An article on Passover wines in the April 12 edition of the New York-based newspaper The Jewish Week relates that an “increasingly larger number of kosher wines are non-mevushal, meaning that only Orthodox Jews are involved in the wine’s production. Mevushal wine is wine that is flash pasteurized to allow non-Jews to handle it.”
“Mevushal” (pronounced in English and Yiddish as “meh-VOO-shul,” from Hebrew mevushal, meaning “cooked”) is a word that religiously observant Jewish wine drinkers are hearing a lot of these days as more and more kosher wines come on the market. For the nonobservant, however, passages like the aforementioned can be perplexing. Why pasteurize wine? And why can non-Jews then handle it? And if it isn’t pasteurized, why must only Orthodox Jews be involved in its production?
Answering these questions tells a Jewish story that is both strange and typical — strange in combining such distant things as flash pasteurization and ancient sacrifice, and typical of the workings of Jewish law.
Pouring some wine on the ground as a religious offering before drinking it was a common custom in the ancient Mediterranean world. In one of many such passages in “The Odyssey,” for example, Homer relates that a character “mixed the honey-hearted wine and served it out to all, to each in turn. And they poured libations to the blessed gods, who hold broad heaven.” For this reason, the rabbis of the Mishnah forbad Jews to drink wine produced, sold or served by gentiles, since a libation made from the same jug could implicate them in idol worship. Even if the chances of its being used for pagan purposes were remote, such wine was known as yayin nesekh or “libational wine.” (In correct Hebrew, the term should be yeyn nesekh, being a genitive construct, but yayin nesekh is the way it is commonly said, even by the learned.)
However, the rabbis of the talmudic period, made an exception to this rule: If the wine was “cooked” by the gentile before serving, Jews could drink it, since “cooked wine” was never used for libations. Such “cooking” did not mean adding wine to a sauce, but rather heating it with spices to make what is known as “mulled wine” — a beverage that is consumed by English speakers today mostly as a traditional drink on Christmas and New Year’s days. Mulled wine, legendarily invented as a winter restorative by the physician Hippocrates, was highly popular in the Graeco-Roman world, in which it was heated over a wood or charcoal fire in an urnlike vessel called a calida. To this day it is available in winter in many Italian taverns.
By the Middle Ages, of course, wine was no longer being used in pagan libations, but Jewish religious conservatism kept the ban on yayin nesekh intact. Some medieval rabbis sought to justify this ban by extending it to stam yayin — Gentile wine even if was not “libational” — by arguing that drinking it might lead to the undesirable phenomenon of Jews and gentiles socializing together. While the same conservatism continued, rather illogically, to permit yayin mevushal, this was more a theoretical than a practical ruling, since most medieval Jews lived either in Muslim lands where wine was prohibited, or in Christian ones where winter pick-me-ups were made of stronger spirits. On the whole, medieval Jews made their own wine, although some of the less pious no doubt ignored the stam yayin prohibition entirely.
Why, then, has “mevushal wine” made a comeback? The reason is simple: In recent years, as Orthodox tastes have become more sophisticated, more and more observant Jews have begun drinking not just Jewish-made kiddush wines, but also gourmet wines from all over — and since even the Jewish-owned wineries producing these tend to employ at least some non-Jewish staff, the stam yayin prohibition applies to their products. The only halachic way around it is to drink the wine “mevushal” — and yet who wants to drink a California merlot or pinot noir that has been boiled? Mulling a wine destroys much of its distinctive flavor, which is not regained when the wine is cooled again.
But make way for Jewish ingenuity! Modern methods of super-fast pasteurization have made it possible to heat milk close to the boiling point in a few seconds and to cool it so quickly that its flavor is not greatly affected. Why not, then do the same with wine? With the approval of the proper authorities — and Orthodox rabbis have indeed decreed that such wine can be considered “mevushal” — your pinot noir can be consumed flash pasteurized.
Although this might seem a legal fiction, it’s no more so than many other halachic solutions, such as the fancy shaytls, the fashionable wigs worn by ultra-Orthodox married women to beat the ban on showing their hair in public. Jewish law is nothing if not creative. The only catch is that just as no shaytl can break hearts like real hair can, no mevushal wine can charm palates like regular wine. Despite modern technology, Israeli wine expert Daniel Rogov wrote, wines that have been pasteurized “lose many of their essential essences,” are incapable of developing in the bottle and often impart a “cooked sensation.” That’s why, as The Jewish Week points out, the latest gourmet trend in the Orthodox world is to revert to all-Jewish-made wines. Caveat emptor!
Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].