What Is Drinking on Purim All About?

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LEON SAKKAL

With the festive holiday of Purim right around the corner, we are confronted with a topic that never ceases to confuse us. It is the seven-word declaration issued by the holy rabbi, Rava, in the Gemara[1]: “Hayav inish libesumei bepuraya ad delo yada – “One is obligated to drink on the Festival of Purim until he does not know [the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai’].” This declaration has us scratching our heads every year, as we are never quite able to understand this extraordinary obligation. Understanding the topic, from the perspective of either halachah (Jewish law) or hashkafah (Jewish thought) is no easy task.

 

A Touchy Subject

If you can’t seem to grasp the notion underlying this seemingly peculiar halachah, don’t worry – you are not alone. Anyone familiar with the matter from a halachic standpoint know even sages who lived in the era of the Rishonim[2] were bewildered by this statement. It is a matter that great rabbis have grappled with for many hundreds of years.

While the Rif[3], the Rosh[4],and the Tur[5] seem to require one to drink to the point of intoxication, the Orhot Haim[6] maintains that it is forbidden to get drunk. In his view, as well as that of the Yad Efrayim, the mitzvah requires one to drink just slightly more than he is accustomed to. The Bach disputes this ruling, stating that one should drink considerably more than he is accustomed to. Other authorities, such as the Rambam[7] and Mahariv[8], instruct us to drink “ad sheyishtaker – until one reaches intoxication,” and then sleep. One will then not know the difference between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai,” as Rava requires. This view was later accepted by the Rema[9] and, ultimately, the Mishnah Berurah.

In case you’re not already confused, take a look at the comments of the Gra (Vilna Gaon), who presents a much different view. Indeed, the broad range of opinions is enough to keep a Torah scholar busy for days on end!

 

Should We Encourage Excessive Drinking?

Since the miracle of Purim took place through the parties arranged by Queen Esther, which consisted of eating and drinking, our sages instituted that we should drink “yoter mehergelo” – more wine than we are normally accustomed to drinking. Their intention, among others, is to establish a zecher (reminder) of the profound miracle Hashem performed for his people.[10]

However, while the incorporation of wine for this reason is understandable, the question remains, is it not uncharacteristic of Hazal to require us to drink “ad sheyistaker” – to the point of inebriation? Jews are, and always have been, a people of awareness and intellect. The mere concept of excessive drinking is frowned upon by our communities across the globe, and this has always been so. Where does wine fit into the moral, disciplined lifestyle that we are directed to lead?

 

Wine in Judaism

Both the Talmud and Scripture speak of the benefits of wine consumption. Wine is described as “bringing joy to Gd and man,”[11] and we find in the Talmud dictums like “Ein simhah ela bebasar veyayin – There is no joy without meat and wine.”[12] These passages certainly seem to approve of the consumption of wine. Moreover, numerous mitzvot are accompanied by a cup of wine. We use wine for kiddush and havdallah on Shabbat and holidays, and we similarly recite berachot over cups of wine beneath the wedding canopy, at a berit mila, and at a pidyon haben. And let’s not forget the four cups of wine we drink at the Passover seder.

On the other hand, we find several indications that intoxication is clearly discouraged by Torah tradition. Noah, whose righteousness caused Hashem to spare the human race, was shamed by the consumption of wine. Aharon’s two holy sons, Nadav and Avihu, entered the Mishkan while intoxicated and were consumed by a heavenly fire. Similarly, the Torah extols the virtue, courage, and holiness of a nazir who vows to abstain from wine.

What, then, is the Torah’s outlook on wine? Is it a holy beverage with immense powers, reserved for holy and special occasions? Or is it a destructive agent with the power to bring down mighty people – a substance to be avoided at all costs?

The answer, interestingly enough, is that it is both!

 

Revealing the Depths of the Human Soul

The gemara[13] teaches, “Nichnas yayin yatza sod – When wine enters, secrets come out.” When one becomes inebriated, his spiritual depth is revealed.

Suppose that someone with an awful character; who has no intention of climbing the ladder of spirituality, chooses to join in the Purim fun. He drinks cup after cup, not wasting a moment’s time to seize this once-a-year opportunity. Don’t be surprised to find this individual’s vile demeanor amplified tenfold; for when wine comes in, the true essence of its consumer comes out. Wine relaxes our inhibitions and weakens the mind’s natural defenses, allowing the nefesh, the seat of all our emotions, personality, and identity, to shine through.

It is therefore no secret why so many hachamim and tzadikim are able to attain lofty spiritual heights during the Purim feast. While intoxication may magnify a nasty character in some, it can bring out peace, contentment, brotherhood, and love of Gd in those who truly seek to draw spiritual elevation from the day.

Hence, when utilized properly, wine offers great benefits. However, if wine is misused or abused, it presents grave dangers. How we make use of itis entirely up to us.

 

Defining the Mitzvah

Turning our attention to the obligation to drink on Purim, let us address four simple questions:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • When?
  • Why?

Who?

Gd’s Hand rescued Jewish men and women from Haman’s wicked decree, and thus both men and women are obligated to partake in the mitzvah of seudat Purim (the Purim feast). However, women should drink just a little wine, and certainly not become intoxicated.[14]

If one’s parents warn him not to drink excessively on Purim, in line with the halachic prohibition against excessive drinking, he should certainly obey their wishes and drink only a little more than usual.[15]

What?

Most early authorities[16] specify that the mitzvah requires drinking wine, and not other intoxicating drinks.  There is, however, a minority view that seems to suggest that one does not have to drink wine specifically.

Grape juice does not suffice for fulfilling this mitzvah.

When?

Many Ashkenazim have the custom to eat the Purim meal in the afternoon, after praying Minhah, whereas many Sephardic communities eat the meal in the morning. Someone who is being hosted for the Purim meal should follow the host’s custom, and  enjoy a breakfast or lunch of meat and wine. One does not fulfill the mitzvah by drinking wine on Purim night.

Why?

As mentioned above, the seudah we eat on Purim serves to commemorate the miracle Gd performed for the Jewish People.

Furthermore, from a kabbalistic standpoint, by drinking, we weaken the mind’s normal resistances, thus making us freer to feel the Oneness of Gd and of the universe. It is often hard to see the good within the many hardships we face in life, but when we “let our guard down,” and allow our spirituality shine through, we can more clearly recognize that although times may be tough, it is indeed all for the best. We recall that there is a beneficent Gd behind everything, manipulating events solely for our good. In our period of hester panim, a time in history when Gd’s face is more “hidden” than ever, the Purim miracle reminds us of how He has continually helped us throughout every stage of our lives.

 

The Holiest Day in the Jewish Calendar

It is important to remember the teaching of our rabbis: “Ivdu et Hashem besimhah vegilu bir’adah – Serve Gd with joy, and celebrate with trembling.”[17] The tremendous amount of joy we feel on Purim must be conducted with a degree of awe and reverence toward Hashem. As our sages comment regarding this verse, “Where there is joy – there must be trembling.”

The Arizal states that Purim is the holiest day of the year; a day that is even holier than Yom Kippur. It is therefore important to note that one who feels his alcohol intake may bring him to act in a repugnant or foolish manner – especially if his drinking might lead him to cause harm to others – should certainly avoid wine on the holiday, not to mention throughout the rest of the year.

Purim Sameah!