One of Purim’s (reportedly) most beloved traditions is to drink “until you can’t tell the difference between evil Haman and righteous Mordechai.” Is drunkenness really a Jewish value? What about for those who have issues with drinking (nazirites, and recovering alcoholics, for example)? [Administrators note: A related question about drinking on Purim is found in the JVO database at http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/question.php?id=364]
It should not be surprising that the essence of this question actually also bothered many Torah scholars over the centuries. The famous Chafetz Chaim in his Biur Halacha, Orach Chaim 695, note 1 phrases the problem most succinctly. How could the Sages have created an obligation to drink to this extent knowing full well the many references, in all the holy books, of the great ethical obstacle presented by drunkenness? If anything, the question is even voiced louder today. The media around us is filled with the faults of too much alcohol. The ethical call of abstinence, especially in response to the potential for drunkenness, is actually given merit almost across the political and moral spectrum; both liberals and conservatives seem to agree on the ‘evil’ of too much alcohol. Yet we find the Sages having instructed us not only to drink some alcohol on this day but to drink enough to become drunk. Indeed, how could they have so instructed us?
The first step in responding to this question may lie in the recognition that they did not so instruct all of us. Biur Halacha, note 2 clearly states that one is only commanded to drink if one can ensure that, through this consumption of alcohol, there will be no lessening of halachic, i.e. ethical, standards in one’s behaviour. He further adds that, for one who cannot make this assurance, it is clearly better not to become drunk. It would seem that with such a formulation of the law, the Sages are actually challenging this critique of the law by asserting that the concern behind the critique is inapplicable. This law is questioned because alcohol can have a negative effect on individuals. The answer is that anyone who would be so negatively affected by such drinking is not only exempt from this law but is, furthermore, not even allowed to drink. How can the Sages have instructed individuals to drink given the potential negative effects of such drinking? Because they did not instruct any individual who could experience such negative effects to drink; in fact it is forbidden for such a person to drink. The further answer is that Halacha actually maintains a view of alcohol and drinking that is different than the view that is generally believed.
. Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, Purim in a New Light, speaking of Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, the famed Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin, states that, on Purim “the Rosh Yeshiva himself took his drinking quite seriously, but never revealed the slightest sign of being affected by it.” The issue is the cause-and-effect of alcohol. The general assumption of our modern world is that the relationship between alcohol and behaviour is direct; that the consumption of alcohol will necessarily lead to certain behavioural results. The view of Halacha, it would seem, is somewhat different. Although you could not say this about many or even most, the Halacha believes that there are some, as a result of their righteousness, who, even when drunk, can maintain control, to a large extent, over their behaviour. It is only such individuals who the Halacha is instructing to drink ad d’lo yadah, until they do not know this distinction of cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai. The Halacha would also seem to maintain a further understanding with which our general world may disagree: that some individuals can know whether they can exhibit such control over behaviour even while under the influence of alcohol. It is, as such, that the Halacha can instruct individuals regarding drinking. Those who know that they can control their behavior under the influence of alcohol should attempt to drink to this extent on Purim. Those who cannot, or are not sure if they can, should not so drink. Yet, if those who are commanded to drink are only those who will not be affected by the drinking, why is there this command to drink in the first place?
The answer must be that there is still a recognition within the Halacha that a human being will be affected by alcohol; it is just the person’s behaviour that need not be affected. Our modern society may find such a theory problematic because it believes that the stimulus-behaviour connection in human beings is direct. Stimulate the human being is a certain way and there will be a certain result. Halacha recognizes, however, that there is another factor in this realm of cause-and-effect and that is the human will. It is true, in a human being with limited will power, there may only be a reality of the direct flow of cause-and-effect. The Halacha believes, though, in the ability of human beings to develop their wills so that they can exercise some control over the relationship of cause and effect. This is the challenge of life. It is thus a fundamental concept within Halacha that one can reach a level that, albeit being under the influence of alcohol, one’s will is strong enough to control the cause-and-effect to ensure that even in that state there is no negative behaviour. It is such an individual who is commanded to drink. But still, why?
T.B. Eruvin 65a,b discusses the variant effects of wine on the human being. From the presentation of this gemara, a mixed message about alcohol seems to emerge. In certain ways, alcohol may be beneficial for the human being; in other ways it may not. It would seem that alcohol can affect the feelings of a person which, in turn, can affect behaviour. The effect on feelings can be most beneficial, helping one, for example, in the grieving process. The effect on action, though, can be most detrimental. This is the basic structure of a direct understanding of the cause-and-effect of wine: alcohol affects emotions which affects behaviour. What the Halacha is basically asserting is that human will, if righteously developed, can affect this cause-and-effect yielding that alcohol can affect emotions while still being prevented by the human will from further affecting behaviour negatively. This is the directive of ad d’lo yado. The joy of Purim should be such that it should be magnified through the stimulus of alcohol which can intensify these emotions of joy. The problem is that these emotions stimulated by alcohol can also further lead to uncontrolled negative behaviour which is what happens in the general populace. Indeed that is a problem and, as such, a member of the general populace must be very wary of using alcohol to increase joy. For the person of will, though, who can exercise that control, the call of Purim is to feel the extreme in joy and, as such, to properly use alcohol to further this feeling.
