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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature
The Hebrew thus rendered seems to demand a more particular elucidation than it has yet received, inasmuch as it had in all probability a much wider signification than is now conveyed by the phrase 'strong drink.' We shall class the various senses of the word under three heads, in the order in which we conceive them to have been developed.
1. Shechar, 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. By sugar or honey the Jews understood not only honey of bees, but also syrups made from the fruit or juice of the palm and other trees. 'In Solomon's time, and afterwards,' says Dr. Harris, 'the wine and sweet cordials seem generally to have been used separately.' It seems more probable, however, that the palm syrup or honey was used both as a sweetmeat or article of food, and as a drink, diluted with water, as with the modern grape and honey syrups or sherbets (; ). The derivatives of shechar, expressive of its first signification, are numerous. Eastward and southward, following the Arabian channel and the Saracenic conquests, we meet with the most obvious forms of the Hebrew words still expressive of sugar. Thus we have the Arabic sakar; Persic and Bengálí, shukkur (whence our word for sugar-candy, shukur-kund, 'rock-sugar'); common Indian, jaggreeor zhaggery; Moresque, sekkour; Spanish, azucar; and Portuguese, assucar (molasses being mel-de-assucar, 'honey of sugar,' abbreviated). The wave of population has also carried the original sense and form northwards, embodying the word in the Grecian and Teutonic languages. Hence Greek, sakhar; Latin, saccharum; Italian, zucchero; German, sucher and juderig; Dutch, striker; Russian, sachar; Danish, sukker; Swedish, socker; Welsh, siwgwr; French, sucre; and our own common words sukkar (sweetmeat), sugar, and saccharine.
2. Date or Palm Wine in its fresh and unfermented state. Bishop Lowth translates thus:—
'With songs they shall no more drink wine [i.e. of grapes];
The palm wine shall be bitter to them that drink it.'—
Herodotus, in his account of Assyria, remarks that 'the palm is very common in this country,' and that 'it produces them bread, wine, and honey.'
The Muhammadan traveler (A.D. 850) says that 'palm wine, if drunk fresh, is sweet like honey; but if kept, it turns to vinegar.'
Mandelslo (1640), speaking of the village of Damre near Surat, records thus:—'Terry or Palm Wine. In this village we found some terry, which is a liquor drawn out of the palm-trees, and drank of it in cups made of the leaves of the same tree. To get out the juice, they go up to the top of the tree, where they make an incision in the bark, and fasten under it an earthen pot, which they leave there all night, in which time it is filled with a certain sweet liquor very pleasant to the taste. They get out some also in the day-time, but that [owing to the great heat] corrupts immediately, and is good only for vinegar, which is all the use they make of it.'
Adam Fabroni, an Italian writer of celebrity, informs us that 'the palm-trees, which particularly abounded in the vicinity of Jericho and Engedi, also served to make a very sweet wine, which is made all over the East, being called palm wine by the Latins, and syrain India, from the Persian shir, which means luscious liquor or drink.'
Dr. Shaw thus describes the unfermented palm wine:—'This liquor, which has a more luscious sweetness than honey, is of the consistence of a thin syrup, but quickly grows tart and ropy, acquiring an intoxicating quality.' Sir G.T. Temple says, 'We were daily supplied with the sap of the date-tree, which is a delicious and wholesome beverage when drunk quite fresh: but if allowed to remain for some hours, it acquires a sharp taste not unlike cider. The Landers inform us that 'Palm wine is the common and favorite drink of the natives' of Africa—that 'the juice is called wine' and that 'it is either used in this state, or preserved till it acquires rather a bitter flavor.' With these facts before us, the language employed by the prophet in the sublime chapter from which we quoted above, becomes beautifully apposite. His prediction is that 'the land shall be utterly spoiled,' that the light of joy shall be turned into the gloom of sorrow, even as the sweet drink which corrupts, grows sour and bitter to those who drink it. The passage clearly indicates the nature of the drink to have been sweet in what the Jews esteemed its most valuable condition, but bitter in its fermented state. Hence the drunkard is represented in , as one who 'puts bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.' This palm wine, like the honey of dates and sugar, was much valued as a medicine and cordial.
3. Sakar, in its third sense as a noun, denotes both in the Hebrew and the Arabic, fermented or intoxicating palm wine. Various forms of the noun in process of time became applied to other kinds of intoxicating drink, whether made from fruit or from grain. Arrack has been commonly, but erroneously, derived from sakar, and some have confounded the arrack with the palm wine, forgetting that the original wine existed long prior to the discovery of arrack distillation. The true palm wine, also, is exclusively the juice of the palm-tree or fruit, whereas arrack is applied to the spirit obtained from fermented rice and other things, and is, as Dr. Shaw remarks, 'the general name for all hot liquors extracted by the alembick.'
The palm wine of the East, as we have explained, is made intoxicating either by allowing it to corrupt and ferment, thereby losing the sweet luscious character for which the Orientals esteem it, and becoming ropy, tart, and bitter; or, in its fresh or boiled state, by an admixture of stimulating or stupefying ingredients, of which there is an abundance. Such a practice seems to have existed among the ancient Jews, and to have called down severe reprobation (comp.;;; ).
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Drink Strong'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature". https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/kbe/d/drink-strong.html.