Drinking on Purim???

The behavior in the first chapter of Megillat Esther is repulsive.  A hundred and eighty day long drinking party, concluded by a seven day wine-fest finale, the flaunting of wealth and honor, license for reckless behavior כרצון איש ואיש and Queen Vashti being forced to appear naked in front of the King are a few of the explicit examples of the nauseating activity and conduct that was playing out in Shushan.  Chaza”l elaborate further and add much more to the denigrated picture.  Whether Jews were there or not, and we know by the nature of these parties that they were definitely there, is not the point.  These parties were sickening and reflect how low humanity can fall.

After we internalize the above, it should be shocking to us that the way we celebrate our salvation is through parties and a Mishteh, a wine feast.  If given the choice to create the nature of the holiday of Purim, many would react to the despicable drinking, partying and sensuality by demonstrating the “Jewish” way of elevated living.  We might spend the holiday in somber prayer or deep study, reflecting Yirat Shamayim.  We might designate the day for calm, quality time with family and loved ones, showing our commitment as a response to the reckless and ill-committed.

But how in the world do the Jews react to their victory by having a Mishteh – drinking party, then Mordichai decrees that these days be days of drinking festivals and joy “for year after year”, then the Gemara on Megilla 7b tells us the obligation on Purim is to become drunk until you don’t know the difference between Haman and Mordichai, then the Shulchan Aruch quotes this to be the halacha? Where is “the Jewish reaction?”  Why does it seem that not only did we not react to the disgusting behavior in Shushan by doing the opposite, we add insult to injury by coding a halacha, and this is what a majority of Rishonim (Ri”f, Ramba”m) maintain, that getting drunk at a Purim Seuda is obligatory?  Meaning, King Achashverosh only attained the place of “כטוב לב המלך ביין” “When the heart of the king was merry with wine.”  For us Jews, that’s not good enough, we have to literally get drunk at our Mishteh until we completely lose touch with reality!

While it is true that some great Rabbis throughout the ages down play or eliminate drinking on Purim (and one can certainly do as they instruct, in practice), the tone in the Megilla and the opinion of the majority, as expressed in the Gemara and the Shulchan Aruch, must be reconciled or explained.

I am embarrassed to admit, that from my own rational perspective, I have no good answer.

Please help me with my quandary.  All comments answer will be accepted B’simcha.

Comments:

I think the Rabbis offer us a challenge. We can have a party, a wonderful Suda, do lots of drinking and come close to total inebriation as long as we retain Kedusha towards others, family friends, women and above all Hashem. If we cross that line and lose Kedusha and fall into inappropriate behavior we are not any better than our enemies. That is the challenge our Rabbis throw at us.

This once a year challenge is mirrored by the rest of the year when we do not drink to excess but still have the challenge without the alcohol of leading our lives with Kedusha in the ways of our Creator. This includes speech, dress, appropriate action toward others, acting kindly and being in all ways role models of kind, sensitive people. I believe many of us fail with or without the alcohol and that is what the Rabbis want us to understand and to work toward changing.
Prof. Michael Miller, Jerusalem

