Wine and intoxicating beverages are a fascinating subject when viewed from the Torah's perspective. On one hand, we use wine for kiddush and havdallah on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, and many, many mitzvot are accompanied by a cup of wine. Blessings are recited on a cup of wine beneath the chupah (wedding canopy), at a circumcision, at a Pidyon Haben (the "Redemption of a Firstborn Son"), and let's not forget the four cups of wine we drink at the Passover seder.

In the Scriptures, wine is described as "bringing joy to G‑d and man" (Judges 9:13). And, indeed, every sacrifice offered in the Holy Temple was accompanied by a wine libation. Because wine is considered to be the "king of beverages" the rabbis coined a special blessing to be recited exclusively on wine: the Hagafen blessing.

And let us not forget the venerated age-old Jewish custom to say l'chaim and wish each other well over a shot glass of schnapps.

Conversely, we are told of the destructive nature of wine and intoxication. Several examples:

According to an opinion expressed in the Talmud, the "Tree" of Knowledge was actually a grapevine. Thus it was the fruit of the vine that tripped up Adam and Eve, causing them and their descendents untold hardship and misery.1

The righteous Noah, whose righteousness caused G‑d to spare the human race, was disgraced by excessive wine consumption.

Nadab and Abihu, Aaron's two holy sons, entered the Tabernacle while drunk and were consumed by a fire that emanated from the heavens.

The Torah extols the virtue, courage, and holiness of the Nazirite who vows to abstain from wine.

So what is wine? Is it a holy beverage with immense powers, reserved for holy and special occasions? Or is it a destructive agent with the power to bring down mighty people; a substance to be avoided at all costs?

Well, a little bit of both, it seems. As we mentioned earlier, according to one opinion, the Tree of Knowledge was a grape vine—and the Tree of Knowledge is dubbed by the Torah as being "good and bad." It has tremendous potential, when utilized properly, and a drawback of equal proportion, if misused and abused. What we use it for is entirely up to us.

Wine's ability to bring joy is because it relaxes our inhibitions and weakens the body's natural defenses. This "weakening of the body" allows the soul to shine through. After taking a l'chaim one is more easily inspired, because the body offers less resistance. This obviously applies only when one drinks in moderation, and on special, holy occasions in an attempt to make them a bit more festive and to introduce an inspirational ambiance.

On the other hand, getting drunk in order to escape responsibilities we have to ourselves, to our families, and to those around us, is highly destructive. A person who is in an "escapist" mode is a dangerous person, because very often he is also escaping many of the rules that he would be wise to follow.

On the practical side, we are forbidden to pray while drunk and priests were not allowed to serve in the Holy Temple whilst drunk. Even today, priests may not bless the congregation after having even a single glass of wine.

Click here for more about wine and intoxication.

I also recommend that you read Can Wine Be Holy?

Yours truly,

Rabbi Menachem Posner