Questions From Readers
The Bible does not mention toasting, so why do Jehovah’s Witnesses avoid sharing in toasts?
Toasting with a glass of wine (or another alcoholic beverage) is a long-standing and widespread practice, though details may differ from place to place. Sometimes those toasting clink their glasses together. The person offering the toast usually requests or wishes someone happiness, good health, a long life, or the like. Others sharing in the toast may voice their agreement or raise their glasses and drink some wine. For many, this seems a harmless custom or social grace, but there are good reasons why Jehovah’s Witnesses do not share in toasting.
It is not because Christians do not hope that someone finds happiness and enjoys good health. In a letter to the congregations, the first-century governing body concluded with a word that can be rendered “good health to you,” “keep well,” or “fare well.” (Acts 15:29) And some true worshippers said to human kings: “Let my lord . . . live to time indefinite” or “Let the king himself live to time indefinite.”—1 Kings 1:31; Nehemiah 2:3.
What, though, is the background of the custom of toasting? The Watchtower of January 1, 1968, quoted The Encyclopædia Britannica (1910), Volume 13, page 121: “The custom of drinking ‘health’ to the living is most probably derived from the ancient religious rite of drinking to the gods and the dead. The Greeks and Romans at meals poured out libations to their gods, and at ceremonial banquets drank to them and to the dead.” The encyclopedia added: “Intimately associated with these quasi-sacrificial drinking customs must have ever been the drinking to the health of living men.”
Is that still valid? The 1995 International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture says: “[Toasting] is probably a secular vestige of ancient sacrificial libations in which a sacred liquid was offered to the gods: blood or wine in exchange for a wish, a prayer summarized in the words ‘long life!’ or ‘to your health!’”
Granted, the fact that an object, a design, or a practice has roots or parallels in ancient false religion does not always rule such out for a true worshipper. Consider the pomegranate. A noted Bible encyclopedia reports: “The pomegranate seems also to have been used as a holy symbol in heathen religions.” Nevertheless, God had pomegranates made of thread put on the hem of the high priest’s garment, and pomegranates decorated the copper pillars of Solomon’s temple. (Exodus 28:33; 2 Kings 25:17) Moreover, the wedding ring at one time had religious significance. Yet, most people today do not know that, considering a wedding ring a mere evidence that someone is married.
What about using wine in connection with religious acts? For instance, at one point Baal-worshipping men of Shechem “went into the house of their god and ate and drank and called down evil upon Abimelech,” Gideon’s son. (Judges 9:22-28) Do you think one loyal to Jehovah would have shared in that drinking, perhaps calling for a divine influence against Abimelech? Describing a time when many in Israel revolted against Jehovah, Amos said: “They stretch themselves out beside every altar; and the wine of those who have been fined they drink at the house of their gods.” (Amos 2:8) Would true worshippers have shared in such, whether the wine was poured out as a libation to the gods or just drunk in that connection? (Jeremiah 7:18) Or would a true worshipper lift up a glass of wine and ask for a divine influence on someone or a blessed future for him?
Interestingly, worshippers of Jehovah at times raised their hands and asked for a good outcome. They lifted their hands to the true God. We read: “Solomon began standing before the altar of Jehovah . . . and he now spread his palms out to the heavens; and he went on to say: ‘O Jehovah the God of Israel, there is no God like you . . . and may you yourself hear at the place of your dwelling, in the heavens, and you must hear and forgive.’” (1 Kings 8:22, 23, 30) Similarly, “Ezra blessed Jehovah . . . at which all the people answered, ‘Amen! Amen!’ with the lifting up of their hands. They then bowed low and prostrated themselves to Jehovah.” (Nehemiah 8:6; 1 Timothy 2:8) Clearly, those loyal ones were not lifting their hands heavenward for a blessing from some god of luck.—Isaiah 65:11.
Many people today who share in toasts may not think that they are requesting response or blessing from some god, but neither can they explain why they lift their wine glasses heavenward. Nevertheless, the fact that they do not think the matter through is no reason for true Christians to feel obliged to imitate their gestures.
It is common knowledge that on other matters also, Jehovah’s Witnesses abstain from making gestures that most people do perform. For instance, many people make gestures toward national emblems, or flags; they do not view such gestures as acts of worship. True Christians do not interfere with such gestures, but they do not personally participate. Knowing when such a ceremony may occur, many Witnesses have acted with discretion so as not to offend others. In any case, they are determined not to make patriotic gestures, which are out of harmony with the Bible. (Exodus 20:4, 5; 1 John 5:21) Toasting today may not be viewed by many as a religious gesture. Still, there are valid reasons why Christians do not share in toasting, which has a religious background and even now can be viewed as asking ‘heaven’ for a blessing, as if seeking aid from a superhuman force.—Exodus 23:2.