine is “because of marriage” (i.e., the fear of possible intermarriage resulting from social contact).(5)

It is interesting to note that since the time when the prohibitions against eating the four categories of food mentioned above were made, all of them except wine have become permissible.

Oil.  Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi and his school permitted the consumption of non-Jewish oil because the prohibition had not been adopted by the majority of Jews, and we do not impose a decree upon the community unless the majority of the community can abide by it.(6)

Bread.  In the time of Rabbi Yehudah, eating the bread of non-Jews was permitted. It is stated in the Jerusalem Talmud (Avodah Zarah 41d): “In a place where there is no Jewish bread, the bread of the non-Jews should have been prohibited. But they disregarded [the law] concering this, and they made it [the bread of non-Jews] permitted because it was a necessity of life.”  There are those who believe that this leniency also resulted from the fact that the prohibition had not been accepted throughout the Jewish community.(7)

Foods cooked by non-Jews.

The prohibition against eating foods cooked by non-Jews (shelakot) is very ancient, even preceding the prohibition against eating non-Jewish bread. Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi and his school did not permit shelakot.(8)  The later Rabbis limited the prohibition by instituting two important rules. First, any food which can also be eated raw (e.g., fruit) does not fall under the prohibition of “foods cooked by non-Jews,” even when it is cooked.  Second, any food which is not served on the table of kings is also permitted, since it is not served to guests, and the rule “because of marriage” is thus not applicable. In our own day, as we know, the custom of being lenient has spread to almost all Jewish homes in regard to the prohibition against “foods cooked by non-Jews,” to a greater extent than the Rabbis permitted. This is especially true regarding cooked foods sold in cans or jars.

In regard to wine, there is also an obvious lenient tendency.  At first it was prohibited to benefit in any way from non-Jewish wine.  When it became obvious that non-Jews were no longer experts on libations, the authorities became lenient and permitted Jews to benefit from non- Jewish wines (though not to drink then).  This was especially true in France, where Jews were very prominent in the production of wine for sale, and where it was customary for Jews to accept non-Jewish wine as payment for debts.(9)

In our time, because of the reasons which follow, it seems to me that we may also permit the consumption of non-Jewish wine which is produced in large factories.

1. In the production of wine in modern factories, the wine is made entirely by means of machines. (Because of the exigencies of competition, contemporary wine-producers are forced to utilize the most modern production techniques.)  No human hand comes into contact with the product from the moment the grapes are placed in the crusher machine until the entire production process is completed and the wine resulting from it is placed in sealed containers under the supervision of federal tax inspectors.(10)  The only exception is certain permissible handling of the wine with utensils which will be explained below.

During the production of wine today, experts occasionally remove some wine from the large containers in order to taste and examine it. This is always done with a utensil (i.e., the experts do not actually touch the wine; they take the wine with a ladle or some other utensil and they do not come into physical contact with the wine)

Rabbi Yaakov Castro (Egypt, 1525-1612), in his book Erekh Lechem (no. 124:7), writes:

A Karaite does not make wine prohibited by his touching it. However, there is reason to prohibit such wine unless he [the Karaite] swears that a non-Jew had not touched it. An oath would he sufficent, for the Karaites are cautious about taking oaths, even though they are not concerned about non-Jews touching their wine. These are the words of the author of the Kaftor veFerach [Rabbi Estori Hafarchi].  In our lands I have seen that it is customary to drink [the wine of Karaites] even though the oath was not taken. Perhaps the reason for this is that the Ishmaelites amongst whom we live are not idolaters and we do not base a prohibition on a mere possibility. [i.e., the possibility that the wine of the Karaites had been touched by a non-Jew, and even if this were so, the non-Jew would not be an idolater (ed.)].

At the end of paragraph 127 Castro writes:

There are those who say that in our time, when the non-Jews are not knowledgeable regarding libations, whenever they do touch wine it is not considered for purposes of making a libation, and therefore if the wine were touched with a utensil it would be permitted to drink [the wine].

