The Bible Says What? ‘Priests can’t drink wine or they die!’

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The Bible Says What? ‘Priests can’t drink wine or they die!’

 Rabbi Pete Tobias takes a controversial issue from the Torah and applies a progressive response

Rabbi Pete Tobias

 In Leviticus 10:9, Aaron the High Priest is told that neither he or his sons should “drink wine or other fermented drink” whenever they enter the tent of meeting, or “you will die”.

This is a case of shutting the sanctuary door after God’s wrath has been vented, however, because two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, did precisely that at the start of this chapter in Leviticus and they did indeed die.

In the Torah, the priests are charged with the sacred task of protecting the Children of Israel from the rather unpredictable fits of divine rage that so often seem to emanate from the holy centre of the sanctuary.

As such, one would like to think that they might take care to ensure that their behaviour – in particular their drinking habits – are sufficiently controlled to protect both them and the people for whom they are responsible.

It would seem, however, that this priestly attempt at a code of ethics fails dramatically.

Later in our texts, we find the prophet Isaiah full of contempt for “…priests and prophets who stagger from beer and are befuddled with wine; they reel from beer, they stagger when seeing visions, they stumble when rendering decisions.” (Isaiah 28:7).

Indeed, far from upholding the lofty Levitical standards demanded of them, these intoxicated clergy babble meaninglessly and preside over “tables covered with vomit,” on which “there is not a spot without filth.” (Isaiah 28:8)

Curiously, while the Torah is so often a source of exemplary behavior from which we should all be inspired, our ancient priests are not, it would seem, the role models for our rabbis of today!

  •   Rabbi Pete Tobias is rabbi at The Liberal Synagogue Elstree
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