Substitutes for Wine Under the Chupah
A couple are planning their wedding in the near future. The man has disclosed to me that he is a recovering alcoholic,
now six months sober. He is making great efforts to stay away from alcohol. I of course encouraged and supported him.
When it came to the wedding ceremony, however, I had to inform him that the use of wine is an integral part of the
service. I indicated to him that he could use grape juice instead of wine. He told me that he was so unsure of his sobriety
that even grape juice would test his resolve and that he would prefer not to use it. Is there a solution to this problem that
will simultaneously preserve the structure of the traditional ceremony yet not hazard his sobriety? (Rabbi Kenneth D.
Roseman, Dallas, TX)
There is no denying the powerful symbolic importance of wine in Jewish observance. In biblical times it was noted that
“wine gladdens the human heart” (Psalms 104:15). The Talmud adds that today, in the absence of the Temple and the
sacrifices, “there is no joy without wine.”1 This means that at special festive moments of our lives as Jews
we express the happiness we feel through the drinking of wine. We welcome Shabbat with kiddush and bid it
farewell with havdalah, both of which are recited over wine.2 Wine helps us fulfill the mitzvah
to rejoice during festivals.3We drink four cups of wine at the Pesach seder to celebrate our liberation from
bondage.4 Indeed, wine is so essential at that occasion that “one who does not accustomed to drinking
wine because he dislikes it or because it causes him pain should force himself to drink it, to fulfill the mitzvah of the four
cups.”5 At moments of personal joy, such as a wedding and berit milah, the appropriate
blessings are recited over a cup of wine. Due to its intrinsic importance, wine receives its own benediction (borei peri
hagafen) at those moments, even though we use it for purely ritual purposes and not for
All the above serves to emphasize both the centrality of wine in Jewish ceremonial observance and the problem which
faces the man who is the subject of this she’elah. He wishes to celebrate his great moment of personal joy as a
Jew, under the chupah, when the officiating rabbi recites the betrothal and wedding benedictions. But he does
not want this ritual to endanger his continuing recovery from alcoholism. For our part, we certainly want to encourage this
man in what will be a life-long struggle against this disease, and we think it would be ironic and tragic were a ritual of the
Jewish tradition, which we regard as a source of life, to act as a stumbling block to his recovery. The question, as you note,
is one of options: does the tradition require the use of wine or grape juice at a wedding? If it does not, does it offer
alternatives for wine under the chuppah so as to maintain “the structure of the traditional ceremony?” Can a
wedding, that is, be conducted without wine and yet remain, in form and feeling, a Jewish wedding? And if such
alternatives do exist, which would we consider to be the best one from our Reform perspective?
Is Wine a Requirement at Weddings?
We begin by noting that, although wine plays a central ceremonial role in Judaism, the tradition never establishes the
drinking of wine as an absolute ritual requirement no matter how severe its effect upon one’s health. It is well known that
the halakhah permits a Jew to set aside almost all mitzvot for the sake of pikuach nefesh, when their
performance would endanger one’s life.7 Moreover, this warrant can apply even when the danger is less
than mortal. Wine is an excellent case in point. We find that, although the drinking of four cups at the Pesach seder is a
rabbinically-ordained mitzvah, a person may refrain from drinking wine should it make him seriously ill.8
The prospective bridegroom, as a recovering alcoholic, has every reason to fear that by consuming wine or grape juice he
runs the risk of serious medical consequences. Under Jewish law, therefore, he is in no way required to drink wine under
Moreover, wine is not an absolute ritual requirement under the chupah. We utilize two cups of wine at the
wedding, one for each of the two distinct legal ceremonies taking place at that time. The betrothal benediction (birkat
erusin) is recited over a cup of wine and is thus preceded by borei peri hagafen. The six wedding
benedictions (birkat chatanim) are recited over a separate cup of wine; they are preceded, again, by borei
peri hagafen, making a total of seven benedictions (hence, the “sheva berakhot“). Suppose no wine is
available? The halakhic consensus with respect to both sets of benedictions is that some other alcoholic beverage
(sheikhar) should be used and the blessing shehakol nihyah bidevaro recited. If no intoxicant can be
obtained, then according to all opinions the birkat erusin can be recited by itself, without a cup, since wine is not
regarded as an indispensable element of the erusin ceremony.9 Concerning the wedding
benedictions, however, there is a dispute. Some say that wine or a suitable substitute is absolutely required, that the
sheva berakhot can be recited only “over a cup.”10 Others, meanwhile, rule that the benedictions
may if necessary be recited without any beverage at all.11 While the Shulchan Arukh follows the
more stringent view,12 the disagreement continues among the later authorities.13
Non-Alcoholic Alternatives to Wine.
We have seen that, while some authorities do not require wine under the chupah, others do. Yet even the latter
permit the use of sheikhar, an alternative, though alcoholic, beverage. This reflects the halakhic concept of
chamar medinah, literally “local wine,” the choicest drink of a particular locality, the beverage “that most people
drink” (other than water). Chamar medinah is not necessarily grape wine, yet even so may be used in place of
wine in certain ritual settings. Thus, we read that havdalah may be recited over sheikhar if that is
indeed the “local wine.”14 The question whether such a beverage can be used for kiddush is,
again, a subject of dispute.15 The Talmud speaks of “wine” as a requirement for
kiddush.16 Some do not read this requirement literally. They argue that the sanctification of a
holy day surely ought to be performed over the most desirable beverage available, even if this is not grape wine. Others,
however, do read the Talmud’s word yayin as excluding the use of any beverage other than wine. As a means of
resolving this dispute, it has become the traditional practice to require grape wine at the evening kiddush which
commences the Sabbath or a festival but to permit other beverages for kiddusha raba, the sanctification recited at
the noon meal the next day, so long as these beverages are regarded as chamar medinah.17
If chamar medinah can be used in place of wine at kiddush (or, at least, kiddusha raba) and at
havdalah, the recitation of which is a Toraitic requirement,18 then surely it may be used at a
wedding, where the “cup” serves only a customary function and fulfills no biblical or rabbinic mitzvah. And, indeed, those
who require that the wedding benedictions be recited “over a cup” permit the use of chamar medinah in place of
wine.19 The question is whether “local wine” must be an alcoholic beverage; the answer, it would seem, is
“no.” At least one contemporary Israeli halakhic authority rules that for purposes of the wedding benedictions “pure, fresh
citrus juice is considered chamar medinah in the land of Israel.”20 That is to say, in Israel “the
fruit of goodly trees” is as honored as a beverage for consumption as is fermented grape juice. There is every reason to
argue that the same is true in America, for here, too, pure fruit juice is regarded in many circles and at many occasions as
the beverage of choice.
