Shekhar: Is it Wine or Beer?
An essential element of the nazirite vow is abstaining from wine and related products (Num 6:3).
מִיַּיִן וְשֵׁכָר יַזִּיר חֹמֶץ יַיִן וְחֹמֶץ שֵׁכָר לֹא יִשְׁתֶּה וְכָל מִשְׁרַת עֲנָבִים לֹא יִשְׁתֶּה
[The nazir] shall abstain from wine and shekhar, he shall not drink vinegar of wine or of shekhar, neither shall he drink anything in which grapes have been steeped.
The text goes on to include even fresh grapes, raisins, and the seeds or skins of grapes as prohibited for the nazirite (Numbers 6:3-4). Listed together with wine is shekhar (שֵׁכָר), formed from the root shin, kaf, resh, which bears the general sense of drunkenness or inebriation. Nevertheless, the exact meaning of this noun is uncertain. In fact, the Septuagint, the ancient Greek version of the Bible, transliterates shekhar with sikera (which is not a Greek word), a strategy it uses when it is unsure of the meaning of a Hebrew term.
Of the 23 times the word shekar appears in the Hebrew Bible, in all but two passages, it is combined with yayin, “wine,” either as a word pair or in poetic parallelism. Moreover, the passage in the nazirite law strongly implies that wine and shekhar must both be grape products, since vv. 3-4 extend the prohibition of drinking wine and shekhar to include specifically any part of a grape. What, then, is the difference between yayin and shekhar?
Old and New Wine
The ancient Aramaic translations, namely Onkelos, Pseudo-Jonathan, and Neofiti, all translate the phrase yayin ve-shekar as “new wine and old wine” (חמר חדת ועתיק).This interpretation, but reversed, was adopted by the contemporary Bible scholar, Baruch Levine, who believes that shekar may refer to new wine, known to be unusually potent.
Hendiadys with Wine
Israeli Bible scholar Yair Zakovitch writes that the phrase yayin ve-shekhar (wine and shekhar) should be understood as “wine which gets one drunk,” (yayin shemishakker) or “intoxicating wine” rather than wine and some other beverage. This means of expression is called a hendiadys (Greek for “one through two”), the use of two nouns joined by a conjunction to express a complex idea, rather than a noun and an adjective. (Another example in Hebrew would be hessed ve-emet, “kindness and truth,” which conveys the idea of “true kindness.”).
Shekhar on Its Own
In two biblical passages where shekar stands alone many scholars suggest that shekhar is wine:
1. Numbers 28:7
בַּקֹּדֶשׁ הַסֵּךְ נֶסֶךְ שֵׁכָר לַי-הוָה
…to be poured in the sacred precinct as an offering of fermented drink to YHWH.
This libation is generally assumed to be wine, since in other places in the Torah, including in this chapter (v. 14), wine is specifically mentioned as the prescribed libation. The late historian and Bible scholar, Anson Rainey (1930-2011), in his Encyclopedia Judaica article on “Sacrifice,” assumes Temple libations were always wine, and suggests that shekhar in Numbers 28:7 “is apparently only a synonym for wine.”
2. Psalm 69:13
יָשִׂיחוּ בִי יֹשְׁבֵי שָׁעַר וּנְגִינוֹת שׁוֹתֵי שֵׁכָר.
Those who sit in the gate talk about me; I am the taunt (or song) of drunkards.
The use of shekhar in this verse instead of yayin can be explained as a literary choice: perhaps alliteration was desired to create a sequence of four words that contain the sound sh.
Others understand shekhar not as a specific product, but as a general term for “intoxicant.” If so, the hendiadys of yayin and shekhar would be a complimentary pair meant to express “all intoxicants.” This understanding is reflected in the NJPS translation: “he shall abstain from wine and any other intoxicant” as well as that of the NRSV, “wine and any strong drink.”
