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All excess is ill, but drunkenness is of the worst sort. It spoils health, dismounts the mind, and unmans men. It reveals secrets, is quarrelsome, lascivious, impudent, dangerous and bad. -William Penn
Two sons of Aaron the High Priest, Nadav and Avihu, die in a consecration ritual gone awry. They offer unauthorized fire in the Tabernacle and are instantly killed by a fire sent by God. Immediately after this horrific scene of death the Torah commands Aaron and his remaining sons to refrain from drinking wine or strong drink while serving in the Tabernacle, lest they die. Many commentators point at this command as the unspoken reason why Nadav and Avihu were killed. They had entered the Tabernacle drunk.
Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 10:9 (Shmini) expands on the dangers of alcohol. The first danger that directly affects the priestly service is that drunkenness prevents a person from distinguishing between what is holy and what is mundane. A drunk cannot differentiate between the sacred and the profane – a vital skill in any holy work.
Additionally, he states three other outcomes of drinking too much alcohol that are alluded to in the verse: drowsiness, arrogance and confusion. Alcohol causes “warm and humid vapors” to rise to the brain, causing sleep, which one is expressly forbidden to do in the Tabernacle.
Alcohol also “heats the forces of the heart,” leading to an inflated ego, namely arrogance, erasing any distinction between holy and mundane, making everything equal in his eyes, including the pure and the defiled.
Finally, the “vapors” that rise to the brain create a division between the brain and the other forces of the body, creating confusion and literally “mixing up of the brain.”
Rabbeinu Bechaye ends his discussion of the dangers of drinking by quoting King Solomon’s Proverbs that a drinker’s end is like a snake’s bite. The snake from the Garden of Eden was an enticer, who led humanity to death. It is the same with alcohol. It is seductive, but it is a poison that if mishandled can ultimately lead to ruin and death.
May we always drink responsibly and if we can’t, avoid it altogether.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!
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Ben-Tzion Spitz is a former Chief Rabbi of Uruguay and current candidate for Knesset with the Zehut party. He is the author of ten books on biblical themes and over 700 articles and stories dealing with biblical and rabbinic themes at his blog ben-tzion.com. Ben-Tzion is a graduate of Yeshiva University and received his Master’s in Mechanical Engineering from Columbia University.