By Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, US Israel Rabbi
I come from a family of teetotallers, so my first Purim in Yeshiva came as something of a shock. Visiting my rabbis, at their homes, I was moved and impressed to see how in their tipsy, relaxed state, they taught ever more Torah with respect, dignity and sensitivity. I also have vivid recollections of certain boisterous students, who were not quite as pious as their teachers, and they could not hold their drink. Mopping up after them did little to enhance the spiritual and religious nature of my Purim!
Getting drunk seems foreign to our rigorous, disciplined Jewish lifestyle, but the annual Purim drinking has religious and historical roots. Many commentators point out that the Purim story revolves around wine; it begins with King Ahashverosh’s drinking parties and it ends with Queen Esther inviting the king and his first minister, Haman to a series of cocktail receptions where she ultimately exposed Haman and pleaded for the lives of the Jewish people.
Another explanation for drinking on Purim is that since Haman plotted genocide against us, we respond by feasting and drinking wine to show that we will not be obliterated by any anti-semite (see the writings of the Maharal of Prague, d.1609). While it makes sense for the Jewish people to demonstrate our vitality, is it necessary to get drunk in the process?
The Talmud quotes a rabbi who says that we should drink on Purim until we are unable to tell the differences between the words “cursed be Haman and blessed be Mordechai”. His statement is followed by a curious story. Two rabbis dined together on Purim. During their Purim banquet, they became inebriated and one slew the other. It’s unclear whether he actually killed his friend or knocked him into some sort of a coma. The Talmud tells us that he prayed for mercy and the following day his friend recovered. But when he reissued the invitation the following year, his friend politely declined with the words, “You cannot rely on a miracle every time” (Talmud Megillah 7b).
The story seems to reveal the dangers of drunkenness on Purim. So what is the relationship between it and the preceding statement that we should get drunk on Purim? One commentator, Rabbenu Nissim (d. 1380), suggests that the story directly contradicts and overrules the principle of getting drunk on Purim, ‘for it is not good to act in this way”.
Those who still see merit in drinking on Purim, discuss how drunken one should get. At first glance, the expressions “cursed be Haman and blessed be Mordechai” seem like polar opposites, implying that one would need to be very drunk to confuse them! But the commentators find ways to suggest that actually the two expressions are closer than we think. The most famous of these is a calculation showing that the numerical value of the letters of the two expressions is identical. This would imply that so long as one was mildly tipsy, one has fulfilled the religious obligation of getting drunk on Purim.
Another approach is to eat your Purim meal and drink a moderate amount of wine which will tire you. If you take to your bed and fall asleep, you will no longer be able to tell the difference between “cursed be Haman and blessed be Mordechai”, you will have thereby have fulfilled your obligation (Rambam Laws, of the Megillah 2: 15).
Even if there is a mitzvah to get very drunk on Purim, it does not override all our other religious obligations. If drinking will lead us to drunken, selfish and inappropriate behavior, or to skip performing mitzvot such as saying Grace after Meals or the regular prayer services, then any benefit of drinking will be outweighed by the damage committed in our inebriation. We would be better off staying sober and not hurting or offending others (Chayei Adam 165: 30).
The Talmudic rabbis teach that one way to tell a person’s character is by the way they behave when they drink (Eruvin 65b). For a person who can hold their drink, behave appropriately and reach greater religiosity through drinking on Purim, there may be great value in doing so. The rest of us would do better to follow one of the more lenient rulings, staying safe, sober and sublime on Purim.