Just because God has given us a weekly, lifetime subscription to paradise, that does not mean that we may take the Shabbat for granted. No gift should go unacknowledged and no giver should go forgotten. “Zachor et yom haShabat lekadsho, Remember the Shabbat and bless it,” We bless the Giver by reciting Kiddush and Havdala, and we remember the Shabbat by drinking wine, which, in Scripture, is the beverage of fond memories. Like us, the Shabbat guest wants to be welcomed when she arrives and missed when she leaves.
But you are vacationing in Cape Cod and the local liquor store does not carry kosher wine! And the next Shabbat morning, back in town, you hover over the Synagogue bar mitzvah kiddush table, and are about to recite kiddush. And you wonder: “The whisky, or the wine?”
In determining whether there is any acceptable alternative to wine, the rabbis differentiate between Kiddush on Friday night, Havdala on Motzei Shabbat and Kiddush on Shabbat morning. In view of the fact that Friday night Kiddush is a biblical requirement, the only alternative to Kiddush wine on Friday night, is to recite Kiddush over bread.
The connection between the Shabbat and the Mishkan, the Sanctuary, which defines the 39 prohibited melachot on Shabbat, may also explain why only wine and bread are acceptable. Both wine and bread were used in the Temple sacrifices. When reciting Kiddush over bread in the absence of wine on Friday night, the following procedure is followed. One washes one’s hands, covers two loaves of bread with a cloth, places one’s hands on the cloth and recites “Vayechulu.” One then removes the cloth, places one’s hands on the challot and recites the blessing for bread “Hamotzi,” instead of the blessing for wine. The blessing for wine, which would otherwise precede the Kiddush blessing, is replaced by the blessing for bread.
Havdalah, is, according to most opinions, of rabbinic origin, and accordingly, the rabbis have a more flexible approach. The preferred beverage for Havdala is still wine. Nevertheless, if one finds oneself without wine, one may use other beverages which qualify as chamar medina, which, loosely translated, means, the “popular beverage of the location.” The precise meaning of chamar medina, which beverages qualify as chamar medina and under what circumstances they may be used instead of wine, is the subject of animated halachic debate.
According to the Shulchan Aruch, all drinks, except water, qualify as chamar medina. According to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, what sets chamar medina apart from other beverages is that it is principally a social drink rather than a thirst-quenching drink. Accordingly, soda and water, which people do not drink as a rule, unless they are thirsty, do not qualify as chamar medina and cannot be used for Havdala. Conversely, whisky, beer, tea, coffee and perhaps even milk, do qualify as chamar medina, in as much as people might drink them for social reasons, even when they are not thirsty. These drinks may therefore be used for Havdala.
Rav Ovadiah Yosef, however, vehemently disagrees. A drink is not considered chamar medina, he claims, unless it is both bitter in taste and intoxicating. The only reason, he argues, that one is allowed to drink non-alcoholic beverages before Kiddush on Shabbat morning, is precisely because they are not considered “drinks” for the purpose of Kiddush. It follows therefore, that they do not qualify for Kiddush or Havdala.
And the debate continues regarding the circumstances which justify using chamar medina for Havdala. According to most opinions, chamar medina may only be used if wine is totally unavailable, at any price, in town or a distance of one day’s journey from town. According to the Rambam, however, once a drink qualifies as chamar medina, it may be used for Havdala even if wine is available in town.
The situation with Shabbat morning is the most lenient of the three. This is because it is of rabbinic origin and the Kiddush that welcomed Shabbat has already been made on Friday night. Accordingly, the accepted practice is to allow chamar medina for Shabbat morning Kiddush, where wine, although available, is either not easily accessible, or too expensive. And on Shabbat morning, whisky is in a category all of its own. Unlike other beverages that qualify as chamar medina, whisky can be chosen over wine, even where the two bottles are standing side by side. According to the Mishnah Berurah, however, one would have to use a wine-size Kiddush cup which holds between 3-6 ounces and drink most of it in one shot. According to other authorities, a small whisky glass is sufficient.
Raphael Grunfeld, a partner at the Wall Street law firm of Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP, received Semichah in Yoreh Yoreh from Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem of America and in Yadin Yadin from Harav Haga’on Dovid Feinstein, Zt”l. This article is an extract from Raphael’s book “Ner Eyal: A Guide to the law of Shabbat and Festivals in Seder Moed, available for purchase on the Artscroll website.