- Question: [Thursday, 21st Menachem Av 5782]
Is there any minimum drinking age according to Jewish law? In most of the world the minimum drinking age is age 18, while in the United States its age 21. I was just wondering if there is any Halachic or Torah-based consideration to these ages, and if age 18 or 21 is the correct age for drinking?
Indeed, we find sources in Torah Sefarim, and works of Jewish law, for a minimum drinking age of 21.
Explanation: There is no biblical or rabbinical minimum alcohol drinking age, and hence from the perspective of Jewish law there is nothing intrinsically illegal with drinking alcohol prior to age 21 or 18, and hence, we are all accustomed to give even children to taste from the kiddush wine on Shabbos. Nonetheless, due to the general obligation for a person to guard his health, various health suggestions have been written in the Talmud and codified by the Poskim, beginning with the Rambam in his laws of Deios. Amongst the health suggestions and instructions that have been codified into Jewish law the Rambam writes that while consumption of wine is considered healthy for the old it is considered unhealthy for the young. Now, the Rambam does not give any minimum age to his definition of young, and does not explain the reason for why young people should not be drinking wine. This, however, is elaborated on in the Sefer Tzeida Laderech, written by Rabbi Menachem Ben Zerach who was a doctor and student of the grandson of the Rosh. There he writes that young people should not drink wine being that it causes them damage, as it arouses their natural adrenaline and hormones, and is like one who further stokes an already flaming fire. From this description it can be understood that the definition of young extends throughout the teenage years when adrenaline and hormones are at their peak. He then furthermore adds “the greatest of the doctors has not allowed young people to drink wine until the age of 21.” Hence, we see a clear reference in Jewish sources for a minimum age of drinking, and that the age is 21 years old, as is the law in the United States. This statement of the Tzeida Laderech has been codified in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch who writes as follows “wine is good for the old and damaging to the young as it arouses their natural hormones, and is like adding fire to fire, and one is to beware from drinking wine until 21 years of age.” As for the source for this concept of age 21 being an age of maturity according to Torah, seemingly, this is based on what is mentioned that age 20 is considered the age of maturity regarding certain matters of business and liability, and according to some opinions this actually means age 21. Nonetheless, it makes more sense to simply state that age 21 is the age at the doctors estimate that the teenage adrenaline has calmed down enough to allow the intake of alcohol. Indeed, after the United States implemented the minimum age of 21 for alcohol consumption in the year 1984, car accidents went down dramatically and many lives were saved, as documented by the CDC.
Sources: See Rambam Hilchos Deios 4:12; Tzeida Laderech Kelal Shelishi Chapter 5; Kitzur SHU”A 32:18; https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/minimum-legal-drinking-age.htm#:~:text=Minimum%20Legal%20Drinking%20Age%20(MLDA)%20laws%20specify%20the%20legal%20age,United%20States%20is%2021%20years.
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