Rabbi Raphael ben Eleazar Meldola (1754-1828), in his book Mayim Rabbim (pt.II, no. 28), writes:

It is clearly apparent that the great scholars of the past have left us a wide open door making it possible to permit having benefit from wine touched by non-Jews in our day. Therefore, if the touching took place without the intention [of libation] and through the medium of some utensil, as in the matter before us, we descend one rung, and permit even the drinking of the wine, since the non-Jews in our days are not accustomed to make libations.

Rabbi Levi ibn Habib (ca. 1483-1545), in his responsum #41, permitted the drinking of wine which was touched by a non-Jew who had no intention of making a libation, relying on the view of Rabbi Shmuel b. Meir, the Rashbam (ca. 1080-1174; Rahsbam quotes his grandfather, Rashi, to the effect that the gaonim ruled that non-Jews in our own day are not knowledgeable about libations).

In the responsa of Rabbi Jacob Weil (d. before 1456) it is written (no. 26): “For this reason I permitted the drinking of wine where the non-Jewish worker put his stick into the barrel of wine. It involved the touching of wine by a non-Jew by means of something else without the intention of making a libation.  This was permitted by Rabbenu Tam [Rabbi Yaakov Tam, 1100-1171] as well.”

Rabbi Moses Isserles adds: “Every place where there is no suspicion of idolatry, wine is not more stringent than intoxicating spirits of non-Jews about which we say in the second chapter of the Tractate Avodah Zarah 31b [see also Tosaphot ad locum., s.v. v’tarveyhu mishum chatnut] that it [i.e., the spirits) is prohibited because of ‘marriage.’  Nevertheless, we say that Rav Papa would take it outside the door of the store and drink it, and that Rav Ahai brought it to his house and drank it. Therefore the same law would apply to wine in our own time [i.e., drinking it should be permitted just as the drinking of spirits was apparently permitted]. Even though the prohibition against wine is of greater force than the prohibition against other intoxicating beverages, since alcoholic beverages were not prohibited either in the Mishnah or in a Beraita, but the prohibition was instituted during the time of the Amoraim, as was noted in the Tosaphot cited above. Nevertheless, we can say that this additional stringency against wine was true in their day when Jews were prohibited from deriving any benefit from stam yeenam even when the non-Jew only touched it, but in our day, since we are not prohib- ited from deriving benefit from wine [because the non-Jews are presumed not to be knowledgeable about libations], we are not more stringent concerning wine than concerning other substances which were prohibited because of ‘their daughters.’ ”

There are workers employed in the production of wine who open and close various taps in order to insure the flow of the wine from one barrel to another. Regarding this kind of problem, the Rama wrote in his glosses (Yoreh Deah, no. 124:24):

It would be permitted [even for drinking] if he inserted a tap into the barrel or removed it without any intention [of making a libation]. In these times, non-Jews are not considered idolaters, and all of their touchings are considered to be “without intention.”  Therefore, if he touched the wine by means of a utensil, even though he knows it is wine, and even though he intentionally touches it, it is permitted to drink the wine since it is considered as “touching by means of a utensil without intention.” However, it is not advisable to publicize this among the ignorant.

Therefore, it is possible to allow the drinking of wine produced in modern factories since no human being touches it, except in the per- missible manner just explained.

2. In our own time there is still another consideration which permits us to be lenient. We read in the Tractate Avodah Zarah (30a): “Wine which is boiled does not come under the category of wine for libation.” The fact is that in the production of wine in our time, all wine can be considered “boiled wine” since all wines go through the process of pasteurization.

It is true that the Rabbi Louis Ginzberg, in his responsum concerning the permissibility of using grape juice for ritual purposes (where wine is required), wrote:  “In order that those who cavil should not say that he [the responder] has permitted boiled wine, about which there is controversy among the early authorities, I wish to say that grape juice is not considered “boiled wine” since it is not heated to the boiling point, and at a lower temperature [i.e., below the boiling point] it is not considered “boiled wine.”

However, in the commentary Be’er Hetev to Yoreh Deah 123:3 it is written:  “It can be considered ‘boiled wine’ if the heating process diminishes the volume of the wine.”

I have it on excellent authority that the pasterurization process does diminish the volume of the wine. Therefore, according to this halakhic definition, pasteurized wine can be considered “boiled wine” even when it does not reach the boiling point. Therefore, from this point of view, it is possible to permit the drinking of wine produced by non-Jews in America today.

