Tuesday, February 19, 2013

To Drink or Not to Drink? On Purim, That Is the Question

Purim is a Jewish holiday commemorating the redemption of the Jewish people from the Persians after Haman's attempt to exterminate the Jewish people: another example of "They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat." One of the more peculiar practices on Purim is that of a festive amount of drinking. In the Talmud (Megillah 7b), Rava opines that it is a mitzvah for a Jew to drink until "he can longer distinguish between 'blessing Mordechai' and 'cursing Haman.'" Certainly at first sight, the Talmud tells us it's a mitzvah to get drunk on Purim. On the other hand, Noah's drunkenness had bad results, not to mention that Proverbs 23:30-35 doesn't present drunkenness positively. If Judaism views drunkenness in a negative light, how can we resolve the mitzvah of drunkenness on Purim with Judaism's condemnation of drunkenness? Can we resolve them?

After researching rabbinic commentary and factoring in Jewish values, these were the following possibilities I derived:
  1. This mitzvah is an exception to the norm. Although drunkenness is normally considered lewd behavior with negative repercussions, this is a day where we throw that notion out the window to the point where we consider it a mitzvah to get drunk (Rambam, Laws of Megillah 2:15; Tur, Orchot Chayim 495). The pivotal events of Purim, whether that would be the downfall of Queen Vashti (Esther 1), Haman's execution (ibid 7:1-10), or Esther's ascent to power (ibid 2:17-18), were all associated with wine, hence the mitzvah (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 7b; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 695:2). What could be the personal significance of drinking on Purim? For some, the mitzvah is a supra-rational moment in which one is in touch with their G-dly self. Others view it as a chance to appreciate the unity of the Jewish people, and thus be able to that express joy and love in that given state. I like the idea that it can crumble our sense of security, and to some degree, self-control. Realizing that we are not in control of nearly as much as we'd like to think helps generate a similar feeling the Jews felt during the Purim story. Anyone can become drunk. To take a mundane act like drunkenness and elevating it to a holy status is a challenge and a joy.
  2. Getting drunk on Purim is in fact not a mitzvah. Drunkenness can lead to terrible things happening. If we finish reading the passage in the Talmud (Megillah 7b), we see that being the case. After the Rava states his opinion, there is a parable of Rabba and Rav Zeira. They both get drunk on Purim. In a drunken stupor, Rabba stabs Rav Zeira with a knife. Rav Zeira is revived back to life due to a miracle. The following year, Rabba invites Rav Zeira to drink with him on Purim, and he refuses. This story would explain why R. Ephraim ibn Avi Alragan (12 c. rabbi) ruled against drinking on Purim; R. Ephraim felt that this parable negated Rava's opinion. Furthermore, in the Mishnah Torah (Hilchot De'ot 5:8), Maimonides states that a drunkard is a despicable sinner because he loses his self-control, his wisdom, and is thus prone to committing acts like that of Rabba. 
  3. Have a bit more than usual. R. Ephraim ibn Avi Alragan read the story literally. Rabbis such as the Maharsha and R' Avraham (son of Maimonides) read the story figuratively and treated the parable as a caveat. This would make sense since it wasn't uncommon for the Talmudic rabbis to use hyperbolic parables to illustrate a point, which in this case would be "don't take your drinking too far or this is what happens." R. Yosef Caro took it to mean "drink a little more than accustomed" (Beit Yosef, Orchot Chayim 495). According to Maimonides (Hilchot Megillah 2:15) and R. Moshe Isserles (Orach Chayim 695:2), one is meant to eat the festive meal and drink enough where the alcohol-induced drowsiness makes one fall asleep. R. Moshe Isserles, or the Rema, points out that the point of falling asleep is when one cannot distinguish between Mordechai and Haman. Hey, I guess passing out beats stabbing someone with a sword! 
  4. You're only meant to get tipsy. Here, I define tipsy that point between being buzzed and being drunk. This is why I like that R. Nathaniel Weil interpreted the word "until" (עד) as "up to [and not including]" drunkenness. The word used for drunkenness in the Talmudic passage, לבסומי, comes from the same root as בשמים (the fragrances used on Havdalah). R. Isaiah Horowitz (Shney Luchot HaBrit) points out that actual drunkenness in the Talmud is referred to as מבוסם, not לבסומי. If one has to have enough to drink to have the "fragrance" of alcohol, this could arguably be under Point #3, but I would contend that it fits better under "being tipsy" because it is the typical minimum under which one would need to drink and have the "fragrance" on them. I think this is a good compromise scenario because if one only reaches tipsy and doesn't go into the territory of being drunk or completely wasted, one can find spiritual joy (per Point #1) while still avoiding the problems in Point #2.
Conclusion: Although there were concerns about being wasted and committing sins while under the influence, the rabbis never got rid of the practice. They limited its indulgence to the point of not reaching excess, which is something we should keep in mind to make sure we don't go overboard. Each individual is different. Some people are alcoholics, in which case, they shouldn't drink on Purim (Chofetz Chaim, Biur Halacha, Orach Chayim 695, Note 1); the same goes for those who know they'd be a danger while drunk. Others have complete control over their drinking and can handle self-control without a problem. Most people fall somewhere in between those two extremes. The wide variety of chemical reactions to alcohol is probably why the rabbis never quantified the amount one had to drink in order to fulfill the mitzvah. That is why I clarify that this blog entry's function is to elucidate upon rabbinic commentary and present possible interpretations to the tradition of drinking on Purim. If you have questions or [personal] concerns regarding this tradition, you should bring them up with your rabbi. Ultimately, the Rema gives a good perspective on this practice. He says that whether we drink more or less than normal, the important thing is that our drinking on Purim is for the sake of Heaven. Regardless of how much you decide to drink, I hope that you find joy on Purim!

2-25-2018 Addendum: This past Shabbat, I went to a shiur (class) on this very topic at my synagogue. Although my conclusion remains the same, I added a few new sources not previously in the initial piece in order to enhance the halachic analysis. 

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