Can I make Kiddush on Beer?



Dear Rabbi,

What’s the deal with using beer for Kiddush? I hear all types of things about this, from “You’re never allowed to”, to “Some people use beer all the time - like for Havdalah”. Please clarify, thanks.


To the Questioner,

What you are asking is connected to the concept of Chamar Medina” – “the accepted drink of the nation”. This is an involved issue that has been dealt with at great length in the poskim. The key toward understanding the practical, bottom-line halachah, is to first be familiar with the sources for using “Chamar Medina” at all - at Kiddush and at Havdalah.

The source for making Kiddush on wine is from a Braitta in Gemara Pesachim (106a):Zachor et Yom HaShabbat L’kadsho: Zachraihu al hayayin” - “Remember the day of Shabbat to sanctify it – Remember it over [a cup of] wine”. Tosfot (piece beginning zachraihu) points out that it is specifically wine which is connected to the mitzva of Kiddush.

The source for using Chamar Medina for Kiddush or Havdalah is from the Gemara a page later in Pesachim (107a): ”One time [the great Sage] Amaimar came to our region, and we didn’t have wine. We brought to him an alcoholic beverage made from dates, [but] he didn’t say Havdalah [on that beverage] and he went to sleep without eating. The next day we went out of our way and we brought to him wine and he said Havdalah and ate something. After a year, once again he came to our region, we didn’t have wine, [and] we brought to him [the] alcoholic beverage made from dates. He said: ‘If so, the “wine” of this country (“Chamar Medina”) it is’, [and] he said Havdalah and ate something.”

We learn from this incident, that in an area where a different beverage other than wine is commonly used as a major drink, it can be used for Havdalah in place of wine.

What is important to note, though, is that this source for the use of Chamar Medina in place of wine, is only mentioned in regard to using it by Havdalah – not to using it by Kiddush. Also important to note, is that this source for the use of Chamar Medina is only mentioned in regard to a specific type of beverage called Shaichar, which was “an alcoholic beverage made from dates” (Rashi ibid, piece beginning shichrah, and Rashbam, piece beginning v’asnei).

Two questions now follow logically:

1. If Chamar Medina can be used for Havdalah, can it be used for Kiddush as well?

2. Even when Chamar Medina can be used – such as in regard to Havdalah – does it include every type of drink that is a major drink of that country, or is it a reference only to the “alcoholic beverage made from dates” - called “Shaichar” of the Gemara’s time?

In regard to the first question, it seems that whatever applies to Kiddush should apply to Havdalah, and therefore whatever applies to Havdalah should apply to Kiddush as well. This is because the Rambam defines the mitzva of Kiddush (Sefer Hamitzvot, Aseh 155) as the necessity to say words of declaration of Shabbat at its entry and at its exit, that is, the mitzva from the Torah includes declaring verbally in the form of a bracha that it is Shabbat – both at the start of the day and at the end of the day – and the mitzva from the Torah seems to include the obligation to say the bracha of Havdalah at the end of Shabbat as well. Therefore, if we find that in regard to Kiddush Chazal say: “Zachraihu al hayayin” – “Remember the day over [a cup of] wine” - referring to the bracha of Kiddush at the start of the day - it would seem that a similar halacha applies to the bracha of Havdalah at the end of the day as well – and that only wine can be used, since both are derived from the same Torah obligation.

This is actually one of the opinions stated explicitly in Gemara Pesachim (107a)[1]: “Just like Kiddush is not made on it (Shaichar/ Chamar Medina), so too Havdalah is not made on it.”

Conversely, the opinion of the Rosh in regard to this halacha, follows the same logic in the opposite direction. The Rosh writes on the aforementioned Gemara in Pesachim: “It is possible to say that just like we do not pasken like him in regard to what he said: ‘Havdalah is not made on it’, so too in regard to Kiddush we do not pasken like him, rather, just like Havdala can be made on it (Shaichar which is Chamar Medina), so too Kiddush can be made on it.”

However, the Rambam (Hilchot Shabbat, 29:17) does differentiate between the two: Whereas for Kiddush only wine can be used (based on the words of the Gemara in Bava Batra (97a): Kiddush is not said except upon [such] wine that is fitting for the wine offering (neshacim) on the mizbayach [in the Bet Hamikdash]), for Havdalah, where the Gemara says explicitly that Chamar Medina can be used if necessary, Shaichar can be used if it is the major drink of that country.

Because of this spectrum of understanding among the poskim, the Tur, who quotes both the differing opinions of the Rambam and of his father, the Rosh z”l, seems to sum up that although Chamar Medina can be used even at Kiddush, one should refrain from doing so at Kiddush of Friday night, and should only rely on using the Chamar Medina by the Kiddush of the daytime and by Havdalah. This is the ruling of the Beit Yosef in Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 272:9) as well.

In regard to the second question mentioned above, it is important to note that the entire discussion about using Chamar Medina relates only to such drinks that have an aspect of fermentation and alcohol to them. When questioning the possibility of different substitutes for wine at Kiddush, the Gemara (Pesachim 107a) quotes three types of drinks that were common in the time of the Tanaim – all of which are more qualitative forms of the Shaichar – which was made from dates – that is quoted in the Gemara, and all three are forms of fermented fruit sugars which yield alcohol content to the produced drink.

The Rashbam, however, on the aforementioned Gemara in Pesachim, adds an interesting comment. In piece beginning chamar medina he says: “[If] there is no other wine in this city except for Shaichar,  Havdalah can be made on it, and so is the halacha. However, water is not called Chamar Medina; and Havdalah cannot be made on water even where there is no Shaichar and wine.”