3. In addition to these considerations, it is important to point out that the non-Jews in our day – i.e., the Christians, and especially the Catholics – who use wine in their worship, use wines produced especially for these purposes which are not sold on the open market. I have it on the authority of a Catholic priest, who holds an important post in his Church in the city of Boston, that it is prohibited for a Catholic to use champagne for purposes of worship. Also prohibited are stronger spirits, such as cognac and brandy. Incidentally, it is interesting to point out that Catholics use bread and oil in their worship, and in regard to these substances our Sages long ago were lenient.

I wish to add three important points to this discussion:

1. In the Land of Israel today, the wine industry is very highly developed. The wines produced there win awards in all kinds of international competitions. Since the economic situation in the Holy Land is not of the best, it is a special mitzvah for every Jew, wherever he resides, to purchase the wines produced in our ancestral homeland, which are kosher without any question (Professor Ginzberg, of blessed memory, has pointed out that our Sages enacted many decrees for the purpose of improving the economic situation of the Land of Israel).

2. Especially when wine is required for the fulfillment of a mitzvah, such as the ceremonies of circumcision, weddings, kiddush, and hav- dalah, it is proper to use Jewish wine, and especially wine produced in Israel.  Just as a Jew is commanded to enhance the fulfillment of the commandments of sukkah, lulav, etrog, and of festive Sabbath and Festival meals, it is proper that he enhance the fulfillment of the mitz-vah through the use of Jewish wine when he fulfills the mitzvah of kiddush.

3. Anything that has been said in this responsum regarding non-Jewish wine is not applicable during Passover. I am convinced that the production of wine in America raises many questions involving leaven.(11) Therefore, during Passover, wine which has not been supervised by a competent rabbinic authority should not be used.



a. In the course of preparing this responsum, I visited several plants where wine and distilled spirits are produced. I also consulted several experts in the field and studied various published materials, including the relevant articles in the Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology and the Encyclopaodia Britannica (1947 ed.) as well as The Wine Industry and Wine Growing and Wine Types, two pamphlets published by the Wine Advisory Board. As a result, I believe I am well informed about the technical aspects of wine production in this country.

b. I have learned from specialists in the field that automatic machinery is not used in the production of wine in some places in Spain, France, Italy, and other countries, and that in some cases the workers still press the grapes with their feet, exactly as it was done hundreds of years ago.  These practices raise questions which I cannot deal with here. Nevertheless, even in Europe and elsewhere some wine is produced through the same methods used in the United States, i.e., by means of automatic machinery – and wine so produced would have the same status as American wines.

c. One of my colleagues, who served in France with the U.S. Army during World War 11, has informed me that in many areas there are small churches or shrines in the vineyards. This also raises several questions. Therefore, this responsum is concerned only with wines that are produced through the use of automatic machinery in plants operated by large, well-known wine companies.

2. The she’lot u-teshuvot of Rabbi Moses Isserles, no. 124. This responsum was omitted in many editions. It appears in the Cracow edition, 1710.

3. In the Tractate Avodah Zarah 14b, it is written: “Rav Hisda said to Abirni: ‘We have learned that the Tractate of Avodah Zarah of Abraham our Father contained four hundred chapters, and we have only five chapters, and we are not even positive what they are saying.”‘  This means that already in the days of Rab Hisda they recognized that idolatry was waning in the world.  See also the Tosaphot (Avodah Zarah 57b, s.v. La-afokey Midrav): “The Rashbam and the Rivan explained in the name of Rashi that it is written in the responsa of the Gaonim that in these times there is no prohibition against deriving benefit from wine which was touched by a non-Jew since in these days they are not accustomed to making libations before idols, and they [i.e. the non-Jews] are considered as those who are not knowledgeable about idolatry and the cult connected with it, and they have the same status as newborn babes [i.e., they have no knowledge of the cultic practices of idol-worshippers], and we rely on this to take the wines of non-Jews as payment for their debts.”  Also in regard to libations, Rabbi Moses Isserles wrote (Yoreh Deah, no. 132): “However in our day, when the idolaters do not pour libations … ”  The same was written by the author of the book Erekh Lechem: “In our times the non-Jews do not know the nature of libations…” Also, the author of the book Mayim Rabbim: “The non-Jews of our time are not accustomed to make libations.” And similarly, many more authorities.

4. The Tosaphot to Avodah Zarah 57b (s.v. La-afokey Midrav, at the end): “It is a question how do we permit having benefit from the wine of non-Jews, since there is a prohibition against their wine because of their daughters, and nowadays that reason still applies [i.e., though the suspicion of libation is gone, there is still the possibility of intermarriage].  It is possible to say that when they prohibited even deriving benefit from the wine of non-Jews more than they prohibited their bread and their wine, it was because there were non-Jews who still used wine for libations before idols. But since that is no longer applicable, because the non-Jews are not knowledgeable in the nature of libations, it is enough that their wine should be considered in the same category as their oil and their bread or their cooked vegetables, and therefore it would he prohibited from drinking, but not from having any benefit from it. ‘But he who is stringent may he be blessed.’ ”

See also what the Rama wrote in his glosses, Yoreh Deah 123:1: “In these days when the non-Jews are accustomed to pour libations before idols, their wine is only prohibited from drinking, but not from deriving benefit.”  See also the book Evekh Lechom (Constantinople, 1718) by Joseph Castro, who wrote (no. 123a): “The Muslims are not idolaters, and therefore their wine is permitted to have benefit from it. There are those who permit wine [to have benefit) even when touched by Christians. There are those who are lenient in regard to all non-Jewish wine, and on the occasion of great loss we rely on those who are lenient. However, those stringent should be blessed.”

5. In the Tractate Avodah Zarah 36b, we read: “They prohibited their bread and their oil because of their wine, and their wine [was prohibited] because of their daughters, and their daughters because of another thing [i.e., idolatry].”  It is interesting that the prohibitions against bread and oil were lifted in the days of Rabbi Judah Hanasi. The Rama, of blessed memory, wrote that the prohibition against the wine of non-Jews is not more serious than the other “because of their daughters” prohibitions. In our time these prohibitions have dissolved. It is a fact that intermarriage is not only a direct result of the drinking of non-Jewish wine.

6. The Rebbe who is mentioned here is certainly the grandson of Rabbi Yehuda the Prince. See Avodah Zarah 35b.

7. Sefer Ha-eshkol, Pt.II, no. 49.

8. See note 5 above.

9. See the Machzor Vitri, Hilchot Ye’en Nesekh, No. 115.  See also Baron, “A Social and Religious History of the Jews”, Vol. 6, pp. 128 ff. (apparently there is a contradiction between the responsa of Rashi and the Machzor Vitri in regard to the acceptance of non-Jewish wine for the payment of debts to a Jew). Cf. Tosaphot (Avodah Zarah 57b s.v. La-afokey Midrav).  See also Baron, op. cit., vol. 4, p. 317, n.14, regarding the role of French Jews in the wine industry.

10. There are merchants who purchase wine from factories in very large barrels, and they themselves bottle the wine under government supervision. Even in these instances, the hands of human beings do not touch the wine, except for experts and workers who contact the wine only by means of another object – as we have explained – and therefore they are all permitted.

11. In the production of wine, substances that speed up the process of fermentation are used, and also machines that fill the bottles with wine. These machines and substances are used during the year for all kinds of fermented spirits.


How We Decide Jewish Law: Committee on Jewish Law and Standards

In Conservative Judaism the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards is the body that decides if, when, and how Jewish law should change.

by Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff

Acting in accordance with the mitzvot has always been key to what it means to be a Jew, and Conservative Judaism has always required the observance of the laws of classical Judaism. That is why we are called the “Conservative”movement, or, in Hebrew, Masorti (traditional): we intend to conserve the tradition by studying it and practicing it. Consequently, the movement invests as much talent and energy as possible in Jewish education on all levels: schools, youth groups, camps, conventions, trips to Israel and other Jewish communities, adult programs, and publications such as this. The emphasis is not on how we can or should change Jewish law; it is rather on motivating and helping Jews observe Jewish law.

Historically, there have been times when the law had to change so it could more effectively tie people to the Jewish tradition and guide their lives. Deciding when such additions or modifications are necessary, and how they should be made, requires considerable judgment and risk, and consequently Conservative Judaism has made the decision a communal matter for both rabbis and laypeople. The movement uses the same three mechanisms to decide matters of law as Jews have always used: decisions of the local rabbi, decisions of a communal body, and custom.

