As most Jews prepare their four cups of wine for their first and second seders, I ask whether Jews should even consume wine on Passover in the first place.
Most Karaites of Egyptian descent believe that wine is forbidden on Passover. These Karaites have pure, unadulterated grape juice with their seders.
But historically there was a debate amongst Karaites themselves as to whether wine constitutes hametz. If wine is hametz, it should be avoided during Passover.
Today, I do my best to lay out the contours of the debate.
At the heart of the issue is whether the word “hametz,” in the context of Passover, refers only to grain products or whether it refers more broadly to other types of food. The Karaites with a more expansive understanding of hametz believe that hametz has a meaning similar to “fermentation.”
Arguments in favor of a more expansive definition of hametz:
- The concept of leavening is almost synonymous with “fermentation.”
- In the Bible, vinegar is referred to as “hometz yayin.” (See Number 6:3.) Since vinegar itself is “fermented wine,” the word hametz can properly be understood as conveying the concept of fermentation. As such, wine, which is fermented grapes, is prohibited on Passover.
- One verse in the Torah prohibits eating hametz and does not connect the prohibition with bread or matzah. (See Exodus 13:3.)
- One of the ancient Hebrew words for wine is “khamar.” (See, e.g., Ezra 6:9, Daniel 5:1.) As someone explained on a Karaite forum this past week, the Arabic root “Kh-M-R,” which is the same root as this Hebrew word for wine, designates all things fermented – including wine (“khamr“) and leavened products (“khamira“). This suggests that the ancient Israelites would have drawn a connection between wine (khamar) and leaven.
Arguments in favor of limiting hametz to grains:
- The biblical name for what we call “Passover”* is “Hag HaMatzot.” Hag HaMatzot translates to the Feast of Unleavened Bread, emphasizing that the purpose of the holiday is to avoid grains that have leavened. Thus, the holiday is not concerned with all leavened/fermented foods – just grains.
- All Passover-related Torah verses except for Exodus 13:3 expressly connect hametz with bread or matzah in either the same verse or the verse immediately preceding or succeeding the hametz prohibition. So, in context, the one remaining passage, Exodus 13:3, should be viewed as referring to grains – and not to leavening/fermentation generally. And only a few verses after Exodus 13:3, the connection between hametz and unleavened bread is made clear. (See Exodus 13:6-7.)
- Vinegar is called “hometz yayin” implies that vinegar is hametz but wine is not.
- Arabic may make certain linguistic connections, as noted above with the root Kh-M-R; but that does not mean that the Torah intended to forbid all fermented products. This is especially so because the Torah uses a word (hametz) with a completely different root in the Passover prohibitions.
Well, there you have it. And if anyone is familiar with the practice of the historical Karaites of Turkey, Crimea and Lithuania, I’d love to hear whether they consume wine on Passover.
There certainly are other arguments on both sides of this debate. And I don’t think anyone would be crazy to reach one conclusion or the other. In fact, from the Golden Age of Karaism until this very day, very learned people have arrived at opposition conclusions. Let’s just not resort to the “foolish” rhetoric of previous days.**
* In the Torah, Pesach, usually translated as “Passover,” refers to the Passover Sacrifice. The Torah refers to the week-long holiday as “Hag HaMatzot.”
** As translated at the Karaite-Korner: “But some of the fools in our times who pretend to be wise do not eat anything that ferments based on the verse ‘no leaven shall you eat’ . . . and this is because of their foolishness and their lack of knowledge.” (Elijah Baschyatchi (15th century), Aderet Eliyahu, Ramla 1966, pp.133-134.)