This is my understanding of the topic:
The Gemara says as follows:
אמר רבא: מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי
Everyone knows that line; it’s probably the best followed Halachah in Judaism. What everyone forgets, though, is the story that follows; how Rabbah and R’ Zeira were having a Seudas Purim together, had some wine, and Rabbah slit R’ Zeira’s throat, nearly killing him.
That, and nobody looks at the first Tosfos on that Daf, which completes the phrase (as found in its full form in Yerushalmi):
עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי ארורה זרש ברוכה אסתר ארורים כל הרשעים ברוכים כל היהודים
If that’s the actual phrase, it makes a lot more sense. In a way it’s like the “walk in a straight line” test. After a few drinks, most people won’t be able to walk in a straight line, just like most people probably won’t be able to say that phrase properly. Many of us can’t say that phrase BEFORE we start drinking, and therefore are ALREADY at the place of “Ad DeLo Yada”, even before taking a sip of wine! Now, the Rosh says that one should drink a little bit more than he’s used to and fall asleep, and some Mephorshim say that one need only forget how to do the math of the Gematria of ארור המן and ברוך מרדכי. Others seem to say that one should actually drink himself to the place of “Ad DeLo Yada”, and the Rambam even goes as far as to say that if someone damages someone else’s property while under the influence on Purim, he need not reimburse him.
That Rambam is the most extreme position I’m aware of, but I understand it as follows:
Nobody says you have to get plastered, and nobody says we should drink “כרצון איש ואיש”, or even “כטוב לב”. It’s all until one doesn’t KNOW the line;  ארור המן לברוך מרדכי ארורה זרש ברוכה אסתר ארורים כל הרשעים ברוכים כל היהודים. It’s a very concrete point, and not subjective in any way. It seems to be a much more “controlled” inebriation than that of Achashveirosh’s 180+7 day party.
Every person is different. Some people will need two cups to forget the line, some people will need a bottle, some don’t even know it before they start drinking. It seems to me that those who are more aware, and did more work to prepare themselves mentally and spiritually for Purim will take longer to forget the line. It’s specifically THOSE people; who are spiritually prepared for Purim, who SHOULD drink more. If someone doesn’t care about Purim and just wants to get drunk, he won’t know the line to begin with, and therefore SHOULDN’T EVEN BEGIN DRINKING.
I end with one final point:
The Siman in Shulchan Aruch that brings down this Gemara is Orach Chaim 695. Every Jew should be as Machmir about Siman 695 as he is with the 694 which precede it.
Have a great Shabbas and a freilichin’ Purim!!
Avi Hoffman, Old City of Jerusalem

I enjoy your weekly Dvar Torah as always. I don’t know if I ever thought about it before, but when I saw your question, an answer came to my mind – maybe we have to be put in a similar situation in order to do complete Teshuvah. Just like Yosef had to put his brothers through everything so they could do complete Teshuvah, so too maybe we must have a proper se’udah with mishteh and connect it to Hashem and Torah and Purim in order to do Teshuvah for the attendance and participation at the inappropriate se’udah back then. I’m looking forward to seeing your answer next week.
Shavua Tov and Freylichen Purim!
Yechiel Jonathan Jonny Stein, Efrat

Yes indeed, we find this issue to be a paradox, a contradiction to Jewish tradition in general. The Jewish people throughout history has always opposed drunkenness. Our grandparents knew that shikker is ah goy–Jews don’t get drunk. That is the message of the stories of Noah and Lot (Genesis 9 and 19) as well as of the book of Proverbs (23:30-35). According to our Sages, Nadav and Avihu were killed because they were drunk (Leviticus Rabbah 20:9 and parallels), drunkenness leads to forbidden sexual relations (Ketubos 65a and Numbers Rabbah 10:3) and “there is nothing that causes a person greater lamentation than wine” (Sanhedrin 70b).
As a result, it is difficult to fathom the primary Talmudic source (Megillah 7b) related to drinking on Purim, ‘MeiChayav Inish Livesumei B’Puraya ad d’lo yada bein Arur Haman L’Boruch Mordechai’ – “Rava said: a person must get drunk on Purim until he cannot distinguish between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai’. The Gemarah also brings the story of Rabbah and R. Zeira who made a Purim feast together. They got drunk. Rabbah stood up and slaughtered (Shechitah) R. Zeira. On the morrow, Rabbah prayed for him and revived him. The following year, Rabbah said to him: ‘Come, let us celebrate the Purim feast together!’ R. Zeira replied: ‘Miracles don’t happen every day!’ “
 
Why would our Sages instruct us to get drunk, when the Torah and Prophets clearly object to the associated lack of control? Have we understood the above Gemara correctly? What is the significance of being unable to distinguish ‘cursed is Haman’ from ‘blessed is Mordechai’? How could Rabbah make such a blunder? What is the Gemara’s intended conclusion?
Rava’s statement begs an explanation. R. David Abudraham explained that the Sages required drinking on Purim since all of the miracles in the days of Achashverosh occurred at drinking parties (Sefer Abudraham, pp. 209-210). On the other hand, Rava was a vintner (Berachos 56a and Bava Metzia 73a) and clearly liked to drink wine (Pesachim 107b).

