It has been a millennium since Ethiopians discovered the stimulating effects of chewing the berries of native coffee trees and exported them to Yemen, where Sufi Muslims learned to roast and brew them into a tasty hot beverage. The drink caught on immediately, explains Gil Marks in his Encylopedia of Jewish Food: Not only did it serve as a social substitute for alcohol, which is forbidden in Islam, but it kept the Sufis awake for their evening prayers.
Coffee, often with sugar added to counteract its bitter taste, quickly spread throughout the Ottoman Empire. Religious Jews, like the Muslims, drank it to stay alert for nightly devotions, says Israeli professor of history Elliott Horowitz in his article “Coffee, Coffeehouses, and the Nocturnal Rituals of Early Modern Jewry.” Coffee, says Horowitz “extended the range of possibilities for making use of the night hours, whether for purposes pious or profane.” But at the same time, the new beverage generated debate throughout the Jewish world: Was it kosher? (Yes.) Should it be considered medicine? (No.) What blessing should be said over it? (Shehakol, the generic blessing.)
In the centuries before home coffee machines, most people drank the new beverage in coffeehouses, which first opened in Constantinople around 1550, then in Damascus, Mecca and Cairo. This led to another question: Should Jews drink coffee at non-Jewish establishments? While David ibn Abi Zimra, a Cairo rabbi, ruled in 1553 that Jews could drink coffee prepared by a non-Jew, he warned them against patronizing coffeehouses and told them to have their coffee “delivered home.”