By David Golinkin, President, Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies
Note: A version of this article originally appeared with the title Just How Drunk Should a Jew Get on Purim? in Insight Israel: The View from Schechter, Jerusalem: 2003, pp. 27-30.
The Jewish people throughout history has always opposed drunkenness. That is the message of the stories of Noah and Lot (Genesis 9 and 19) as well as of the book of Proverbs (23:30-35). According to our Sages, Nadav and Avihu were killed because they were drunk (Leviticus Rabbah 20:9 and parallels), drunkenness leads to forbidden sexual relations (Ketubot 65a and Numbers Rabbah 10:3) and “there is nothing that causes a person greater lamentation than wine” (Sanhedrin 70b).
As a result, it is difficult to fathom the primary Talmudic source related to drinking on Purim (Megillah 7b ):
Rava said: a person must get drunk on Purim until he cannot distinguish between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai.” Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira made a Purim feast together. They got drunk. Rabbah stood up and killed Rabbi Zeira. On the morrow, Rabbah prayed for him and revived him. The following year, Rabbah said to him: “Come, let us celebrate the Purim feast together!” Rabbi Zeira replied: “Miracles don't happen every day!”
Rava's statement begs an explanation. Rabbi David Abudraham (Spain, 14th century) explained that the Sages required drinking on Purim since all of the miracles in the days of Ahashverosh occurred at drinking parties (Sefer Abudraham, pp. 209-210). On the other hand, Rava was a vintner (Berakhot 56a and Bava Metzia 73a) and clearly liked to drink wine (Pesahim 107b). As for the strange story, Rabbi H. Z. Reines suggests that the entire episode is a Purim joke (Hadoar 5737, p. 266)!
Whatever the simple meaning is, it is clear that the poskim (halakhic authorities) throughout the generations felt very uncomfortable with Rava's demand to get drunk on Purim, and therefore each posek tried to circumvent the requirement. Here is a sampling of their rulings:
- Rabbeinu Ephraim (North Africa, 11th century) claimed that the story comes to cancel out Rava's statement and therefore one should not get drunk on Purim.[i]
- Rabbi Alexander Zusslin Hacohen (Germany, 14th century) explained that “ארור המן” “cursed be Haman” equals “ברוך מרדכי” “blessed be Mordechai" in gematria – they both add up to 502! – and it requires less wine to become that intoxicated?[ii]
- Rabbi Yosef Haviva (Spain, 15th century) wrote that one should say funny things so that the beholders will think that one cannot distinguish between “cursed be Haman” and “'blessed be Mordechai.”[iii]
- Maimonides (Egypt, 12th century) rules that “he drinks wine until he gets drunk and falls asleep…”,[iv] and this ruling was adopted by Rabbi Moshe Isserles in the Shulhan Arukh (Poland, 16th century).[v]
- Rabbi Netanel Weil (Germany, 18th century) explained: “ ‘until’ – up to and not including, because otherwise he would reach the drunkenness of Lot.”[vi]
- Rabbi Aaron of Lunel (Provence, 14th century) commented “that he should drink more than his normal custom in order to rejoice greatly and to make the poor rejoice and he shall comfort them ... and that is true joy.”[vii] This is the most original interpretation: that the purpose of drinking on Purim is to help us fulfill the mitzvah of mattanot la'evyonim (alms to the poor) and not simply to get drunk.
- Finally, Rabbi Menahem Hameiri (Provence, 14th century) said: “In any case, we are not commanded to get drunk … for we were not commanded to engage in debauchery and foolishness, but to have heartfelt joy which will lead us to the love of God and to gratitude for the miracles which he performed for us.”[viii]
In recent years, we have witnessed a marked increase in the use of wine and alcohol on Purim. This increase has led, in turn, to an increase in traffic accidents and injuries. These are the ways of Noah, Lot and Ahashverosh – not of the Jewish people throughout its history. The poskim understood this significant difference. That is why they ruled: “heartfelt joy,” yes, “debauchery and foolishness,” no.
May we remember this crucial difference both on Purim and throughout the year.
- Rabbi Daniel Adler, Judaism 40/1 (Winter 1991), pp. 6-15
- Rabbi Aaron Arend, BDD 8 (Winter 5759), pp. 65-75
- Rabbi Sh. H. Kuk, Iyunim Umehkarim, Vol. 2, Jerusalem, 1963, pp. 51-52
- Rabbi H. Z. Reines, Hadoar 56/17 (7 Adar 5737), p. 266
- Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, Hamo'adim Bahalakhah, Tel Aviv, 1960, pp. 203-208
[i] Sefer Ha’eshkol, ed. Auerbach, Part 2, Halberstadt, 1868, p 27.
[ii] Sefer Ha’agudah, Tractate Megillah, Chapter 1, par. 7.
[iii] Nimukey Yosef to Megillah 7b, ed. Blau, New York, 1960, p. 18.
[iv] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Purim 2:15
[v] Rema in Orah Hayim 695:2.
[vi] Korban Netanel to the Rosh to Megillah, Chapter 1, par. 8, note 10.
[vii] Orhot Hayim, Din Se'udat Purim, par. 38.
[viii] Bet Habehira to Megillah 7b.