A Short Five Thousand Year History Of Purim, Persia And Wine


Ahasuerus and Haman at the Feast of Esther by Rembrandt
As any Talmudic scholar will tell you, talking about Purim without talking about wine just isn’t possible. It’s not like we need an excuse to talk about wine, but a specific prompt is something we always enjoy, as it allows us to dive into a particular aspect of wine we might never have explored. Yesterday we looked at the history of Manischewitz, the world’s most popular kosher wine. Today we look at the history of wine in Persia, from ancient history to Purim, all the way to the present day.

The Reason People Drink Wine When Celebrating Purim

Celebrating Purim

If you’re not familiar, here’s the Purim story in a nutshell, very roughly paraphrased from the Scroll of Esther (aka the Megillah): Haman, the royal vizier to the Persian King Ahasuerus, planned to kill the 75,000 or so Jews in the empire. He even got a decree issued authorizing the extermination effort. Unfortunately for Haman, Esther, recently married to the King, and her Uncle Mordecai, were both secretly Jewish. After a lot of banquets, where a lot of wine was drunk, Esther eventually reveals her religious identity to the King. The King, not interested in offing his wife, or Mordecai, who had foiled a plot on the King’s life earlier in the narrative, sends Haman to hang from the gallows that Haman had constructed to hang Mordecai. Oh, and as an added favor, the King lets Mordecai and Queen Esther rewrite Haman’s decree as they see fit. They decide to mete out a little old fashion eye-for-an-eye justice and preemptively knock off 75,000 of the Jewish people’s enemies within the empire.

At this point you’re probably wondering what this has to do with wine and why it is supposed to be drunk so heavily on Purim. First, someone’s downing a glass of wine at a party in nearly every chapter of the Scroll of Esther. So there’s that. And, to commemorate the whole not-being-exterminated thing, Mordecai tells the Jewish people to celebrate the occasion every year with days of drinking and rejoicing. It is literally commanded that you drink.

The Debate Over Just How Much Wine You Should Drink When Celebrating Purim

How Much Wine Should You Drink On Purim?

Now that we’ve answered the question of why you drink wine on Purim, we turn to the next question: just how much wine are you supposed to drink? The answer is complicated. Talmudic scholars have been debating the point for centuries. Really! How do we find ourselves in a world where religious authorities are debating just how drunk one should get? It turns out the commandment to drink is a bit vague.

The line goes, “One should drink until they can’t tell the difference between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai.’” Not being able to tell the difference between the guy trying to kill your people and the one trying to save them would imply a serious level of intoxication. So while it’s clear you should pour a third (or fifth) glass of wine, there are limits.

Turning back to the Talmud, we have the story of Rabba and Rabbi Zeira. Rabba had a bit too much to drink while celebrating Purim with his pal Rabbi Zeira — and after washing down his meal with a drink, he killed him. How he killed him is actually an open question — one we’re not going to explore here. The next day Rabba realized what he’d done, prayed for mercy, got said mercy, and Rabbi Zeira found himself resurrected. Fast forward a year and Rabba invites his pal over to celebrate Purim again. Rabbi Zeira (sensibly) turned down the invitation, figuring that one shouldn’t expect miracles to occur on a regular basis.

So rule of thumb: don’t get so drink you murder someone at your Purim party. And if you’re the type who can’t hold your liquor without committing random acts of violence, you’re actually excused from the commandment to drink on Purim. If that’s you, please do excuse yourself from partaking.

A Talmudic Scholar Explains Why Aged Wine Is Great

Drink Old Vintage Wine!

Turning back to the banquets (roughly translated as ‘drinking parties’) in the Scroll of Esther, we run into an interesting point. It’s very clear that there was a lot of wine being served. Going to the text we can read that ‘royal wine was surved in abundance.’ And not just any royal wine – every guest was said to have drank wine that was from a vintage older than they were. We’re picturing a biblical era Robert Parker arranging ‘verticals’ of the finest Shirazi he could get his hands on to facilitate this arrangement (more on Shirazi wine below).

