JHOM - Wine - History of Viticulture

Second Temple Period

Coin (dinar) from Bar Kokhba period (2nd cent. CE)

During the Second Temple period, the economy of the Land of Israel was principally agricultural. Wheat and particularly barley were produced in such quantities that, despite the great population density, enough was produced in good years to sustain the heavy burden of taxation in kind exacted by foreign rulers and, in addition, even have cereals for export.

Even the Egyptian author of the "Letter of Aristeas" extolled Judea's high agricultural productivity. Some rabbis boasted, with homiletical recklessness, that in blessed years the poorest region of Palestine gave a larger crop than the richest part of Egypt, which from time immemorial had been the granary of the Mediterranean world.

There is not a vine in the land of Israel whose harvesting does not require the labor of a whole town. (TB Ketubbot 111b)

Still richer was the fruit crop. As Plutarch, Pliny and other classical writers tell us, Palestinian dates, figs, olives and grapes, wine and oil were of superior quality and prized even in other Mediterranean countries rich in these products. They were served on the imperial tables in Rome. With truly oriental abandon a rabbi contended that "there is not a vine in the land of Israel whose harvesting does not require the labor of a whole town." Another explained his three-day absence from his job by saying, "My father left me a vine branch from which I harvested on the first day three hundred clusters, each yielding a barrel. On the second day, I cut three hundred clusters yielding half a barrel each. On the third day, the three hundred clusters produced one-third barrel each and I still left behind more than half of the crop." (TB Ketubot 111b)[1]

By the 15th century few Jews still owned vineyards and produced their own wine, but trade in wine and liquor was becoming a major Jewish occupation in Germany and the Slavic countries. The competition from Jews was often serious enough to cause local guilds to complain about it. At times, this commerce was developed in combination with money lending.

Medieval Western Europe

As Jews moved from the more advanced Mediterranean countries into newer areas of settlement in the Middle Ages (especially Spain, France and Germany) they could employ more refined techniques in the cultivation of old [crops] and introduce new crops, to their own and society's advantage. Jews were often attracted to agriculture because of the opportunities opened here for their pioneering efforts..… While rabbinic sources mention Jews raising grain, most Jewish farmers seem to have devoted themselves to viticulture, the cultivation of orchards or dairy and truck farming, all of which required a larger initial investment of capital and labor, but later yielded higher returns on limited areas.

They make a banquet for revelry; wine makes life merry and money answers every need. (Ecclesiastes 10:19)

For Jews, [viticulture] appeared doubly attractive, as grapes could be cultivated in the immediate vicinity, or even within the confines of many medieval towns. After the initial plantings, vineyards and orchards require more intelligent supervision than constant labor. Hence, even scholars like Rashi could grow grapes for a living, while devoting their main attention to research and teaching. Rashi's grandson, Jacob Tam, though a prosperous moneylender and possibly a tax farmer, also engaged in the cultivation and the production of wine. This practical experience taught him to be less stringent with respect to the laws of "wine of libation." On one occasion he justified his liberal interpretation by saying: "Wherever a considerable financial loss is involved the Torah always evinces concern for Israel's money. Should I not evince such concern, and refuse to decide that the matter is permitted?"

Medieval Spain

In medieval Spain (both Muslim and Christian), the sale and consumption of wine were taxed by the autonomous Jewish communal administration.

Jews emigrating from Muslim lands easily transplanted the same methods, especially to countries of comparable climatic conditions such as northern Spain, Provence and parts of Italy. The nascent states of Leon and Castile, Aragon and Catalonia, as well as those of neighboring Provence therefore welcomed and fostered Jewish land-ownership, and even the Church raised few objections. Many 10th-12th churches and monasteries are even recorded as collaborating with Jews in developing newly recovered lands.

[A claim has even been made] though with much exaggeration, that between the tenth and twelfth centuries Jews owned one third of all of the land around Barcelona. On their part, Jews, whose ownership of entire villages is attested by the frequency of such designations as allodium Judaicum or mons Judaicus or those derived from al-yehud or yahudi, developed that attachment to the soil characteristic of persons born and bred on it…[2]


[1]Salo Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews. Volume I, New York: Columbia University Press. 1957. pages 250, 51. [back]

[2] Salo Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews. Volume IV Meeting of East and West, New York: Columbia University Press. 1957. [back]

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