The Rashbam understood the idea of Chamar Medina not only as relating to one specific type of drink - the Shaichar which is discussed in the Gemara - but that it means to refer to any type of drink that is drunk in a place where wine is not available. Whatever the main drink of that region is would be called Chamar Medina and would be considered fit halachically to make Havdalah on it. However, adds the Rashbam, water would be the exception to this rule, since even in a place where there is no wine or Shaichar available and people drink water as their main drink, it is not important enough to be used even if just for Havdalah.

It seems that based on this understanding of the Rashbam, the Tur added some additional words when quoting his father – the Rosh’s – opinion. The Rosh’s opinion, as mentioned, is that Chamar Medina can be used for even for Kiddush. The Tur writes: “In a place where wine is not found, one can make Kiddush on Shaichar and on other drinks; since wine is not found there, the other drinks are Chamar Medina.”

While the words of the Rashbam and then later the Tur give an opening to consider any other major drinks used in as country to be possibilities for use at Kiddush and Havdallah (except for water which would does not carry the sense of being an important drink for any nation), there is no clear definition in the Rashbam or in the Tur for how to define what constitutes Chamar Medina. This has given place among the Achronim to allow for a range of different definitions. Among them are included:

Halachot Ketanot (1:9), Levushei Mordechai (2:31) – It must be an alcoholic, intoxicating beverage.

Ha’Aderet (Siman 296) – It must be a type of drink that is used as a gesture of respect toward guests and respected figures.

Minchat Shabbat (96:9), Ketzot Hashulchan (97:8) – It must be a type of drink that it is common for people to base their meals on.

What is important to remember, though, is that the concept of using Chamar Medina in practice as a substitute for wine, is mentioned in the source Gemara only in regard to Shaichar and only in regard to Havdalah. Therefore, although usage of various types of Chamar Medina at Kiddush during the day and at Havdalah have become relatively common over the years, based upon the source Gemara it follows that it is best to refrain from using any other types of Chamar Medina than what is directly included in the category of Shaichar. Also based upon the source Gemara it follows that it is best to refrain from using any types of Chamar Medina at any time other than Havdalah (and the Kiddush by day which the poskim say is clearly D’Rabanan) and by the Kiddush of Friday night to use only wine – as the initial Braitta from Gemara Pesachim (106a) that was quoted above, has stated explicitly the need to use wine in regard to fulfilling the Torah command of Kiddush[2].

Another important facet of this halacha which holds within it a clear inference for our times today, is the conclusion which emanates from the Aruch Hashulchan’s description as to why the use of Chamar Medina instead of wine began to become so widespread over the years. He writes (Orach Chaim 272:14):

“However, all the reasons [given in halacha for the usage of Chamar Medina] do not ‘sit right’ on the heart; because after all [is said] certainly wine is better [halachically] than [any of] the other drinks, and why didn’t they make Kiddush on the wine even during the day, since they had wine in their houses or in the city.
And from my limited view it seems clear [why they did so] for another reason. For behold the Tur has written that when are other drinks called Chamar Medina, when there is no wine growing around the city [within the distance] of a day’s walk, etc. And behold, all of those previous to us, and the earlier Geonim were [living] in Bavel, and in Spain, and in France and Germany, that there are there many wines, for in all of these countries grapes grow plentifully. However, in the Northern countries like ours (Ukraine), it is known that there is no wine at all, and those that are brought from other countries are unaffordable because they are so expensive; and [there are] also many Yerei Shomayim who do not want to drink them because of the hechsher, as is known. And there is not [found] by us only wine from raisons, and this wine is difficult [halachically] to say on it [the blessing of] “boreh pri hagefen”... 
And therefore, the Great Torah Leaders who were in our country distanced themselves from this wine, and it was enough for them [to use it] at the Kiddush of night. And, in truth, it is like a heavy burden that weighs on us the wine from raisons that we use, but without any choice – we are forced to say Kiddush on it…
However, this is certain, that on wine is better than any of the drinks, whether in regard to Kiddush, whether in regard to Havdalah, and whether in regard to the cup of blessing (Bircat Hamazon).”
Based on his description of the change in the scarcity of wine in the various countries over the course of the Galut, it is clear that there were halachic considerations in regard to the wines of the time which caused people to choose using Chamar Medina over wine whenever possible. Today, however, when we are blessed to have easy access to halachically kosher wines and grape juice of all sorts, it automatically becomes a much better halachic choice for us to use wine or grape juice for all of our Kiddush and Havdallah obligations rather than Chamar Medina.

In Summary: Beer is an example of Chamar Medina – a fermenred, alcoholic beverage that is considered an important drink in many countries. Although the Gemara is clear that when no wine is available then Chamar Medina - such as beer - may be used for Havdalah, the Shulchan Aruch is clear in saying that even “Shaichar” – which is a clear form of Chamar Medina should not be used for Kiddush of Friday night in place of wine. (If one is in a place where no wine is available on Friday night, he should make Kiddush over Challah rather than use Chamar Medina.)

Over the course of history, Jews have been lenient to use Chamar Medina for the day Kiddush and for Havdalah. It is quite clear that the leniency for doing so was due to the lack of availability in their times of wines which filled the halachic criteria for wine in an unquestionable way. Today when we are blessed to have access to many halachically-kosher wines and grape juices, it is better for one who can easily choose between Chamar Medina and wine, to fulfill his halachic obligation even for the Kiddush by day and for Havdalah with wine or grape juice rather than with Chamar Medina - unless he has a clear reason or need to use an alternative beverage, such as: Havdalah during the nine days, health considerations, or a true enhancement of his Oneg Shabbat experience.

With blessings,
Rav Nachum
[1] Both by Rav Chisda in the name of Rav and by Rav Tachlifa bar Avimai in the name of Shmuel.
[2] And Tosfot points out that it is specifically wine that has the qualities necessary to fulfill the idea of Remembering the Shabbat – as mentioned earlier in this Tshuva.