Bread was the ordinary food of the people, but wine was for celebration. It was a symbol of joy. It was considered so important in the ritual life of the Jews that people had the responsibility to provide wine for the poor during the feasts if the poor could not provide it for themselves.
The grape harvest was a festive time (Is 16:10) that includes feasting, singing , and dancing (Jeremiah 48:33, Judges 21:20–21). Wine was produced by gathering grapes into large vat, which would have been carved from stone, or made of wood or clay. This vat (called a “gat”) was connected to a lower cistern (a “bor”) via a pipe.
Grapes were pressed in the gat, with the juice passing through a pipe, strained using linen to remove husks and other unwanted bits, and ending up in the bor. It was stored in large receptacles of wood or pottery, sealed with pitch.
Wine had to stand for 40 days before it was usable as a drink offering. Once it had settled, it would be decanted into jars or skins (Matt 9:17). As with all wine, there were varieties by region, with red preferred to white, as well as blends. Some added water and balsam to old wine, sacred incense, honey and pepper, and different spices. There were myriad variations, levels of quality, and special wines for special occasions. The Jewish Encyclopedia identifies a number of them:
“Yayin” was the ordinary matured, fermented wine, “tirosh” was a new wine, and “shekar” was an old, powerful wine (“strong drink”). The red wine was the better and stronger (Ps 75:9, Prov 23:31). Perhaps the wine of Helbon (Ezek 27:18) and the wine of Lebanon (Hos. 14:77) were white wines. The vines of Hebron were noted for their large clusters of grapes (Num. 13:23). Samaria was the center of vineyards (Jeremiah 31: 5; Micah 1:6), and the Ephraimites were heavy wine-drinkers (Is 28:1). There were also “yayin ha-reḳaḥ” (spiced wine; Song 8:2), “ashishah” (hardened sirup of grapes), “shemarim (wine-dregs), and “ḥomeẓ yayin” (vinegar). Some wines were mixed with poisonous substances (“yayin tar’elah”; Ps 60:5). The “wine of the condemned” (“yen ‘anushim”) is wine paid as a forfeit (Amos 2:8), and “wine of violence” (Prov 4:17) is wine obtained by illegal means.
“The Lord gives us wine to make our heart glad,” the Psalms tell us. (Ps 104:15) Wine was a gift from God (Deut. 7:13, Ps. 104:15) and at the end of time, it would be provided in great abundance. (Jer. 31:12; Joel 3:18, Amos 9:13-14) That theme of abundance is key: bread meant life, but wine meant something extra added on to life. There was an element of luxury about it. It meant abundance, and was used in both feasting and mourning to celebrate good times (Eccles. 10:19) and to dull the pain of bad times (Prov 31:6).
Amos 9:13-14 provides vivid imagery of the importance of wine to the Jews:
13 “Behold, the days are coming,” says the LORD,
“when the plowman shall overtake the reaper
and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
and all the hills shall flow with it.
14 I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine…”
God’s promise of wine would have been a symbol of salvation to the Jews. It was against this background that Jesus made wine the source of his first miracle John, and then placed it, along with bread, at the center of the Eucharistic celebration.
For the references to wine in the Old Testament, click here.
For other posts in this series, click here.