Is it better to drink wine or grape juice at the Seder

The Talmud states that one may squeeze a cluster of grapes before Shabbat and immediately consume it, seemingly permitting grape juice.

rabbis 88 (photo credit: )
rabbis 88
(photo credit: )
The obligation to drink four cups of wine presents definitive problems for people who have difficulty imbibing that much alcohol at one meal. Particularly since Halacha determines that one must drink, minimally, a couple of liquid ounces per cup (sipping is not sufficient), the propriety of using nonalcoholic substitutes remains a pressing question.
Jewish law dictates that all men and women must consume four cups of wine at the appropriate stages of the Seder: Kiddush, Magid (the recitation of the Pessah story), Grace after Meals and Hallel (OC 472:8-15). This rabbinic obligation creates a liberated and regal (herut) atmosphere while also demarking each stage that praises God for our miraculous salvation (pirsumei nisa). Given its significant imprint on the Seder, the sages deemed that even the poor must consume all four cups, with each community providing the necessary means to the impoverished (Pessahim 99).
Wine received a unique blessing (borei pri hagafen) distinct from other fruit juices because of its unique role in rituals and the pleasure and satisfaction it provides to its drinkers (Brachot 35). While wine may be partially diluted with water, or combined with other fragrances or liquids, it must maintain a distinguished amount (debated by the sages) of natural juice to retain its status (OC 204:5). Nahmanides declared white wine as invalid for Kiddush, yet most authorities permitted its use, albeit with some preferring a red alternative, especially when deemed a more select brand (272:4).
In natural wine production, workers crush and de-stem the grapes, and the combine the juice (“must”), pulp and skin into fermentation vats that convert the liquid into alcohol. For various legal reasons (stam yayin), some producers heat the juice at the beginning of this process (mevushal), and then add wine enzymes to facilitate artificial fermentation. While a few medieval authorities believed this process negatively impacted the taste to the point in which wine lost its unique blessing, most believe its status remained unaffected (202:1).
A different potential problem with cooked wine stems from the requirement that Kiddush wine must fulfill the requirements of wine that was historically used in the Temple for libations (Bava Batra 97b). Based on this, Maimonides invalidated all cooked wine for ritual use. Other medieval scholars maintained that since the wine’s basic character remained unchanged, one may still use it for ritual use. Their opinion followed the Talmud Yerushalmi’s declaration that one may use cooked wine on the Seder night, which includes Kiddush (Pessahim 10:1).
Although Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik expressed preference for non-cooked wines for Kiddush use, contemporary practice follows the lenient opinion, especially when the cooked wine is deemed as better tasting (OC 272:8). In a controversial ruling, Rabbi Shlomo Auerbach further contended that contemporary pasteurization does not heat the juice at a sufficient temperature to render it as cooked (Minhat Shlomo 1:4). Most decisors, including rabbis Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe YD 3:31) and Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer YD 8:15), however, render such wine as yayin mevushal but acceptable for Kiddush.
The Talmud states that one may squeeze a cluster of grapes before Shabbat and immediately consume it, seemingly permitting grape juice (272:2). Normative Halacha adopts this position, even as many continued to assert that regular wine remains preferable (Magen Avraham 272:3). While today we pasteurize grape juice to prevent bacterial growth, most believe that this heating does not invalidate it, as is the case with other cooked wines (Yalkut Yosef 4:285).
During the Prohibition era in the early 20th century, American law granted a dispensation to distribute wine for religious purposes. Embarrassed by the widespread abuse of this exemption, the non-Orthodox movements argued, in a responsum written by Rabbi Louis Finkelstein that was released at a press conference, that Jews did not need this exemption, as grape juice or raisin wine (272:6) could serve as acceptable alternatives. Although this pronouncement led one Orthodox polemicist to attempt to invalidate grape juice, the drink became universally accepted for Kiddush wine (Har Tzvi OC 1:158). Rabbi Auerbach has further questioned using grape juice from concentrate for kiddush, since the dilution process may leave insufficient juice, but most decisors have rejected this concern.
Nonetheless, rabbis Moshe Feinstein and Tzvi Frank contended that grapejuice is unacceptable for the Pessah Seder, as the Talmud requires aprestigious wine that commemorates our freedom (Pessahim 108b) and gives a sense of joy and elation (Mikraei Kodesh,Pessah 2:35). Many decisors, however, contend that grape juice remainssufficiently distinguished, and more importantly, should be used if oneenjoys it more than wine (Nefesh Harav,p.185). I believe this remains particularly true for those who becomeeasily intoxicated or drowsy from wine, which will counter-productivelyinhibit their ability to commemorate the Exodus experience (Mishna Halachot 10:87)
The author, on-line editor of Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.