Wine appears in three statements in Avot – two dealing with wine as a vehicle for metaphors and one dealing with wine in a literal sense.
רַבִּי דוֹסָא בֶן הַרְכִּינַס אוֹמֵר, שֵׁנָה שֶׁל שַׁחֲרִית, וְיַיִן שֶׁל צָהֳרַיִם, וְשִׂיחַת הַיְלָדִים, וִישִׁיבַת בָּתֵּי כְנֵסִיּוֹת שֶׁל עַמֵּי הָאָרֶץ, מוֹצִיאִין אֶת הָאָדָם מִן הָעוֹלָם:
Rabbi Dosa ben Hyrcanus says: “Morning sleep, midday wine, children’s talk, and sitting in the assemblies of the ignorant take a man out of the world.”
Rabbi Dosa, son of Hyrcanus, has no problem with wine-drinking, per se, it would seem, but does observe that, having it too early in the day can reduce one’s effective productivity during the day. Just as with sleep encroaching into the morning, beyond the night,2 wine-drinking as early as the afternoon, instead of confining it to the evening and night reduces one’s productive activity time from the day (in this respect, his statement seems to draw from the wisdom of Proverbs in its approach to using the daytime for productive activity and not sleeping).
Moving to the metaphorical use of wine in Avot, we see it being used to describe learning from Torah scholars (Avot 4:20):
רַבִּי יוֹסֵי בַר יְהוּדָה אִישׁ כְּפַר הַבַּבְלִי אוֹמֵר, הַלּוֹמֵד מִן הַקְּטַנִּים לְמַה הוּא דוֹמֶה, לְאֹכֵל עֲנָבִים קֵהוֹת וְשׁוֹתֶה יַיִן מִגִּתּוֹ. וְהַלּוֹמֵד מִן הַזְּקֵנִים לְמַה הוּא דוֹמֶה, לְאֹכֵל עֲנָבִים בְּשֵׁלוֹת וְשׁוֹתֶה יַיִן יָשָׁן.
Rabbi Yose, son of Yehudah, a leader of the Babylonian Village, says: “He who learns from children, to what is he compared? To one who eats unripe grapes, and drinks wine from his vat; And he who learns from the old, to what is he compared? To one who eats ripe grapes, and drinks old wine.”
What he does is to describe the Torah-teaching from younger people as lacking experience, character, and refinement, which older people have, similar to how wine is significantly better-tasting when it has aged.
However, Rabbi Meir points out that we shouldn’t always judge a book by its cover, which is positioned in direct juxtaposition to the previous text (Avot 4:20):
רַבִּי מֵאִיר3 אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּסְתַּכֵּל בַּקַּנְקַן, אֶלָּא בְמַה שֶּׁיֶּשׁ בּוֹ. יֵשׁ קַנְקַן חָדָשׁ מָלֵא יָשָׁן, וְיָשָׁן שֶׁאֲפִלּוּ חָדָשׁ אֵין בּוֹ
Rabbi Meir3 says: “Don’t look at the wine cask, but at that which is in it: there is a new cask full of old wine, and an old cask in which there is not even new wine.
While Rabbi Meir fundamentally agrees that aged wine is better (and, so, too, experienced Torah), he points out that there are older people who know less Torah, while there are younger people who know more Torah. Just as wine is not found in the wild, flowing, but is confined to containers, so, too, is Torah to be found within and from people, and not just floating about.
A fourth and final occurrence of wine in Avot occurs as another metaphor (Avot 5.15):
אַרְבַּע מִדּוֹת בְּיוֹשְׁבִים לִפְנֵי חֲכָמִים: סְפוֹג, וּמַשְׁפֵּךְ, מְשַׁמֶּרֶת, וְנָפָה.
סְפוֹג, שֶׁהוּא סוֹפֵג אֶת הַכֹּל. מַשְׁפֵּךְ, שֶׁמַּכְנִיס בְּזוֹ וּמוֹצִיא בְזוֹ.
מְשַׁמֶּרֶת, שֶׁמּוֹצִיאָה אֶת הַיַּיִן וְקוֹלֶטֶת אֶת הַשְּׁמָרִים.
וְנָפָה, שֶׁמּוֹצִיאָה אֶת הַקֶּמַח וְקוֹלֶטֶת אֶת הַסֹּלֶת
There are four types among those who sit before the sages: a sponge, a funnel, a strainer, and a sieve.
A sponge soaks up everything;
A funnel takes in at one end and lets out at the other;
A strainer which lets out the wine and retains the lees;
A sieve, which lets out the coarse meal and retains the choice flour.
Here, the metaphor has less to do with wine, per se, than it does to do with describing the student who lets out the good stuff (wine) and keeps the not good stuff (lees).
1. Daniel Machiela, “A Brief History of the Second Temple Period Name ‘Hyrcanus'”, Journal of Jewish Studies, vol. LXI, No. 1 (Spring 2010), 136.↩
2. For a brief discussion on morning sleep, see my “Rabbinic Sleep Ethics: Jewish Sleep Conduct in Late Antiquity”, Milin Havivin, vol. 2 (2006), 89-90.↩
3. It would seem that Rabbi Meir is commonly witnessed as speaking this statement, while others show Rabbi [Yehudah HaNasi] (and there are even versions that record Rabbi Yose). See Shimon Sharvit, מסכת אבות לדורותיה: מהדורה מדעית, מבואות ונספחים (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 2004), 172.↩