(shekhar; sikera; from shakhar, "to be or become drunk"; probably from the same root as sugar, saccharine):
With the exception of Numbers 28:7, "strong drink" is always coupled with "wine." The two terms are commonly used as mutually exclusive, and as together exhaustive of all kinds of intoxicants.
Originally shekhar seems to have been a general term for intoxicating drinks of all kinds, without reference to the material out of which they were made; and in that sense, it would include wine. Reminiscences of this older usage may be found in Numbers 28:7 (where shekhar is clearly equivalent to wine, as may be seen by comparing it with 28:14, and with Exodus 29:40, where the material of the drink offering is expressly designated "wine").
When the Hebrews were living a nomadic life, before their settlement in Canaan, the grape-wine was practically unknown to them, and there would be no need of a special term to describe it. But when they settled down to an agricultural life, and came to cultivate the vine, it would become necessary to distinguish it from the older kinds of intoxicants; hence, the borrowed word yayin ("wine") was applied to the former, while the latter would be classed together under the old term shekhar, which would then come to mean all intoxicating beverages other than wine (Leviticus 10:9; Numbers 6:3; Deuteronomy 14:26; Proverbs 20:1; Isaiah 24:9). The exact nature of these drinks is not clearly indicated in the Bible itself. The only fermented beverage other than grape-wine specifically named is pomegranate-wine (Song of Solomon 8:2:
"the juice of my pomegranate," the Revised Version, margin "sweet wine of my pomegranate"); but we may infer that other kinds of shekhar besides that obtained from pomegranates were in use, such as drinks made from dates, honey, raisins, barley, apples, etc. Probably Jerome (circa 400 AD) was near the mark when he wrote, "Sikera in the Hebrew tongue means every kind of drink which can intoxicate, whether made from grain or from the juice of apples, or when honeycombs are boiled down into a sweet and strange drink, or the fruit of palm oppressed into liquor, and when water is colored and thickened from boiled herbs" (Ep. ad Nepotianum). Thus shekhar is a comprehensive term for all kinds of fermented drinks, excluding wine.
Probably the most common sort of shekhar used in Biblical times was palm or date-wine. This is not actually mentioned in the Bible, and we do not meet with its Hebrew name yen temarim ("wine of dates") until the Talmudic period. But it is frequently referred to in the Assyrian-Babylonian contract tablets (cuneiform), and from this and other evidence we infer that it was very well known among the ancient Semitic peoples. Moreover, it is known that the palm tree flourished abundantly in Biblical lands, and the presumption is therefore very strong that wine made of the juice of dates was a common beverage. It must not be supposed, however, that the term shekhar refers exclusively to date-wine. It rather designates all intoxicating liquors other than grape-wine, while in few cases it probably includes even wine.
There can be no doubt that shekhar was intoxicating. This is proved
(1) from the etymology of the word, it being derived from shakhar, "to be or become drunk" (Genesis 9:21; Isaiah 29:9; Jeremiah 25:27, etc.); compare the word for drunkard (shikkar), and for drunkenness (shikkaron) from the same root;
(2) from descriptions of its effects:
e. g. Isaiah graphically describes the stupefying effect of shekhar on those who drink it excessively (Isaiah 28:7,8).
Hannah defended herself against the charge of being drunk by saying, "I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink," i.e. neither wine nor any other intoxicating liquor (1 Samuel 1:15). The attempt made to prove that it was simply the unfermented juice of certain fruits is quite without foundation. Its immoderate use is strongly condemned (Isaiah 5:11,12; Proverbs 20:1; see DRUNKENNESS). It was forbidden to ministering priests (Leviticus 10:9), and to Nazirites (Numbers 6:3; Judges 13:4,7,14; compare Luke 1:15), but was used in the sacrificial meal as drink offering (Numbers 28:7), and could be bought with the tithe-money and consumed by the worshipper in the temple (Deuteronomy 14:26). It is commended to the weak and perishing as a means of deadening their pain; but not to princes, lest it might lead them to pervert justice (Proverbs 31:4-7).
D. Miall Edwards
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