THE LOCAL RABBI. In most cases when a question is raised it is answered by the mara d’atra, the teacher of the place. The rabbi gains the right to make such decisions by virtue of his or her education and election as the rabbi of the congregation, school, youth group, or camp. Most such questions and answers were communicated orally, and that remains true to this day.

Communities without a rabbi would have written to one, who would sometimes consult with another rabbi with expertise in that specific area. The second rabbi would then write an answer. That kind of consultation among rabbis goes on to this very day, usually over the telephone or by e-mail. In the end, though, it is the local rabbi who still makes the decision.

THE COMMUNAL BODY. In Jewish history there have been times when there was a central agency that made decisions for a region or community, such as the Sanhedrin (from as early as 450 BCE until 361 CE), the Geonim in Babylonia (650-1050 CE), or the meetings of rabbis at commercial fairs in Europe from the 11th-17th centuries. Even today, the [Orthodox] Chief Rabbinate in England, France and Israel officially determines Jewish law for those communities. How-ever, due to freedom of religion in those countries, the Conservative and Reform movements are attempting to provide non-Orthodox options.

In line with these precedents, the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS or the “Law Committee”) determines Jewish law for its members. When a rabbi thinks that a question should be addressed on a movement-wide basis, or when a Conservative organization must make a decision of halakhic policy, an authorized representative may send the question to the CJLS. The committee determines which questions it will address and a member of the Rabbinical Assembly is invited to write a ruling on the question.

The CJLS consists of 25 members of the Rabbinical Assembly, 15 chosen by the president of the RA, five recommended by the chancellor of the Jewish Theo-logical Seminary, and another five by the president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. There are also five lay members appointed by the president of USCJ who may even team up with a rabbi to write a teshuvah (responsum, ruling) but who do not vote. Finally, there is a non-voting representative of the Cantors Assembly. An effort is made to ensure that the committee includes women and men and a variety of different age groups, geographical locations (including Israel), ideological positions, and areas of expertise so that it can rep-resent the movement fairly….

Click here for the rest of the article: How We Decide Jewish Law – CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism

Also see: How does the Rabbinical Assembly follow the traditional understanding of halakha in rabbinic literature:

Why don’t religious Jews always follow the Shulkhan Arukh (1500s code of Jewish law)

New Siddur and Machzor from the Rabbinical Assembly

The Lev Shalem series includes
Mahzor Lev Shalem, published in 2010;
and Siddur Lev Shalem for Shabbat & Festivals, to be published in 2015.

Mahzor Lev Shalem has sold over 250,000 copies.  Lev Shalem seeks to embrace the diverse backgrounds and expectations in each of our communities and open doors for every congregant. For the congregant who is familiar with the t’fillah, the mahzor’s running commentary presents both a historical overview and insight into the meaning of prayers. For the congregant who doesn’t know Hebrew, the English translations are close to the meaning of the original and the transliterations are plentiful. For the seeker who comes to services looking for meaning and direction, the mahzor’s rich ­assortment of readings includes classic piyyutim that appear in Conservative publications for the first time; Hasidic stories and reflections; and quotes from Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Buber, contemporary Israeli and American poets, and leading rabbis in the Conservative movement and beyond. And with abundant readings that focus on spiritual issues and tikkun olam,Mahzor Lev Shalem speaks to the contemporary concerns of our congregants.

Siddur Lev Shalem follows on the heels of Mahzor Lev Shalem. Like the Mahzor, it includes a new translation in contemporary language, a commentary providing both historical context and conveying the spiritual meaning of the text and kavannot, poetry and prose enlarging our relation to the text. As an RA member remarked, Mahzor Lev Shalem “stretches us in two directions: it is both more traditional and more contemporary than any previous Conservative mahzor.” The new siddur continues with this approach: we’ve looked at each service, thinking through how it was put together, how the tradition around it developed, what customs were dropped that can be reincorporated, and what contemporary ideas can respond to the text. – Rabbi Ed Feld, senior editor, Siddur Lev Shalem