Whatever the simple meaning is, it is clear that the poskim (halakhic authorities) throughout the generations felt very uncomfortable with Rava’s demand to get drunk on Purim, and therefore each posek tried to circumvent the requirement. Here is a sampling of their rulings:

  • R. Ephraim (North Africa, 11th cent.) claimed that the story comes to cancel out Rava’s statement and therefore one should not get drunk on Purim.
  • R. Alexander Zusslin Hacohen (Germany, 14th cent.) explained that “cursed be Haman” equals “blessed be Mordechai” in gematria – they both add up to 502! – and it requires less wine to become that intoxicated.
  • R. Yosef Haviva (Spain, 15th cent.) wrote that one should say funny things so that the beholders will think that one cannot distinguish between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai”.
  • Maimonides (Egypt, 12th cent.) rules that “he drinks wine until he gets drunk and falls asleep…”, and this ruling was adopted by Rabbi Moshe Isserles in the Shulchan Aruch (Poland, 16th cent.).
  • R. Natanel Weil (Germany, 18th cent.) explained: ” ‘until’ – up to and not including, because otherwise he would reach the drunkenness of Lot”.
  • R. Aaron of Lunel (Provence, 14th cent.) commented “that he should drink more than his normal custom in order to rejoice greatly and to make the poor rejoice and he shall comfort them…and that is true joy.” This is the most original interpretation: that the purpose of drinking on Purim is to help us fulfill the mitzvah of mattanot la’evyonim (alms to the poor) and not simply to get drunk.
  • R. Menachem Hameiri (Provence, 14th cent.) said: “In any case, we are not commanded to get drunk …for we were not commanded to engage in debauchery and foolishness but to have heartfelt joy which will lead us to the love of G’d and to gratitude for the miracles which he performed for us”.
  • Finally, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l (Halichos Shlomo (Moadim vol. 1, Ch.19: end footnote 77) decried the leitzonus andzilzul that unfortunately has replaced Simcha shel Mitzva and become the norm among many, due to extreme intoxication. And, more recently, Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky (Vos is Neias? February 12, 2010) has publicly stated that “it is an Aveira to get drunk on Purim”.
In recent years, we have witnessed a marked increase in the use of wine, alcohol and drugs by Israeli youth due to the dual influence of Western and Russian cultures. This increase has led, in turn, to an increase in traffic accidents and injuries. These are the ways of Noah, Lot and Achashverosh, not of the Jewish people throughout its history. 
 
Referring back Rabbah and R. Zeira, we must then surely conclude that the Gemara’s story about the two Amoraim comes to tell us to celebrate Purim with “heartfelt joy” but not with “debauchery and foolishness – that drunkenness may lead to anyone (no matter how great) losing control and stooping to the level of an animal (concerning the term “Shechitah” is normally employed) and thus not to take Rava’s statement literally.
Rav Meir Marcusohn, Yishuv Adam

I really like the question… can I offer my take? It says you get to know a person 3 ways bkiso, bkoso, ovkaaso. How you spend money, how you behave while drunk, and how you behave when angry. So we see how the persians behaved while drunk. Now we turn that to kedusha and hopefully show them how our true kedusha comes out when we get drunk. We share a beautiful meal with family friends dance and share torah and give gifts to friends… Good purim May we merit to bring out the best in each other this purim. and correct me if my chazal quote was off… that’s what I remember from beit yakov days…

Sarah Adelle Spodek, Yishuv Adam

In response to a question you asked earlier – about the principle that we drink until we cannot tell the difference between Mordechai the Good and Haman the Bad, I have a few thoughts. The explanations that I found the most satisfying are related. One is that we drink until we realize that even bad things are part of the plan of a loving G-d. The second one is a recognition that, compared to G-d’s perfection, the differences among human beings (saints to evil) are minor in degree. My son, Elliot tells a story of two men who decide to have a contest to see who is the most wealthy. They find that they have the exact same amount of cash in the bank. They value their homes and investments, and come out to the penny identical. They then value furniture, then clothing, etc. etc. Identical. They look in their wallets, and have the exact same amount of cash. Finally they empty their pockets. Each has a matchbook. One has 14 matches in it, and the other 13. Compared to G-d, that is the difference between the greatest and least human.

My local rabbi, Rabbi Vogel, observed that President Obama doesn’t need to drink on Purim. He already doesn’t see the difference between good and evil.   Mr. David Margules

 

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