There are many examples of Judaism using wine for sacremental purposes. The most common is to sanctify a holy day with the Kiddush blessing for the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. It is also used to bring sanctity to the Jewish wedding over the blessings of Erusin (betrothal) and Nesu'in (the seven wedding blessings). However in every case that wine (the fruit of the vine) is required, grape juice is always a valid alternative.
The Jewish rabbinic tradition seeks to encourage the moderate use of alcohol, particularly wine, within the frameworks provided by existing commandments which require one to be happy in their fulfillment (Purim, Simchat Torah, etc.). In addition to Shabbat, holidays, and life-cycle events, there are other cases when drinking alcohol is customary. A small amount of vodka or whiskey is a legitimate preparation for celebrating a l'chayim, celebrating a siyyum (completion) of Torah or Talmud study, toasting the Sabbath day in a kiddush club, listening to the teachings of the rabbi (vort) and groom (chatan's tisch), and marking a significant achievement or life-cycle event.
The Jewish tradition also explains that one who is drunk or is known to have problems with alcohol (an alcoholic) is not an acceptable witness, cannot be a judge, or lead the community in prayer. Even a small amount of alcohol invalidates one from teaching Torah. In Bereshit Rabbah it says, "Wine has two characteristics, one opposite the other. A little is good and a lot is hard. Wine will make a person‚s heart happy. A little wine opens the heart to Torah and too much leads to sin and idolatry."
Rabbi David Golinkin, a Conservative rabbi in Israel addresses drunkeness on Purim in a teshuvah (legal response):
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 R. Zeira made a Purim feast together. They got drunk. Rabbah stood up and killed R. 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!’ R. Zeira replied: ‘Miracles don't happen every day!’"
Rava's statement begs an explanation. R. David Abudraham 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.
For those who choose to imbibe on Purim, it is advisable that they do so in moderation. Becoming drunk in the synagogue can lead to embarassment, as well as others losing respect for you. It is the responsibility of the community to ensure that alcohol consumption on Purim (or any other day of the year) is done responsibly. Just as there is a desginated driver program in place at bars, clubs, and sporting events, the same program should be implemented in synagogues.
Additionally, those who suffer from alcoholism should avoid any amount of alcohol on Purim as Pikuach Nefesh (saving one's soul) is more important than drinking alcohol on the holiday. The bottom line is that drunkeness is not a Jewish value. It adds to the joy of celebrations like Purim, but it must be handled responsibly.
Rabbi Jason Miller is a blogger, educator, kosher supervisor, and tech expert. He is an alumnus of Clal's Rabbis Without Borders program and the STAR Foundation's PEER fellowship. He blogs at Blog.RabbiJason.comand tweets at @rabbijason. He is president of Access Computer Technology, an IT and social media company in Michigan. He won a Jewish Influencer Award during Social Media Week in NY in 2012.
This persistent teaching about Purim needs to be understood in its broadest terms and not taken at face value. Drunkenness is not a Jewish value under any circumstances, though we do look positively on the use wine and alcohol in moderation and in appropriate settings. If the use of alcohol poses any danger, then the health and welfare of the individual always takes precedence. Someone who knows or suspects themselves to be alcoholic, or someone who is diabetic or has other medical conditions that would preclude the use of alcohol, should not take wine for kiddush, for the Passover seder or for Purim, opting for juice or water instead. Similarly, one should never try to force a person to take alcohol at any event.
What is the source of this tradition of drinking on Purim?
The Megillah describes the celebration of this day as a “time of feasting and joy” (simcha u'mishteh). One Talmudic sage, Rava, defines the threshold of our feasting as getting drunk beyond the point that one can distinguish between “cursed by Haman” and blessed be Mordecai.” The Talmud, however, immediately presents a horrifying story intended to balance (perhaps even dismiss) Rava's teaching. The story tells of Rabbah and R.Zeira getting so drunk that Rabbah beheads R. Zeira. When he returns to his senses Rabbah prays so intently that R. Zeira is revived, but that is enough for R. Zeira who declines the invitation to spend Purim with Rabbah the following year. The notion that one should get drunk beyond understanding is simply an opportunistic mis-reading of the tradition.
Rava's teaching has been interpreted in a variety of ways by different authorities. Maimonides significantly limits this teaching: “How does one fulfill the obligation of the Purim Seudah? One should eat meat and prepare as nice a meal as one can afford and drink wine until one becomes drunk and falls asleep from drunkenness.” (Laws of Megillah 2:15) In 2010 Rabbi Abraham Twerski wrote an article, found on the OU site, declaring that “drunk on Purim is not a mitzvah.” http://www.ou.org/shabbat_shalom/article/abraham_twerski_purim_letter/
Psalm 104 praises God for the nourishing wonders of the natural world, including wine: “Wine that cheers the human heart.” We use wine to mark sacred times and transitions. The presence of wine or other alcohol should not be confused with an endorsement of unbridled abuse. While Judaism is not an abstinent tradition, the value rests in the occasion – kiddush, the Passover seder, the wedding blessings – not in the wine itself. If someone abstains for personal or medical reasons, they may fulfill the obligation with grape juice instead.
In the Jewish community, as in the world at large, alcohol abuse is a serious problem. In recent years synagogues of all movements have developed Recovery teams to help support individuals in recovery and to let them know they have a spiritual home within the synagogue. Communities have also scheduled a Recovery Shabbat, often held near the holidays of Purim or Passover.
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