Alternatively, the hendiadys could be made up of two specific products of a general type to represent the whole. Thus Carey Walsh suggests that shekhar should be identified with date palm wine, which is made much the same way as grape wine, but has double the sugar content. This suggestion is based on a 7th century BCE ostracon from Ashkelon which refers to yyn adm (“red wine”) and sh-k-r. Walsh’s suggestion is unlikely, however, since then we would expect all date products to be prohibited to the nazirite, in the same way that all grape products are.
The eminent Bible scholar, Jacob Milgrom (1923-2010) identifies shekhar with beer. Milgrom points out that shekhar’s exact cognate in Akkadian, shikru or shikaru, refer to beer, and that beer appears in ritual texts throughout the ancient Near East. For Milgrom, Numbers 28:7 “clearly indicates that shekar can stand alone, independent of wine,” and concludes that,
[T]he standard Temple libation is of beer, and the rendering “ale” is also possible. In either case, the liquid must be distinguished from ordinary wine.
Milgrom’s opinion represents a radical departure from conventional thinking on this issue, which identifies all libations that accompany an animal sacrifice as wine.
Homan: Evidence for Beer
Michael M. Homan supports Milgrom’s translation, arguing that since inventories from Assyria, Ashkelon, and Elephantine seem to differentiate wine from shikaru//shekhar, where they appear side by side as different items, then the biblical text is likely differentiating between them as well.
Homan notes that although shekhar is mentioned together with wine and grape products–and not barley products–in the law of the nazirite in Num 6 and Judg 13, neither text explicitly says that shekhar is composed of grapes. He suggests that the reason barley is not prohibited to the nazirite is because the making of beer from barley is a long, multi-staged process and there is no chance of consuming alcohol by eating barley products. Grapes, however, can begin to ferment from the airborne yeast, and are, therefore, prohibited to the nazirite.
Further, ancient Israel, like its neighbors, planted, harvested, and consumed massive quantities of barley, which is one of the seven “fruits” of the Land of Israel (Deuteronomy 8:8). It was eaten in various ways – raw, parched, cooked in porridge, made into bread, and used as animal feed – so why not as beer? Homan therefore concludes that shekhar in Numbers 6 is beer made from barley.
Beer in the ANE
Beer was the favorite beverage and a staple of the diets in both Egypt and Mesopotamia. Each region had its own unique recipes for producing the vitamin-rich beverage, but the process was basically the same. First, barley was soaked and allowed to germinate and sprout – after which it is called malted barley. It could then be mixed with spices or honey or dates and rolled into cakes or loaves, baked, then placed in jars of water to make beer. These cakes could be stored so that brewers could start the process anytime they wanted to. Egyptians and Mesopotamians knew many varieties of beer – dark beer, clear beer, well-aged beer, sweet and bitter beers, black beer and red beer.
Those who labored for the Pharaoh sometimes received payment in loaves of bread and jars of beer. In Mesopotamia, ration lists for the palace include one quart to one gallon a day of beer, depending on rank. In Akkadian, the term shikaru, “beer,” when combined withakalu (food) served as a general term for beverages, which testifies to the popularity of beer. In Egypt, the hieroglyphic symbols for beer and bread together expressed “food.”
The importance of beer in both Egypt and Mesopotamia strengthen the arguments of those (such as Milgrom and Homan) who contend that beer must have been similarly significant for people of ancient Israel. If that is true, then shekhar is the only word in the Hebrew Bible which could refer to beer, both because the limited vocabulary for intoxicating beverages allows for no other, and because of its similarity to Akkadian shikaru.
Nevertheless, textual and ecological considerations strongly suggest that this identification is mistaken
Shekhar Is not Beer
Bible scholar Baruch Levine (b. 1930) defends the consensus position that shekhar is wine. He notes that according to other texts within the Torah—again, including this very chapter (Num 28:14)—wine is specifically mentioned as the prescribed libation. Further, Leviticus 2:11 prohibits any leavened grain product (hametz, se’or) to be sacrificed on the altar, so it is doubtful that beer (fermented barley) would have been acceptable.
