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Drinking on Purim: Holy or Wholly Irresponsible?

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Jewish Tradition has always stressed moderation, restraint, and personal responsibility. This is true even when we celebrate. In Hilchot Yom Tov (6:20), Rambam warns:

“When one eats, drinks and rejoices on a festival, he should not drink too much wine or engage in levity or lightheadedness and say, ‘all who add to this are increasing the mitzvah of simchah.’ For drunkenness, excessive laughter, and lightheadedness is not simchah, but rather debauchery and foolishness…” Yet the Gemara (Megillah 7b) records: “Rava said, ‘One is obligated to get drunk on Purim until he does not know the difference between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai.’” Drinking on Purim is accepted by the Rif and Rosh and codified by the Tur and Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 695).

It’s hard to imagine how drunkenness, which Judaism abhors the entire year, is considered an “obligation” on Purim. The author of Kol Bo struggles with this very question and writes:

“One is obligated to drink on Purim – not to the point of drunkenness. Drunkenness is completely prohibited and there is no greater offense than it, for it leads to adultery, murder, and the like. Rather, one should drink more than he is accustomed to in order to increase his joy and make happy the poor and console them, speak to their hearts – for that is true joy.”

‘Cursed is Haman’ and ‘Blessed is Mordechai’

Concerning drinking on Purim, Rambam writes that one should drink until he falls asleep (Hilchot Megillah 2:15). Once asleep, one cannot differentiate between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai.’ Tosafot writes that one should drink until he cannot recite the phrase, based on the Talmud Yerushalmi, “Cursed is Haman, blessed is Mordechai, cursed is Zeresh, blessed is Esther, cursed are all the wicked, blessed are all the Jews.” Some explain that the requirement is to drink until one can no longer answer the proper refrain to a poem that was once customarily recited on Purim (Abudraham, Purim and Darchei Moshe, Orach Chayim 695:1, citing Sefer HaMinhagim of Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac of Tirna). Others rule that the Gemara only requires one to drink to the point that he can no longer calculate the gemmatria of ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai, which share an equal numerical value (Rabbeinu Yerucham, Toldot Adam V’Chavah, Netiv 10, Chelek 1; Abudraham, Purim; Maharil, Minhagim, Hilchot Purim 10, citing Mahari Segel; Sefer HaAgudah 1:7; Bach, Orach Chayim 695; Magen Avraham, Orach Chayim 695:3).

A moderate approach is taken by Rema (Orach Chayim 695:2), who synthesizes the positions of the Kol Bo, Rambam, and Maharil, and writes:

“There are those who say that one need not drink too much, rather drink more than he is accustomed and sleep. Through sleep one does not know the difference between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai.’ One might increase, another might minimize – as long as the intent of their heart is [for the sake] of Heaven.”

Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira

Strikingly, immediately after Rava’s instructions to drink, the Gemara (Megillah 7b) offers the following anecdote:

“Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira made the Purim feast together. They got drunk. Rabbah arose and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira. The next day, he prayed for mercy and revived him. The following year he [Rabbah] said, ‘let’s make the Purim meal together again.’ He [Rabbi Zeira] answered, ‘not every moment does a miracle occur.’”

Some suggest that the Gemara cites this anecdote in order to illustrate the point that the halacha is not in accordance with Rava, and one should not get drunk. The story, in a sense, serves as a warning. One of the Tosafists, Rabbeinu Ephraim, as cited by the Ba’al HaMaor, concludes:

“Rabbah said, ‘One should drink on Purim, etc.’ Rabbeinu Ephraim wrote that from the account of ‘Rabbah arose and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira,’ this comes to nullify the statement of Rabbah. The halacha is not like him and it is not good to do so [i.e. get drunk] (HaMaor Hakatan in the pages of the Rif, Megillah 3b).”

How ironic, that in his girsa of the Gemara, it is Rabbah who both teaches the obligation to get drunk and who slaughtered Rabbi Zeira! This certainly serves to amplify Rabbeinu Ephraim’s position.

Yet other poskim deduce the opposite from the Gemara’s use of this anecdote. They see the story of Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira as a proof positive of the obligation to become intoxicated (Sefer HaEshkol, Auerbach Edition, Hilchot Chanukah V’Purim; Pri Chadash, Orach Chayim 695:2).

Why Drink?

According to Rashi, the obligation is to get drunk on wine. Abudraham and Chayei Adam explain that drinking wine reminds us that the miracle of Purim was carried out through wine. Feasting and drunkenness is a major theme in Megillat Esther and it allowed the easily pliable Ahashverosh to be manipulated. Drinking allows us to express our joy and gratitude to Hashem for His salvation (Magen David, Orach Chayim 695:1).

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