Deut. 14:26 Shekhar – meaning sweet drink or strong drink in the Bible?

Original article is at

Shekhar: noun, fruit-cider; juice from dates, palms, or various fruits (generally other than grapes), whether it be unfermented sweet cider, or else fermented – (i.e. vinegar or any kind of intoxicating hard cider); sometimes even the fruit itself (Hebrew, Strong’s number: 7941).

In Deut. 14:26, shekhar would signify sweet drinks (yayin and shekhar; wine and ‘similar drink’ NKJV). For example, certain types of shekhar (sakar) were permitted amongst the Arabs, and other types of it were not, because of alcohol. Nazarites had no type of wine or shekhar at all – whether alcoholic or not – not even vinegar, nor grapes, nor raisins. The breadth of meaning is apparent throughout the Vulgate and NKJV translations.

S. Reynolds says it was broad: ‘it is unjustifiable to claim that shekar must essentially [exclusively] be an intoxicating drink.’
-Stephen M. Reynolds, 2003, The Biblical Approach to Alcohol, p. 31.

The Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature

The Cyclopaedia of biblical literature says shekhar was much broader than ‘strong drink’:

  1. ‘Luscious, saccharine drink or SWEET SYRUP, especially sugar or honey of dates, or of the palm-tree ; also, by accommodation, occasionally the sweet fruit itself…’
  2. ‘Date or PALM WINE in its fresh and unfermented state…’ ‘The Mohammedan traveller (A.D. 850) says that “palm wine, if drunk fresh, is sweet like honey; but if kept, it turns to vinegar”…’
  3. ‘Fermented or intoxicating palm wine… became applied to other kinds of intoxicating drink, whether made from fruit or from grain.’

-John Kitto & James Taylor, 1849, Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature, ‘DRINK, STRONG’, p. 267-268.

Shekhar: Relation to Sweetness

‘If drunk fresh, is sweet like honey.’ Compare: ‘bitter shall be the sweet-drink [shekhar] to those who drink it.’ (Isaiah 24:9)
-Frederick Richard Lees, 1868, Temperance Bible Commentary, p. 165.

F. Lees says shekhar was broad: ‘comes from an Oriental root for ‘sweet-juice,’ and is the undoubted original of the European words (Greek, Latin, Teutonic, and Spanish) for sugar. It is used to this day in Arabia for palm-juice and palm-wine, whether fresh or fermented.’
-Frederick Richard Lees, 1869, Textbook of Temperance, p. 122.

Shekhar: Relation to Quenching Thirst or Drunkenness

The related verb shakar means to satisfy, i.e. drink sufficiently to quench the thirst (e.g. Hag. 1:6) – which could be said of having of wine, milk, etc. (Song. 5:1). But sometimes this verb can also mean somebody is becoming tipsy, or worse.

Hag 1:6 “Ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but ye have not enough; ye drink, but ye are not filled with drink; ye clothe you, but there is none warm; and he that earneth wages earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes.

‘…I have eaten my honeycomb and my honey; I have drunk [shakar] my wine and my milk.’

Song 5:1 I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse: I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine [shaker] with my milk: eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved.


Jerome’s Vulgate translation made a distinction

Jerome (in the Latin Vulgate c. 400 A.D.) made a distinction in the range of meanings. He said: ‘Now every intoxicating drink is in Hebrew called shechar.’ However, he did NOT think everything called shechar was intoxicating – e.g. Deut. 14:26. He said it was better for Christians to avoid drinking whatever ‘disturbs the balance of the mind’. Indeed, the Vulgate often rendered shekhar differently where the context did not require a meaning of intoxication, probably to avoid potential misunderstanding. It often borrowed the Hebrew term shekhar itself (Latin ‘siceram’) – e.g. Deut. 14:26; 29:6; Judg. 13:4,7,14 – rather than using ‘ebriatas’ as for some other passages. Sometimes Jerome rendered shekhar as ‘ebrietas’, but mostly where a context supports the idea of intoxication – e.g. Lev. 10:9 and 1 Sam. 1:15. (Technically, this Latin term ebrietas may be used even of water Ps. 65:9.) In Lev. 10:9 the context specifies that drinking makes us unable to distinguish between the holy and the unholy. So in that instance, Jerome could not help ‘but suspect poison’ as he put it.

(Incidentally, the Vulgate simply rendered shekhar as wine (Latin ‘vinum’) but only a few times – e.g. Num. 28:7. As with shekhar, the term ‘vinum’ was not always alcoholic – e.g. Lam. 2:12 Vulgate.)

Jerome, Latin Vulgate Bible translation.
Jerome, Letter LII. To Nepotian.

Wycliffe’s translation made a distinction

The Wycliffe Bible (based on the Vulgate) made the same distinction. It seems to be responsible for bringing ‘cider’ into the popular English language (formerly: ‘sidur’). Hence the Wycliffe Bible itself has been called the ‘Cider Bible’. English dictionaries (especially American) still let cider be either unfermented or fermented.

But eventually the English term ‘cider’ became connected especially to apple-cider. This may be partly why some English translators have considered other terms than this. For many passages, a modern translator may prefer the term ‘similar-drink’, ‘sweet-drink’, or ‘fruit-cider’. Today’s English dictionaries would probably not even have any entry for ‘cider’ if Jerome had thought ‘ebriatas’ were suitable for Deut. 14:26 and all!

Wycliffe Bible translation

Tyndale’s translation made a distinction

Yet Tyndale’s translation (based on the Hebrew) also made a distinction in the range of meanings, from good drynke to stronge drynke (‘stronge drynke’ in Lev. 10:9; Num 6:3; Deut. 29:6 – but ‘good drynke’ in Num. 28:7; Deut. 14:26). After Tyndale, the KJV subjectively imposed ‘strong drink’ throughout, yet the NKJV again used more objective terms like ‘similar drink’.

Tyndale Bible translation

New King James Version makes a distinction

The New King James Version (from Numbers through Judges) generally renders shekhar as ‘similar drink’ within the phrase ‘wine or similar drink’. For Num. 28:7, it simply has ‘drink’, being more objective than ‘strong drink’. But it has ‘strong drink’ in Lev. 10:9 where the context supports the idea of intoxication.

In conclusion, the Hebrew term shekhar was a broad term, evidently being unfermented or fermented. See further documentation by John Kitto, Frederick Lees, Lyman Abbott, Benjamin Parsons, Stephen Reynolds.

NKJV references to Shekhar

Shekhar: Relation to Arabic Term

Also in Arabic, sakar can mean ‘sweet juice’ (Abdel Haleem, 2005, Surat An-Nahl, 16:67). It can mean ‘wholesome drink’ (Yusuf Ali, 1934, Surat An-Nahl, 16:67). Haleem notes the Arabic word sakar variously means ‘wine’, ‘juice’, or ‘vinegar’ (as in the Arabic dictionary al-Mu’jam al-Wasit). Edward William Lane notes some types of it were lawful and some types forbidden.
-Edward William Lane, 1863, Arabic English Lexicon, Book 1, p. 1391.

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