By Courtney Suciu
Ratified in 1920, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – America’s only constitutional amendment to later be repealed – federally prohibited the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol. As a result, numerous otherwise law-abiding Americans (as well as those inclined to a life of crime) found ways to skirt the law.
In fact, scoffing the Prohibition act was so common that the term “scofflaw” was coined for those who continued to imbibe and profit off the underground sale of “intoxicating liquors.”
Dirty-sounding words and phrases like “hooch,” “bathtub gin,” “white lightning” and “moonshine” are associated with such contraband through the 1920s and early ‘30s. “Sacramental wine” — not so much. It just doesn’t have quite the same exciting, seedy ring to it. Yet, during Prohibition, it was often every bit as illicit.
Prohibition law – the “Volstead Act” – allowed exceptions for grooming and cleaning products, medicine (“medicinal” whiskey was kind of the “medicinal” marijuana of the time) and religious purposes. This meant scofflaws had abundant opportunities to defy Prohibition without involving rum-runners, speakeasies or homemade stills.
Instead, they took advantage of sick beds, churches and – especially – synagogues.
Ken Burns’ three-part PBS documentary Prohibition1 provides an intriguing overview of how those who sought a drink could easily access alcohol without becoming full-blown outlaws.
Historian Freddie Johnson explained how a mysterious “illness” struck many households during Prohibition:
The prescription was the legal way of bringing whiskey into your home. So those that could afford to would go through the doctor and get a one pint every 10 days (that was all you're allowed). Three pints a month was not enough, so a lot of members of the same family got “sick.” An “epidemic” broke out. By the time Prohibition was done, doctors had written over 6 million prescriptions…
He continued to describe how in addition to being afflicted with poor health, great numbers of people also seemed to find religion at the time:
Sacramental wine used by churches and synagogues was permitted as well, and orders for it quickly increased by millions of gallons a year. Not more than one quarter of this is sacramental, one churchman admitted, the rest is sacrilegious.
Additional permissions for Jewish community members gave local synagogues a sudden boost. Writer Daniel Okrent added:
A Jewish household was allowed a certain amount of wine per adult per year for which you had to have a certification from your rabbi. So, congregations grew in size from 1920 to 1921 by factor of 10 from 80 families to 900 families.
It wasn’t only the number of Jewish congregates that grew exponentially – the number of rabbis did as well. Unlike the Catholic Church, where formal measures distinguished a priest from a layperson, “if you said you are a rabbi, who was going to say you weren't a rabbi?” Okrent continued. “There were rabbis with names like Kelly and Hosanna Han and there were black rabbis. There was a real racket.”
For opportunistic scofflaws, Judaism was appealing because – unlike Catholic rituals in which the consumption of sacramental wine is part of church services – many Jewish rituals take place domestically. While the Volstead Act outlined the exception of sacramental wine for religions purposes, additional documents2 detail specific accommodations for rabbis to purchase wine for distribution to members of their congregations and entitled followers of the Jewish faith to have wine for ritual purposes in their homes.
It didn’t take long for people who didn’t typically identify as Jewish to figure out how such an exemption would make it simple – and technically legal – to access and possess wine. In addition, gentiles who had a bit more ambition – and desired more direct access to wine – simply “joined” the rabbinate.
In June 1922, the American Jewish Committee was on to the ways this privilege was being abused, not only “to obtain wine for family use,” according to a statement from The American Israelite3, “but also for illicit purposes, bootlegging, to call the traffic by its proper name.”
It was almost too easy an opportunity to pass up. Basically, anyone – no matter how unlikely – could say they were a rabbi because there was no recognized standard for the rabbinate, according to the newspaper:
A dozen Jews or even non-Jews can get together and call themselves a Jewish congregation. They can proceed to elect one of themselves or anyone else, male or female, Jew or non-Jew, as their “Rabbi” and there is absolutely no authoritative, central Jewish body that can dictate to the pseudo-congregation what qualifications its rabbi must possess, or even interfere in any way with its management.
For many in the Jewish community, the issue wasn’t so much that people were blatantly flouting the law – American Jews had a complicated relationship with Prohibition4 which author of this article considered “a farce.” Rather, the main trouble with “pseudo ‘Rabbis,’” and fake congregations formed for “the special purpose of obtaining wine illegitimately, without fear of prosecution,” was the “disrepute” they were bringing legitimate congregations.
But the U.S. government wasn’t as concerned about the reputation of American Jews as much as upholding the law. By the fall of that same year, The New York Times5 reported on new rules significantly restricting access to sacramental wine. These ordinances were meant to crack down on fraud, but they impacted the entire community, penalizing legitimate practitioners as much – if not more than – those who peddled sacramental wine on the black market.
Such measures were a nuisance for law-abiding folks but did little to deter bogus rabbis. The problem would only continue to worsen. How pervasive was such fraud? The St. Louis Post-Dispatch6 reported in 1926 on a Senate committee investigation which found that hundreds of thousands of gallons of wine were distributed by thousands of “fictitious rabbis.”
“There are Irish rabbis and rabbis of every description,” said the committee’s counsel, Earl J. Davis, who testified “Not only wine, but whiskey, and in some cases, champagne are released for religious uses.”
The history of bogus rabbis, black market “sacramental” wine (and whiskey and champagne!) provides a small window into the multitude of ways the Volstead Act ultimately proved unenforceable and spurred an explosive growth in crime and corruption. On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, repealing federal Prohibition laws and returning control of alcohol to the states.
For further research
Learn more and request trials via the heading links below.
From History Vault Progressive Era: Reform, Regulation and Rights (1872-1934) Collection
Prohibition: Bureau of Internal Revenue Records of the Prohibition Unit and of the Division of Industrial Alcohol, 1918-1934
The Prohibition Era in the United States covered a time when there was much controversy over the making and selling of alcoholic beverages. Prohibition: Bureau of Internal Revenue Records of the Prohibition Unit and of the Division of Industrial Alcohol, 1918-1934 contains correspondence and documents revealing how the government sought to prevent and control the production of products containing alcohol, from moonshine stills to industrial alcohol used in manufacturing medicinal products.
Prohibition: Records of the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement
Prohibition conjures up images of government agents destroying bars and homemade stills, but it was much more than trying to prevent the outright production and consumption of illicit alcohol. This collection includes primary source documents that reveal how government agents also sought to regulate the lawful production of industrial alcohol for legitimate uses, including medicinal and religious purposes.
From Ebook Central
Andersen, L. M. F. (2013). The Politics of Prohibition: American Governance and the Prohibition Party, 1869–1933
Engdahl, S. (Ed.). (2009). Amendments XVIII and XXI: Prohibition and Repeal
Franklin, F. (2012). What Prohibition Has Done to America
Rorabaugh, W. J. (2018). Prohibition: A Concise History
Drowne, K. M. (2000). Spirits of Defiance: The Influence of National Prohibition on American Literature, 1920–1933 (Order No. 9993299).
KYVIG, D. E. (1971). In Revolt Against Prohibition: The Association Against the Prohibition Amendment and the Movement for Repeal, 1919-1933 (Order No. 7130866).
Roberts, R. (2001). “Protecting the Public Welfare and Morals”: Political Institutions, Federalism, and Prohibition, 1834–1934 (Order No. 3015104).
Taylor, K. A. (2002). Constitutional Alcohol Prohibition in the United States: Power, Profit and Politics (Order No. 3060952).
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu