Jews and Coffee


The new book Jews Welcome Coffee is a history of the introduction of coffee into Europe–first brought into Germany by botanist Leonhard Rauwolf in 1573–and of the beverage’s strange and remarkable impact on the Jews living there.

Coffee spread through Europe during the Enlightenment, at a time that Jews were being welcomed into many European societies. Coffee was first seen as a drink for the wealthy–and, indeed, it was first championed in Jewish society by rich merchants trying to emulate their non-Jewish peers. Back then, coffee was known as a foul-tasting beverage, but one with important stimulating effects–“One cannot attain presence of mind without the aid of coffee,” the Italian rabbi Hezekiah da Silva wrote in the late 1600s. On the other hand, Rabbi Judah Leib Nardin in London forbade coffee, saying that meat fat was sometimes added to the beverage. (The Hebrew word for meat-fat, helev, reads suspiciously like the word for milk, halav–but Nardin insisted he had seen meat used in coffee.)

Da Silva was scarcely the only rabbi to be infatuated by coffee. Jacob Reischer (c. 1670-1733) authored a collection of Jewish responsa, Shvut Yaakov, many of which dealt with coffee–from asking whether a Jew could drink coffee brewed by a Gentile on the Sabbath (he said no), to whether coffee beans were legumes, and therefore forbidden on Passover.

You might think that a warm beverage made out of crushed beans and water wouldn’t cause much conflict among Jews–but then, you probably weren’t living in post-medieval Europe (or at any suburban Starbucks before 9:00 A.M.). Jews Welcome Coffee tells a surprisingly high-stakes story about the way a single beverage transformed the existing Jewish culture in Europe, and how its status went from a prohibition to an addiction.

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