If you can afford it, you don’t need an excuse to drink nicely aged wine, but there is a larger message. Here’s the Maharal of Prague’s interpretation of things:

Why did they do this [serve each guest wine older than he]? Because there is an essential connection between wine and a person; the whole time that a person grows older, his thoughts become clearer. So too with wine; the more that it ages, the better it becomes. (Source)

The Mythical Origin Of Wine In Ancient Persia

The Ruins In Persepolis

People in Persia have been drinking wine for a long time, as in millennia. Archeologists have found pottery from around 3100 BC that contain traces of tartaric acid, which indicates that they were almost definitely filled with wine when they were in use. That raises the questions of how and why the ancient Persians started producing wine. Although this clearly is not the answer, we like a good myth, so we’ll quote you one from Wikipedia:

According to Iranian legend, wine was discovered by a Persian girl despondent over her rejection by the king. The girl decided to commit suicide by drinking the spoiled residue left by rotting table grapes. Instead of poisoning the girl, the fermented must caused her to pass out to awaken the next morning with the realization that life was worth living. She reported back to the king her discovery of the intoxicating qualities of the spoiled grape juice and was rewarded for her find. (Source)

Shiraz Vs. Syrah — A Non-Australian Explanation Of Why People Call Syrah, Shiraz

A Mosque In Shiraz Iran

So what wine were they drinking at those royal banquets? Perhaps it was Shirazi wine. In our Wine 101 on Syrah we covered the line of thinking that Syrah, as it is known in France (and most of the world), came to be called Shiraz on account of its popularity in Australia and the Australian accent. Now we’re going to complicate things even more.

By the ninth century, the Persian city of Shiraz had come to be renowned throughout the Middle East for the wine it produced. As in the Old World naming fashion, the wine was known as Shirazi wine, after its place of origin. Shirazi wine was produced for centuries, and it came in two styles: a dry white wine and a sweet white wine, which was meant to be aged (perhaps the source of the aged wines being served at Esther’s banquets). Shirazi wine continued to be produced for quite a while. It earned a nod from Marco Polo and shows up in the diaries of European travelers as late as the nineteenth century.

What does this have to do with the whole Shiraz is Syrah confusion? It’s time for another myth (actually two). Myth #1 claims that Phoenicians brought Shiraz vines to Rhône, in France, some time around 600 BC. Myth #2 claims that it was a crusader who brought the vines back with him, we suppose after he was done crusading. Both myths overlook the fact that the Syrah grape aka Shiraz produced red wine, whereas the famed Shirazi wines were white wines. Not exactly MythBusters material.

Poetry & Politics: Modern Day Persia’s Complicated Relationship With Wine

Near the Tomb Of The Poet Hafez

A rose without the glow of a lover bears no joy;  Without wine to drink the spring brings no joy.
- Hafez

The Poet who wrote that ode to wine, Hafez, is popular in modern-day Persia — The Islamic Republic of Iran. Wine? Not so popular anymore, at least officially. While Persia produced and exported highly regarded wine for millennia, today practically no wine is produced in the country (though production of alcoholic beverage for personal consumption by non-Muslims is permitted). Consumption of alcohol is a bit trickier. The Economist reports that despite the ban on alcohol consumption instituted by the Ayatollahs, Iranians are the third highest consumers of alcohol in any ‘Muslim-majority Middle Eastern Country.’

That said, the government is known to crack down on consumption from time to time. The penalties for drinking include fines, imprisonment and lashings. It seems the number of lashes has been in increasing numbers over time. The penalty was believed to be 74 lashes in 2006. By 2013, that number seems to have risen to an even 80. Per Fox News and an organization called “Christian Solidarity Worldwide,” you can read that four Christian Iranians each received sentences of 80 lashes for drinking communion wine in a private religious ceremony.

Some parting words: we suggest if you plan to drink wine until you can’t tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai you don’t do so back where the party started.

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