“The Wine of the Region”: Brewing Religion and the Translation of Rabbinic Ritual from a Palestine to a Babylonian Context

It is impossible to tell the history of ancient religion without talking about alcohol. Intoxicants were imbibed on a daily basis both at mundane meals and festive banquets. All of these tipples were laden with meaning. To gaze into the ancient drinking vessel is to observe the fermentation of ancient religion and its rituals. In this talk, I focus on how rabbinic rituals that originate in a Palestinian context of wine-drinking are translated into a Babylonian context where beer-drinking is the norm. Early rabbinic literature, written and edited in Roman Palestine, reflects the widespread Greek and Roman preference for wine over other intoxicants. Elite Greek and Roman authors disparaged beer drinkers as “barbarians.” Absorbing Roman drinking preferences, Palestinian Rabbis focus on wine as a beverage for rabbinic ritual. They also devote significant attention to concern for wine that is produced, possessed, and/or poured by idolaters. And what do idolaters do? They look for every opportunity they can to pour wine to their idolatrous gods. This Palestinian rabbinic presumption of wine as the intoxicant par excellence sets up the main question I ask in this paper: namely, what happens when a religious culture centered around wine drinking moves into a new cultural context, where beer is the beverage of choice? To answer this question, we turn to the other major ancient rabbinic community: the Babylonian Rabbis. Located in the Persian Zoroastrian Empire, the Babylonian Rabbis are surrounded by a culture that appreciates beer more than wine. So when they inherit Palestinian traditions that strongly prefer wine, they seek not only to translate them into a new cultural and religious world, but to pose a key, previously unasked question: we know what the religious ruling is in regard to wine, but what about beer? It is this question that we answer in this talk.