Writing in the Forward, Jonathan Sarna reminds us that the recent headlines about rabbis are nothing new:
‘Three Rabbis named in Three Separate Conspiracy Charges.” “Two Rabbis and their two assistants… charged with violations.” “Rabbi to be indicted [for]… uttering or transmitting false or forged papers for the purpose of defrauding the Government.”
Sound dismally familiar?
Actually, these passages all appeared in The New York Times over what was, for Jews, an acutely embarrassing 12-month period in 1926 and 1927. It was not money laundering or tax fraud that ensnared rabbis back then. Instead, the alleged crimes all stemmed from violations of the National Prohibition Act. The rabbis charged with the crimes — then, as now, overwhelmingly Orthodox — were caught distributing wine illegally.
The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which went into effect on January 16, 1920, barred the “manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” Congress, however, granted an exemption to those who required wine “for sacramental purposes or like religious rites.” Thanks to this legislation, Jews who ritually bless God for “creating the fruit of the vine” could obtain up to 10 intoxicating gallons of wine per year directly from their rabbis.
Bootleggers lost no time taking advantage of this loophole. To make life easy for impoverished, overworked rabbis, they took care of all the government paperwork, overestimated the number of congregants requiring wine, arranged for transportation and storage, and paid the rabbis a fee for their trouble. …
Read the full story.