December 14, 2013

What makes a beer "kosher"?

Being neither a rabbi nor the son of a rabbi (hah!), I don't intend to tell people how they should approach the kashrut of beer; whether this or that beer, or any beer, needs a certification that it conforms to Jewish dietary laws before we can drink it.

However, by popular demand, I have spoken with some Orthodox rabbis, studied with them, and done some research on the internet. Although this is far from comprehensive, I hope that what I have learned will help clarify this situation.

Ancient beer ingredients included emmer
wheat, wild yeast, chamomile,
thyme and oregano.
To begin at the beginning, the Talmud (discussions which took place in Babylon over 1,500 years ago) actually relates to the kashrut of beer, specifically beer which is brewed by a non-Jew.  In the tractate of Avodah Zarah, 31B, the rabbis never question whether beer (shechar in Hebrew) is non-kosher because of its ingredients.  Rather, they ask whether Jews can drink the product of non-Jewish brewers.  The consensus is definitely yes, although some hold reservations about whether it should be drunk in the home, shop or pub of the non-Jew.  For example, Rav Papa, a famous Jewish beer brewer, would drink the beer of a non-Jew, but only when it was brought out to him to the door of the shop.  Rabbi Ahai went even further, insisting that the beer of the non-Jews be brought all the way to his home.  The problem here is not whether the beer is kosher, but whether such "socializing" will lead to intermarriage.

There is also a mention of hops (keeshoot in Hebrew), which I had no idea were present in the Middle East at that time.  I thought that other ingredients were added to ancient beers for flavor and bitterness, while hops I associated with more modern times and northern climes.  But the Talmud clearly says that hops were part of the brewing process, and the bitterness they produce protects the drinker from even snake venom which may be in the beer!  Health food addicts take note.

Elsewhere in the Talmud, Rabbi Zeira relates that when he grew weary from too much studying(!), he would take a pitcher of beer to the entrance of Rabbi Yehuda Bar Ami's yeshiva and pour a mug for each Torah scholar as he left the building.  That way, he said, even though he was not keeping the commandment of studying Torah, he was keeping the commandment of honoring Torah scholars.    

This has remained the decision of later Jewish legal commentators as well: beer does not present any problems of kashrut, but just don't drink it in social situations with non-Jews, or you'll end up marrying their daughters.  As the old joke says, if you drink enough beer, all women begin to look beautiful.

Moving into modern times, almost all of the internet sites which give rabbinic decisions agree that all un-flavored beer, made from the traditional ingredients of water, grain, hops and yeast, is generically kosher and does not need any certification.  For beer drinkers who care about such things, that's good news.  It puts the world of beer into our glasses.

There are no oysters in
Marston's Oyster Stout.

However, concerns arise when the beer has additives or flavorings.  These days, some brewers are adding anything and everything to beers -- fruits, herbs, honey, chocolate, coffee, tea, wine, spirits, chicken, oysters, clam juice, milk or cream, pizza, bacon, peanut butter -- you name it.  Although beer purists would probably forswear such indecencies, flavored beers are growing in popularity.  (As are flavored vodkas and, probably, flavored anything else.)

These additives and flavorings might cause kashrut problems, and therefore, kosher-only eaters and drinkers would want to look for certification on the bottle.  Many beers in the U.S. and Europe, and as far as I know, all Israeli beers, are certified kosher by some rabbinical authority, so finding good beers with kosher certification should be no problem.

One of my neighborhood rabbis, remembering like me the old days in New York, said that no observant Jew then even thought of the kashrut question when drinking beer.  Ditto for any booze except wine, which has its own more strict laws.  These days, he continued, there has been a shift towards more and more stringency among religious Jews, and this has led them to look for kosher certification even on beer.

Another neighborhood rabbi, a respected writer and scholar not only in the field of Talmud and Jewish law,  said very straightforward:        
"Although halachic [Jewish law] problems regarding beer are a possibility, they are rather rare. Therefore, beer doesn't need a hechsher [kosher certification]."
So there you have have it, my fellow beer lovers.  If you thought I would give you an easy answer, I'm sorry.  As with most things in life, the choice is yours.

I am perhaps not a good example of someone who listens to all rabbinical authority, but there is one decision that I refuse to even consider.  It is reported that the founder of Hassidic Judaism, Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer (born 1698), often called the Baal Shem Tov or the Besht, taught that one should not say "L'chaim" over beer.  Perhaps one of my readers could tell me the reason.

At any rate, I will continue to raise my beer glass with friends and family, over good food, bad food or no food, at quiet meetings or riotous celebrations, and say out loud, "L'chaim!"   


  1. Hi Doug,

    Now, did your rabinnic authorities of Pisgat Zev, both of whose opinions I do respect, indicate that ALL flavored beer should have be kosher, or only the obvious ones like Oyster beer. My point being, why WOULD honey beer or the raspberry beer we always seem to find at every beer festival need a "hechsher"?

    1. Good question. The internet rabbis say that all beers with additives and flavorings should have certification, including those where there doesn't seem to be any problem with those additives -- like honey and fruits, as you wrote. At least, that's how I read them. The "live" rabbis said what they said and you can interpret that any way you want.

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Thanks for your comment. L'chayim!