By Frank Lockwood
Legislation allowing underage Jews to drink beer during religious ceremonies has sparked widespread support in the Arkansas Legislature and puzzlement, even laughter, in the Jewish community.
“I can’t think of any religion, off the top of my head, that uses beer sacramentally,” said a chuckling David Gilner, director of libraries at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.
“I have never heard of this,” agreed David Kraemer, a professor of Talmud and rabbinics at The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.
Arkansas already allows children to receive wine as part of a “religious ceremony or rite in any established church or religion.”
But House Bill 2151 would expand the exemption to include beer. The state House of Representatives passed the legislation 71-17 on March 19, and the Senate’s State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee recommended passage on Tuesday. It’s now awaiting a vote in the Senate.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dan Greenberg, R-Little Rock, says he drafted the bill on behalf of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi so that underage Arkansas Jewish youths would be able to drink at religious dinners and other events during the first nine days of the Jewish month of Av.
On the Ninth Day of Av, most observant Jews fast to mark the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. or 587 B.C. and by the Romans in A.D. 70.
During this annual period of solemnity, most observant Jews refrain from eating meat and drinking wine, except on the Sabbath or — if there’s been a baby boy born — at a dinner after the ritual circumcision.
However, some Orthodox Jews avoid wine altogether during this midsummer season, preferring to drink beer instead.
“Beer has a higher degree of importance than regular drink, but it’s still not of the caliber of wine,” said Rabbi Pinchus Ciment, who is the director of Lubavitch of Arkansas and lobbied for the change.
The legislation, primarily, would allow underage Jews to drink beer at post-circumcision celebrations on those rare occasions when a baby boy is born before the Ninth of Av, Ciment said.
During the nine days, Ciment and some other Orthodox Jews also drink beer, not wine, for havdalah — the rite that marks the end of Shabbat (or the Sabbath).
The use of beer, however, is not mandated by Jewish law.
“Havdalah throughout the year can be done on beer, it can be done on coffee, it can be done on many drinks,” said Orthodox Rabbi Mendel Greisman, director of Chabad of Northwest Arkansas.
And typically, Greisman said, havdalah is performed in the home, not in a congregational setting.
Some rabbis allow the havdalah to be performed with whiskey. Others accept rum.
“It’s possible to use grape juice. It’s possible to use milk,” said Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University near Boston.
“I am familiar with no Jewish law that requires drinking of beer at any time,” he said.
Wine, “which cheereth God and man” [according to Judges 9:13] is the preferred alcoholic beverage in Judaism.
It’s unclear how many people would be affected by the legislation.
“I think probably a fairly tiny number,” said Greenberg. “But I do think it’s quite important to make sure that state government never interferes with traditional religious practices.”
In 2000, the Association of Religion Data Archives estimated that 1,600 Jews live in the state. Only a fraction of those are Orthodox and only a portion of those drink beer during the nine days of Av.
“This is a very tiny exemption aimed at a very tiny problem,” said Greenberg, a member of Temple B’nai Israel, a Reform congregation in west Little Rock.
Gilner, the Hebrew Union College libraries director, said he was unaware that beer drinking was a traditional religious practice — at least in Judaism.
“It’s completely outside of anything I have ever heard. … Having been brought up an Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn, New York, and having gone to a yeshiva [an Orthodox school], I would think I would’ve heard something about it.”