TORONTO — It was both an education and a celebration of kosher wine last month when about two dozen people gathered for the “Raising a Glass” event.
Heebonics and The Canadian Jewish News, along with The House organized
a wine tasting event that brought Rabbi Mordechai Levin, executive
director of the Kashruth Council of Canada, to The House to speak about
the kosher wine-making process and what makes wine sacred.
(see a video clip)
“In the kosher world, wine and meat are one of the few items that are especially sensitive as far as the productions and the actual process is concerned according to Jewish law,” said Rabbi Levin, after the guests had a chance to taste wines from Israel, Argentina, Australia, Italy and Chile and to enjoy sushi provided by Umami Sushi.
He said that when it comes to blessing fruit, we always say the brachah, borei pri ha’aretz, except when it comes to wine. Wine has it’s own blessing: borei pri hagafen.
“The Mishnah says that when we change the characteristics of the grape and elevate it, it becomes more than just a grape.”
Rabbi Levin said that there is a debate about other foods that take on another form when processed, such as olive oil.
“Olive oil also goes through a similar change, but we don’t change the blessing for it… There is something more characteristic of the wine, something that we are getting from it that elevates it to a special category,” he said.
“There are two distinguishable characteristics that wine has which other foods like olive oil do not, and that is that it satisfies ones hunger and that it gladdens the heart. It makes one happy, it makes one feel good. It has the added attributes that the others don’t have.”
Also, he said, rabbis have chosen wine to sanctify the Sabbath and holidays, and as a result, the kosher wine-makers have to follow very strict guidelines.
For instance, kosher wine can only be handled by religious, shomrei Shabbat Jews from the time that the grape is pressed until it is sealed in the bottle.
“Historically, grape wine was used as a pagan ritual libation and wine was used for idolatry,” Rabbi Levin said.
“We have to handle our wine differently because it is something that is kadosh, it’s holy, something that we use for sanctity purposes.”
He said that not only are non-Jews and non-religious Jews not allowed to handle the wine, but there are certain ingredients that effect that kosherness of the wine.
Many wine makers use gelatin that comes from animal fat or animal bones, or egg white, to give the wine clarity, he said. But most kosher winemakers use a substance called bentonite to drag particles to the bottom of the barrel.
He also spoke about the difference between mevushal (cooked or boiled) and non-mevushal wines.
When a wine is mevushal, it means that the wine is chemically different from non-kosher wine. Even it is handled by a non-Jew after it is mevushal, it will still retain its kosher status.
But if a wine is non-mevushal, and it’s opened, poured or handled by a non-Jew, it is no longer kosher.
“In order to get the wine at a certain level to put it in the bottles, they have to taste it, they have to sample it. If it is not mevushal, if it hasn’t been pasteurized yet, it has to be done by a religious Jew because what causes the wine not to be kosher is any movement by a non-Jew,” Rabbi Levin said.
“If [a non-Jew] picks up the bottle, if he opens the tap and the wine comes out the tap and he takes a sample, that in itself… according to Jewish law could make the whole vat not kosher.”
He said that there is another restriction that is not halachic that a non-Jew should not even look at the wine.
“It is an extra restriction that a lot of wineries follow because there are a lot of Chassidim that do want wine that hasn’t been looked at by a non-Jew.”
Rabbi Levin also spoke about other restrictions that arise during a shmittah, which just happened last year.
Every seven years, the land is left to lay fallow and all agricultural activity is forbidden according to Jewish law.
He said that new vines cannot be planted during shmittah, but grapes from existing vines can be harvested. However, wines produced during the shmittah will not be given kosher certification by most rabbinic organizations because there are many restrictions involved in the handling of those grapes.
“That is the reason why you won’t find so many wines in the coming year with a kosher stamp on it.”