Tradition, therefore, permits the use of a non-alcoholic beverage as a substitute for wine at weddings. To this, we would
add the following note. The halakhic sources discuss this issue in the context of an unusual or “emergency” case where
wine is not available. The present situation is a qualitatively different one, and it demands a qualitatively different
response. While traditional literature does address the subject of drunkenness, it says little if anything about the disease we
call alcoholism. In itself, this is not surprising. Our consciousness of alcoholism, of its medical dimensions and its human
tragedy, far outstrips that of former generations. Given that consciousness, it is incumbent upon us to confront this disease
directly and openly, and to do whatever we can to aid those who come to us in their struggle for recovery. In our case, a
recovering alcoholic seeks to celebrate his wedding as a Jew, as a full and participating member of the community of
Israel. We owe him no less consideration, surely, than we show to the disabled members of our congregations whom we
seek actively to bring into the circle of Jewish life and observance.21 Therefore, while we recognize the
real and special symbolic importance of wine in Jewish ritual experience, it is our ethical obligation to emphasize that
non-alcoholic beverages are not to be thought of as inferior alternatives to wine for ceremonial purposes. This is a
declaration we make in general, in all cases and not just emergency ones, a declaration we state as forcefully as we
- BT. Pesachim 109a.
- BT. Pesachim 106a, on “Remember the Sabbath day…”. Havdalah
may be recited over another beverage; see below, on the discussion
of chamar medinah.
- Deut. 16:14; BT Pesachim 109a; Yad, Hilkhot Yom Tov 6:17.
- M. Pesachim 10:1, and Rashi ad loc. (99b); SA, OC 472:8 ff.
- SA OC 472:10, from Resp. Rashba, I, 238. And see YT Shekalim
3:2 (47c): when Rabbi Yonah drank the four cups of wine at the
seder, even though the wine would leave him with a headache that
lasted until Shavuot!
- BT. Berakhot 42a and Rashi, s.v. degoreim berakhah le`atzmo;
SA, OC 174:1.
- BT. Yoma 85b and Sanhedrin 74a; Yad, Hilkhot Yesodey Hatorah
5:1-3; SA, YD 157:1.
- See Mishnah Berurah, OC 472, # 35: one should not drink wine
should it cause one “to take to his bed.” The Sha`ar Hatziyun ad
loc. explains the reason: we drink wine at the seder to emphasize
our liberation, and to cause ourselves illness is hardly “the way
of freedom.” See also Arukh Hashulchan, OC 472, # 14, and R.
Ovadyah Yosef, Resp. Chazon Ovadyah, I, # 4.
- SA, EH 34:2. Rav Nisim Gaon, cited in Hilkhot Harosh, Ketubot
1:16, says that the use of wine at erusin is not, properly
speaking, an obligation (lav mitzvah min hamuvchar hu).
- Rav Nisim Gaon in Hilkhot Harosh loc. cit.; Tur EH 62.
- Yad, Ishut 10:4 and Magid Mishneh ad loc.
- SA, EH 62:1.
- Chelkat Mechokek and Beit Shmuel, EH 62:1. The Arukh
Hashulchan, EH 62, # 6, requires wine or sheikhar; R. Ya`akov
Emden, Siddur Beit Ya`akov, Dinei Birkat Erusin veNisu’in, does
- BT Pesachim 107a. The precise definition of chamar medinah
remains somewhat unclear. Some say that a beverage qualifies as
“local wine” only when grape wine is completely unavailable in a
particular locale. Others say that when wine is available but can
be obtained only with great difficulty, a substitute beverage can
be chamar medinah. Still others require only that the grape wine
that s available be significantly inferior to the other favored
beverage. See Arukh Hashulchan, OC 272, # 13-14.
- The leading disputants are R. Asher b. Yechiel, who permits
kiddush over chamar medinah (Hilkhot Harosh, Pesachim 10:17), and
Rambam (Yad, Hilkhot Shabbat 29:17, and see Magid Mishneh ad loc.),
who does not.
- BT Pesachim 106a, on Ex. 20:8.
- SA OC 272:9, following R. Asher. Isserles ad loc., Turei
Zahav, no. 6, and Arukh Hashulchan loc. cit. all note that the
prevalent Ashkenazic custom is to say kiddusha raba over an
alcoholic beverage other than grape wine.
- BT Pesachim 106a. The requirement is to “remember” (zakhor)
the Sabbath day, i.e., to declare it holy through words of
sanctification. Rambam holds that havdalah is included in this
Toraitic requirement to “remember” the Hilkhot Sabbath; Yad,
Shabbat 29:1 and Magid Mishneh ad loc.
- SA, EH 62:1.
- R. Yitzchak Yosef, Sove`a Semachot, 1988, p. 67.
- See our responsum 5752.5, on the treatment of the disabled
within our communities.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.