As you survey the shelves in the wine section trying to choose a bottle to take home for Shabbat or a special occasion, surely you have noticed the wonderful increase in variety of superior kosher wines. I would like to call attention to an interesting trend regarding these kosher wines. The names of Israeli vineyards and brands as well as French-sounding labels are increasingly being joined by those of wines named after famous figures in Judaism. I have often wondered about this; not only why these certain individuals were chosen for the wine, but also who they were. Though there are countless other examples of such, I will try to present you with short biographies of the namesakes of the three most prevalent: Abarbanel, Alfasi and Rashi.
Don Isaac Abarbanel (or Abravanel) was very much a Renaissance man in the traditional sense of the term. Born in Lisbon, Portugal circa 1437, he is said to have devoted his early years primarily to the study of philosophy and its relation to Judaism. By the age of twenty he had already written numerous treatises dealing with such ideas, most of which were criticisms of the liberality of his predecessors in willing to substitute the philosophical axioms of men like Aristotle for those of the teachings of the Torah as revelations from G-d. Don Isaac also wrote extensively in defense of the Jewish concept of the Messiah, with the aim of strengthening such a belief among his Spanish brethren. Abarbanel was very accomplished in other professions as well. His notable political prowess led him into the service of King Alfonso V of Portugal, where he served as the royal treasurer.
However, upon the king’s death he was forced to flee to neighboring Castile, his fortune confiscated, having been accused by King John II (Alfonso’s successor) of treason. His talents again were of great resource, as he was hired by the house of Castile to manage the revenues and provisions of the royal army. The stability he enjoyed would end with the decree of expulsion in 1492. Don Isaac attempted to have the king revoke the edict, offering large sums of money to the crown as bribes; however, it is said that King Ferdinand, willing to accept Abarbanel’s offer, was turned away when the grand inquisitor Torquemada rushed in and cried that the monarchs should not be like Judas and forsake their lord for money. After being banished, he fled to Italy, where he was forced by circumstance to continually move form city to city. He died in Venice in 1508 with most of his personal fortune spent.
Alphabetically, the next member of our wine cohort is Isaac Alfasi, better known as the RIF, for Rabbi Isaac of Fez. The RIF was born in 1013 in a small village outside of Fez, Morocco. He studied in his youth under the two leading rabbinical figures of the era, Rabbi Nissim ben Jacob and Rabbi Chananel ben Cushiel, who trained him in the method that was to shape his single most important work. The emphasis in the academy where the RIF studied was on deduction and clarification of the law from amidst the intricate web of the Talmud, so his idea was naturally to create a work in which to present the final decisions in a lucid manner. He would need to labor for 10 years to complete this work, but not before unrest forced the RIF to move. In 1045, the newly ascendant leader of the region of Alfasi’s hometown severely persecuted all non-Muslim sects in the area; the RIF was forced to take his family and flee to the nearby city of Fez. Once arrived, the RIF enjoyed forty relatively peaceful years in the Jewish community there; they undertook to support his family while he worked to complete his magnum opus “Sefer ha-Halachot (Book of the Laws)”; and they founded an institution of learning in his name, where students from all over North Africa came to study, most notably the famous poet Rabbi Judah Ha-Levi. However, even in his old age he was not safe from woe and worry: in 1088, Alfasi was forced to flee Morocco for Spain when he was denounced to the government on an unknown accusation. When in Spain, he became the head of the academy at Lucena until his passing in 1103.
The third and likely the most well known figure of our tripartite coalition is Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, better known simply as Rashi. Not much is known conclusively about Rashi’s life, save for some of the more important biographical facts; rather, people tend to speak about him in terms of his influences and the various legends surrounding him. Rashi was born in the city of Troyes, France in the Champagne region in the year 1040.
Rashi was taught by his father until the latter’s death early in Rashi’s lifetime; at that point he left to study from the great Talmudists in academies in the German communities of Worms and Mainz. His teachers passed on to him the centuries-old oral traditions pertaining to the Talmudic forms of logic and proof, of which Rashi reportedly took concise notes to be incorporated later into his famous commentaries. He later returned to Troyes to serve on the rabbinical court and founded his own academy in 1070.
The works Rashi is remembered for are two of the most widespread in Judaism today: the commentary on the Talmud, and his commentary on the Bible. Both are notable for opening up each source to a wider audience, elucidating phrase by phrase rather than selective explanation. The commentary on the Talmud serves two purposes: firstly, it attempts to provide an explanation of the logical structure and vocabulary of each passage; secondly, it attempts to establish the most accurate source text by comparison with others. He was successful in almost standardizing the various readings, and his commentaries are printed in nearly every Talmud printed since the 16th century.
With his commentary on the Bible Rashi accomplished a similar, though not identical goal. This commentary drew on his vast knowledge of Jewish literature to explain the simple meaning of the text such that a young child could understand, while also providing the basis for very complex super commentaries that draw in the most advanced minds. It is thought that this commentary grew out of and evolved with various lectures Rashi gave to his students, supported by the fact that it was completed only shortly before his death in 1105.
Rashi left behind one of the largest legacies of any commentator since the era of the Talmud itself, but for our purposes there is something else that needs to be mentioned. Although it has never been shown conclusively to be true, Rashi is believed to have worked as a vintner.
Rashi is the wine I see most often—it comes in various forms from places like Italy, California and Long Island—and has something in common with the works of its namesake: it is easily available and enjoyable to nearly everybody with its sweetness. Abarbanel wines are also available in various different blends, most of them from France, and as I was pleasantly surprised to find out, are produced by members of the Abarbanel family. Alfasi wines are made from grapes grown in the valleys of Chile, and are known for leaning towards the dry end of the spectrum.
I hope I have been able to shed some light on this interesting phenomenon among kosher wines. As you raise your glass to make Kiddush or say L’Chaim, hopefully you can stop to reflect for a short second on the greatness of people like Abarbanel, Rashi and the RIF and try to commit to taste some of their writing and great learning.