The Talmudic Transcendence of Tractate Prohibition

by | Mar 20, 2024 | Deep-ish Dive | 0 comments

We spend considerable time learning about the Talmud in two different ADRABA courses – but from wildly different perspectives.  In World Religions, we explore the evolution of rabbinic interpretation by tracking how a verse of Torah is understood over successive generations and glosses. Later, in the same course, we return to the Talmud as a published work and discuss how Daniel Bomberg, a 16th c. Christian Hebraist, set the standard and format of its user experience.  In Chosen Food, we explore how the Babylonian Talmud was one of the most important contributions of the Iraqi Jewish community after sambusak (filled pies).

But in all of our learning, we never talk about Tractate Prohibition – a 1929 addendum to the Talmud which addresses one of the most important Purim traditions in a time of great tribulation – how to consume alcohol when alcohol is prohibited.

“Prohibition,” otherwise known as the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, was passed in 1919 banning the sale and distribution of alcohol.  This did not deter imbibing Americans who, with the assistance of organized crime and the Bronfman family here in Canada, still found ways to get their hands on alcohol.  Nor did it stop Jews and Catholics who were exempted from the law under the guise of “ritual consumption.”  Catholics could drink sacramental wine in church.  Jews were free to drink kiddush wine at home.

(Spoilers: The ban was eventually repealed by the 21st amendment in 1933.)

In the meantime, Jews were stymied by the fulfillment of the Purim injunction known as “ad d’lo yada” (lit. “until he doesn’t know”).  As Tractate Megillah (7b) states: “A person is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until he does not know the difference [between] cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai.” 

Into the breach rushed “Reverend” Gershon Kiss of Brooklyn!  In a combination of Hebrew, Aramaic and Hebr-ish, (that is, English in Hebrew letters), and formatted like a traditional Bomberg Talmud, the tractate begins with the declaration: “Everyone is eligible to drink.”  Over the next 40 pages, we learn the ins-and-outs of fulfilling the mitzvah, including the following exchange:

MISHNAH: How does one hide the drinks? One hides them in the walls and under the floor, in pits, ditches, and caves, in toilets, bathrooms, and any place out of reach of the police.

GEMARA: The rabbis have taught: The pious ones of olden days used to hide the drinks…but pious ones of our days have decided that there is no hope of storing them, so they immediately store them in their stomachs.

The text also wonders if the ban applies to “Mar Vilson,” that is, “Mr. [Woodrow] Wilson.”  The Rabbis conclude that President Wilson is exempt “ki gavra rabah hu,” –because “he is a great man.”

Studying this tractate is not only a worthwhile and worthy addition to one’s Talmud diet, but also instructive in how Jews of previous generations struggled and strived to preserve their traditions in troubled times.

DISCLAIMER:  Although the above blog post was a piece of “Purim Torah” – satire for the sake of satire in honour of Purim – everything written above is factually correct. We do learn about the provenance and production of the Talmud in World Religions. We even prepare sambusak in our Chosen Food course. The US government did ban alcohol in the USA for 14 years, and the Bronfmans were heavily involved in bootlegging. And yes, Reverend Gershon Kiss did write Tractate Prohibition.  However, it, like Tractate Tree (in honour of Christmas) is not considered part of the Talmudic canon. Happy Purim!



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