Considering the Nullification of Wine: An Experiment [YD 134:5]

January 3, 2019 4 By Rabbi Drew

I recently came across a rather curious text in the Shulhan Arukh (YD 134:5):

מה יהא במים ויהא בהם כדי לבטל טעם היין
ששה חלקים כנגדו
וכל שיש במים כשיעור הזה מותר אפילו בשתייה

How much of a ratio of water cancels out the taste of wine?
Six parts [of water] to one [part of wine].
And all that there is in the water with this ratio, is permissible, even for drinking.

What is striking about this text is two-fold:

  1. The amount necessary for the nullification of this forbidden libated wine is only 1:6 rather than the 1:60 ratio for other foods
  2. This is water! Water is probably the least likely substance to cancel out the flavor of anything, let alone wine.

While there is a disagreement about the mechanics of this halakhah, with which I plan on going into more depth in the future,1 I wanted to share some findings of a relevant halakhic experiment I performed.

So, I set out an array of different ratios of a kosher wine, going from 1 part wine to 1 part water all the way up to 1 part wine to 60 parts water. Here are some tasting notes from my experiment:
– 1:0 – wine, very straightforward and unadulterated. FWIW, this is a merlot
– 1:1 – a lot softer, especially the peppery notes, as well as the edges, which get significantly softened. Quite winelike, even if watery
– 1:2 – on the palate, only a bit winey, although the most wine-like aspect of this ratio is the berryness and dryness on the finish
– 1:3 – some wine aspects on the palate, although quite watery, but, just like 1:2, most winelike aspect is noticeable on the finish, with some berry and dry aspects
– 1:4 – pretty much berry-water on the palate, with still some berry and dry aspects on the finish, although much less
1:6 – our halakhically-significant glass! I was very curious to try this, as this was the ratio of which the halakhah discussed. There was some faint berry aroma; there’s no mistaking that this had once been wine, even if it is very diluted. Can barely get much out of the berry notes on the palate with this ratio, which certainly helps me understand the wisdom of this halakhah. On the finish, with barely much berry/dryness on the finish. I can understand how it can be difficult to tell whether it’s watered-down wine or berried/berry-juiced water
– 1:8 – Just for a more full sense of completeness, I decided to keep going and see how wine tasted even further watered-down. This ratio is a lot like the 1:6 ratio in that it is hard to discern whether it is watered-down wine or berried water
– 1:10 – This ratio tastes like berried-water moreso than watered-down wine. It is not enjoyable, although there is a touch of slight dryness on finish
– 1:20 – There is no dryness on finish, just berried water
– 1:60 – For the sake of completeness and to get a sense of contrast, I was quite curious to try 1 part of wine to 60 parts of water. This ratio yielded faint hints of berries in water, but no other discernible elements of wine.

I was fascinated by this experiment, as it became a bit fuzzy whether one was drinking watered-down wine or berry-flavored water. Once getting to the halakhically-significant 1:6, I could tell it had once been wine, taste-wise, yet it no longer had any of the good, significant aspects of wine that one might expect when drinking wine. Beyond that ratio, it really seemed like one was merely tasting berry-flavored water. (And certainly getting to 1:60, it really was quite nullified, taste-wise.)

I must, however, mention a few limitations of this informal experiment:

  • I only did it with one wine; further inquiry into this matter might be better explored with other such wines, such as cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, etc.
  • I only did it with a red wine; I am curious to taste how differently white wine might be nullified than red wine
  • The most glaring issue with this initial experiment: I did it with a מבושל wine, which is significant for our purposes. Since the halakhah speaks of libated wine, we would need wine fit for libation, which a מבושל wine is not. Further research into this halakhah should optimally done with non-מבושל wine, which may have more flavor than a מבושל wine.

I am looking forward to continuing to investigate this halakhic issue and will keep you posted!

1. Basically, whether the wine’s taste being cancelled out happens only with water or with other beverages, as well. Stay tuned for more on this topic.