Halacha for Thursday 23 Cheshvan 5780 November 21 2019

Cognac, Brandy, and Champagne- The Jews of the Ship that was Swept Out to Sea

In the previous Halacha we have explained the law that our Sages imposed a prohibition on a non-Jew’s wine and usually, the wine is not only forbidden to consume, it is likewise forbidden to benefit from.

Champagne
Clearly, champagne is absolutely forbidden for consumption if it was not produced under the supervision of a respected kashrut organization, for champagne is actual wine and although it has not completed its fermentation process in a barrel and it is for this reason that it is bubbly in the bottle, nevertheless, it is wine for all intents and purposes whose blessing is “Boreh Peri Ha’Gefen.” Thus, without a reliable kashrut symbol, it is completely forbidden for consumption.

Cognac, Brandy
Regarding cognac, let us first quote the words of Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah, Chapter 123) regarding a similar matter:

Aguardiente (an alcoholic beverage which the Poskim compare to cognac) made from non-Jewish wine is forbidden even to benefit from just like actual wine.” The Rama adds: “Although an alcoholic beverage made from non-Jewish libation wine is merely a secretion (byproduct) of the wine, it is prohibited like the forbidden wine itself.”

This means that even an alcoholic beverage produced by boiling wine and using the vapors and steam to produce the beverage is forbidden for consumption and to benefit from if it is produced from non-Jewish wine. Thus, cognac (or a similar alcoholic beverage produced elsewhere in the same manner referred to as “Brandy”) which undergoes a process of boiling, evaporation, and aging for several years retain the same law as actual wine. Although it requires the “Shehakol” blessing, regarding the law of non-Jewish wine, it retains the same law as wine since it is a byproduct of wine.

Maran zt”l’s Question
On the other hand, the Sefer Otzar Ha’Michtavim (authored by Hagaon Harav Yosef Messas zt”l, late Chief Rabbi of Haifa and cousin of Hagaon Harav Shalom Messas zt”l) supports those who are customarily lenient in this regard, for the Rama’s words “made from non-Jewish libation wine” imply that this prohibition applies only to beverages made from wine that was actually offered as a libation to idols; however, regular non-Jewish wine that is unknown to have been offered as idol worship is not as stringent and does not prohibit a byproduct produced from it. Since it is fairly uncommon nowadays for non-Jews to offer wine to their deities, he rules that nowadays it is permissible to consume alcoholic beverages produced from a byproduct of non-Jewish wine, including cognac.

Nevertheless, Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l vehemently disagreed with this opinion since the source for the ruling of Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch is the Rivash who writes specifically that this law applies to all non-Jewish wine (even wine that is unknown to have been offered to idols), for since our Sages prohibited this wine, they likewise forbade any other alcoholic beverage produced from it. Maran zt”l therefore rules that it is forbidden to drink any beverages that are produced as a byproduct of wine if it does not bear a respectable kashrut symbol.

We must add that all of the above applies only to alcoholic beverages produced from the vapors of wine (such as “Arak” and the like). However, cognac (commonly referred to by its proper name, “Brandy”) is not produced from wine vapors at all such that it would be possible to even begin discussing a leniency in this regard. Rather, cognac is actual wine distilled by cooking it for a long period of time after which it is aged until it reaches the desired taste; however, it retains the law of actual wine regarding the laws of non-Jewish wine. (Indeed, this beverage was discovered in the following way: The people of the French city of Cognac would export wine to England. The English later requested that they distill the wine by evaporating much of its liquid in order to lessen its weight so that they would not have to pay such high tariffs when it entered England. Once it had entered England, the locals would add water and sell it as wine. Eventually, a war erupted between the countries and a large amount of distilled wine remained in France. They placed it in wooden barrels and several years later when they tasted it, they realized it had a superb taste. This beverage was named after the city it was produced in, “Cognac.”) Thus, there is certainly no room for leniency regarding this beverage and one should point this out to those who act leniently for various incorrect reasons.  

One Who has Transgressed the Prohibition of Consuming Non-Jewish Wine
The great Rabbi Yosef Yaabetz (brother-in-law of Hagaon Harav Yitzchak Arama, author of the Sefer Ha’Akeda), a pious and righteous sage who lived during the era of the Spanish Inquisition, recounted a story of two Jews who fled Spain. As they were on board a ship in the heart of the sea, a terrible storm hit and the ship sank. Miraculously, they held on to some wooden planks and floated back to the Spanish shore. They now needed to hide their Jewish identities.

Since they owned no material objects besides for the clothing they were wearing, they started knocking on doors to see if anyone would be gracious enough to take them in for a few days until they could be on their way again. Each of them lodged in a different house where they ate and drank whatever they were served for a few days. They then thanked their hosts and returned to the port to continue on their journey. Before leaving the house, one of them was approached by his host who told him in an undertone, “I realized from your face that you are a Jew. I am also a Jew in secret. You should know that all the food I served you was of impeccable Kashrut as I slaughter chickens in my cellar and produce my own wine.” The guest was overjoyed and he departed from his hosts amid much gratitude.

When the two Jews met at the port, they traded stories about what had transpired to each of them. When they arrived at their final destination, the other brother approached the rabbi and asked tearfully, “Why is it that my friend merited being hosted by fine, upstanding Jews while I was forced to stay by non-Jews and eat non-kosher food?” The rabbi replied, “Please tell me if you ever ate something non-kosher before.” The man thought for a moment and replied, “Once, many years ago, I went on a hunting expedition with my friends in the forest and they had brought along some gourmet cheeses and fine wine. I could not withstand the temptation and I tasted some of the cheeses but I have never eaten such things as non-kosher meat!” The rabbi replied, “Your friend who was always careful never to put anything forbidden in his mouth was protected by Heaven never to have to transgress the laws of Kashrut. You, on the other hand, who treated the prohibitions of non-Jewish cheese and wine lightly, were not worthy of such a kindness!”

May Hashem grant us the merit of never having any forbidden food or speech enter or exit our mouths.

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