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What does “Don’t mix drinks!” mean? When I was a 17-year old yeshiva student studying in Israel, I was first exposed to the custom of drinking alcohol on Purim. I was wisely given this advice so that I wouldn’t become sick. Unfortunately, I naively assumed that this meant mixing drinks in a glass, not in my stomach. I don’t remember much from that night, except that I woke up at 3 AM on the floor of a home that I couldn’t recognize, and then again at 7 AM having to sheepishly apologize for vomiting on the walls before passing out. (Many years later, I later discovered that my-then fiancée was a former student of the homeowner. #Awkward).

While Judaism certainly allows for alcohol consumption, and sometimes even mandates it in the performance of rituals like the Shabbat kiddush, it condemns drunkenness as irresponsible and dangerous. In fact, much of the Book of Esther revolves around frivolous and licentious feasts, highlighting the debauchery to which this behavior leads. At the same time, however, the Bible also recalls the festive meals that were made to celebrate the Jews’ salvation, and we are subsequently commanded to commemorate those festivities through our own Purim feasts.

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The Talmud presents contradictory indications regarding the role of wine at our Purim meal (Megilla 7b). At first, the Talmud states, “One is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until one does not know the difference between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai.” Immediately afterwards, however, it tells the story of how the sage Rabbah became so drunk that he violently slew his colleague Rav Zeira. The latter was ultimately revived, but the following year, he turned down Rabbah’s invitation to feast with him again, exclaiming “Miracles don’t always happen!”

Talmudic commentators debated how to resolve the proposed drinking obligation with the violent story afterwards. Many medieval scholars, such as Rabbi Isaac Alfasi and Rabbenu Asher, affirmed the obligation to become intoxicated. They either ignored the story about Rav Zeira, or alternatively saw their drunkenness as supporting the ordinance. Rabbi Yosef Karo codified this opinion in his Shulchan Aruch (OC 695:2).

A second position, however, modifies the statement to imply permission but not obligatory behavior (mitzvah be-alma). Rabbi Eliezer Halevi (Ra’vyah) for example, allowed a person to abstain from getting drunk. Similarly, Rabbi Yosef ben Moshe contended that the obligation only falls one someone who will enjoy becoming drunk, but not on someone who feels that it will harm him (Leket Yosher).

Rabbi Zerachyah Halevi, however, prohibited becoming drunk on Purim. He approvingly quotes Rav Ephraim, who contended that the Talmud’s inclusion of the nearly fatal feast of Rabbah proves that it was ultimately ruled that people should not intoxicate themselves (Ba’al Ha-Meor 3b). A particularly harsh condemnation of Purim drunkenness was taken by the 14th century Provencal scholar Rabbi Aharon Ha-Kohen of Lunel. He forcefully banned intoxication, asserting that it only leads to cardinal sins such as murder and illicit relations (Orchot Chaim, Purim 38). True happiness, he contended, stems not from frivolity, but rather from rejoicing with one’s friends and sharing with the less fortunate.

A number of scholars took a compromise position that limited the required level of intoxication. Many of them contended that the Talmud’s criterion to confuse Mordechai and Haman was the upper limit of intoxication. One can drink up to that point, but not beyond. Rabbi Moshe Isserles cited a novel interpretation, ruling that one must only drink a little more than usual. He should then take a nap, thereby putting himself in a state where he cannot distinguish between Haman and Mordechai! (OC 695:2).

Many modern decisors adopted this moderate position. The two most prominent early 20th century Ashekanzic decisors, Rabbis Yehiel Michel Epstein (AH OC 695:5) and Yisrael Meir Kagan (MB 695:5), both endorsed Rabbi Isserles’ position. Rabbi Kagan further cites other decisors who noted that intoxication does not justify boorish behavior or failing to fulfill other mitzvot, including prayers or saying the grace after meals. Therefore, one must be sober enough by the end of the meal to recite Birkat Ha-Mazon and the evening prayers later that night.

At the end of his ruling, Rabbi Isserles cited the Talmudic dictum that “One can do more or less, as long as their intentions are to serve God.” These remarks echo the sentiments of many writers, including Rabbi Menachem Ha-Meiri, who wrote, “We are not obligated to become inebriated and degrade ourselves…[or] to engage in a celebration of frivolity and foolishness, but rather to engage in a joyful celebration which should lead to love of God and thankfulness for the miracles He has performed for us.”

I strongly urge people not to get drunk on Purim. From my perspective, many people are not able to maintain pious objectives. Even well-intentioned people end up in drunken stupors, vomiting, or acting boorishly. In recent years, moreover, there have been growing reports of people endangering themselves and others, especially with drinking outside of the context of the meal, which has minimal halakhic support. Some, moreover, consume hard drinks or liquor to get drunk, even as many halakhic sources that support drinking speak of less-intoxicating wine. Instead of focusing on the booze, just drink a glass or two, and dedicate yourself to celebrating the continued vitality of the Jewish people by sharing our happiness with friends and those less fortunate than us through matanot le-evyonim (gifts to the poor).

 

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Rabbi Shlomo M. Brody teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel, directs the Tikvah Overseas Seminars, and is a columnist.  He is also a presidential graduate fellow at Bar Ilan University Law School and a junior scholar at the Israel Democracy Institute.  Author of "A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates" (Maggid Books), winner of a 2014 National Jewish Book Award.
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