Over the past few months we've been discussing the laws of pas akum, bishul akum, cholov akum and gevinas akum. There is another gezeirah that was instituted by Chazal known as sheichar akum, the prohibition against drinking non-Jewish-made drinks. Which particular kinds of drinks this gezeirah applies to will be discussed in a later issue.
Why was this gezeirah instituted? The Gemara in Avodah Zara 31b proposes two reasons. The first is because of the chashash (concern) of intermarriage. Rashi explains that the intention was to prevent a person from becoming accustomed to joining in parties or festive meals, which could eventually lead to intermarriage.
The second reason proposed is because of the chashash of gilui (uncovered liquids). Since beer was often left open while it was being produced, there was the concern that a snake came and drank from it and its poison went into the beer. Nowadays, many are lenient with leaving liquids uncovered, since snakes are not so common in populated areas.
The Gemara questions the basis of the second reason, gilui. What are we concerned about? If we are concerned that the non-Jews leave their beer barrels open, Jews also leave their beer barrels open. Why don't Jews cover their barrels? Rashi says that the snakes didn't drink from beer barrels (possibly because of the aroma). The Gemara resolves the problem by clarifying that the case is in a place where they leave their water in barrels over a period of time, in order to let the sediment and impurities fall to the bottom. This "purified" water is then used to make beer. It is left uncovered and hence there is a chashash that a snake would've drank from it. Jews, however, were careful to cover their water. The Gemara finds an additional difficulty. If the whole chashash is due to the possible presence of snake venom, then "old" (matured) beer should be permissible, because the presence of any venom would not allow the beer to mature well. Chomitz (vinegar) should also be permissible. The Gemara concedes that this reasoning is indeed correct, but that when Chazal made the gezeirah on the new products they also included the matured products in it for the sake of consistency.
When was this gezeirah first instituted? Tosfos say that we don't find it mentioned in any mishnah or baraisa, unlike the gezeiros of pas akum, bishul akum, so it was probably not instituted in the times of the Tannaim, but rather in the times of the Amoraim which followed immediately after.
The Rambam seems to differ with Tosfos. In Hilchos Ma'achalos Assuros 17:9 he says "There were other things that Chachamim forbade through a gezeirah, even though these gezeiros had no basis in the Torah, in order to distance us from non-Jews and to prevent intermarriage. These are: It is forbidden to drink with them, even in a place where you wouldn't have to worry about yayin nesech. It is also forbidden to eat their bread and cooked food, even if there is no concern that you could eat treifos." In 17:10 he says "...and we don't drink their beer that they make out of dates, figs, etc..."
We see that the Rambam is mentioning the prohibition of sheichar akum in the same context as bishul akum and pas akum. This implies that he holds that sheichar akum was instituted at the same time, during the times of the Tannaim.
That concludes our introduction to the gezeirah of sheichar akum. In the coming issues we will look at its parameters, when it applies and to what types of drinks it applies.