Levine concludes that the focus in Numbers 6:3-4 on products derived from the grapevine (even the seeds and skins!) “makes it unlikely that the Nazirite was required to refrain from any drink not made of grapes.”
Although barley played an important role in the Israelite diet, ecological considerations precluded the making of beer. The environments that favored beer production were river valleys, which generally had predictably ample water resources. In Walsh’s words, “beer production took one liquid, water, to make another.” Israel had few perennial rivers and no rain for half the year. The Israelite farmer was dependent on “dry farming,” that is, using rainfall only, which could vary from year to year by as much as 30%.
Viticulture in Ancient Israel
Wine, in contrast to beer, gives juice without tapping into precious water supplies.
Wine became the Israelite farmer’s drink because he could afford neither the water for beer-brewing nor the risk of concentrating all his efforts on one kind of crop, grain. And vines allowed the Israelite farmer to diversity his yield, so that if one crop failed, another might survive. So-called monoculture farming, basing livelihood on one main crop (barley in this case) was too risky for the semi-arid climate of ancient Israel.
Viticulture, therefore, was the Israelite farmer’s way of adapting to the limited resources of the land of Israel, which had insufficient water necessary for widespread beer production.
Bread and Wine: Staples
Wine’s status as the most important beverage of ancient Israel is clear in the book of Lamentations, a poetic description of the fall of Jerusalem, which describes a situation so dire that (Lam 2:12),
לְאִמֹּתָם יֹאמְרוּ אַיֵּה דָּגָן וָיָיִן
[Young children] keep asking their mothers, “Where is bread and wine?”
Wine is also ubiquitous in the Bible as a necessary component of a decent feast. Many biblical texts associate wine and joyful occasions, and Judges 9 tells us that wine gladdens God (or gods) and people.
Israel as a Haven for Viticulture
In Numbers 13:23, Moses sends out spies to reconnoiter the land and they bring back from Wadi Eshkol (Cluster Valley) a cluster of grapes too heavy for one man to carry, illustrating that that Israel was a haven for viticulture. The Egyptian Tale of Sinuhe, from the early 2ndmillennium BCE, expresses the perception that ancient Canaan “had more wine than water.”
Archeology also testifies to the prominence of viticulture in ancient Palestine. For example, an archeological survey of the area of Megiddo uncovered 177 winepresses of various types. Excavations at a pre-Israelite site called Tel-Kabri revealed forty large vessels, the equivalent of 3,000 modern bottles of wine. Obviously, wine served as the most popular and celebrated beverage in ancient Israel.
Wine not Beer
Israelites favored wine, and the libations in the Torah are almost certainly wine. They did drink other beverages: water was the drink for those who traveled the wilderness, and milk was an occasional, seasonal beverage. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that ancient Israelites drank beer on any regular basis if at all. They probably knew about beer from people who traveled the great river valley civilizations, and they no doubt realized that barley water or porridge left in a container for a long time would ferment. Nevertheless, because of the need to use water for making it, beer was never a staple drink among the Israelites.
Thus, shekhar in the Bible can be understood adjectivally as “an intoxicating [drink],” as a euphemism for wine, or perhaps as a variety of grape wine (aged, or new, or undiluted, etc.), perhaps even as a catch-all for intoxicating drinks, but not as beer.
A Parting Ode to Beer
That beer never achieved great popularity in ancient Israel will cause some readers sadness, because beer, like wine, can bring great joy to its devotees. Consider therefore the hymn to the Sumerian goddess Ninkasi, patron of beer production:
While I turn and see the abundance of beer, I feel wonderful. Drinking beer, in a blissful mood, drinking liquor, feeling exhilarated, with joy in my heart and a happy liver!!
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February 6, 2017
January 11, 2021
Dr. Elaine Goodfriend is a lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies and the Jewish Studies Program at California State University, Northridge. She has a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from U.C. Berkeley. Among her publications are “Food in the Hebrew Bible,” in Food and Jewish Traditions (forthcoming) and “Leviticus 22:24: A Prohibition of Gelding for the Land of Israel?”
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