Are we really supposed to get drunk on Purim?

The Talmud presents contradictory indications regarding the role of wine at our feasts.

drinking 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
drinking 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Q While I love the costumes and songs of Purim, I don't understand why many people get drunk. Is there any justification for this behavior? - Irv S., Illinois A While Judaism certainly allows alcoholic consumption, and sometimes even mandates it to perform 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, proving the debauchery of this behavior. At the same time, however, the Bible also recalls the festive meals that celebrated the Jews' salvation, and we are subsequently commanded to commemorate those festivities with our own feasts. The Talmud presents contradictory indications regarding the role of wine at our feasts (Megila 7b). At first, the Talmud ordains, "One is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until one does not know the difference between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai." Immediately afterward, however, it tells the story of how the sage Rabba became so drunk that he violently slew his colleague R. Zeira. R. Zeira was ultimately resuscitated, but the following year, he turned down Rabba'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. Many medieval scholars, such as Rabbi Isaac Alfasi and Rabbenu Asher, affirmed the obligation to become intoxicated. They either ignored the story with R. Zeira, or alternatively saw their drunkenness as proving the ordinance. R. Yosef Karo codifies this opinion in the Shulhan Aruch (OC 695:2). A second position, however, modifies the ordinance into a permissible but non-obligatory behavior (mitzva be'alma). Ravyah (1140-1225, Germany), for example, allows a person to abstain from getting drunk. Similarly, R. Yosef ben Moshe (15th century, Germany), in his Leket Yosher, contends that the obligation falls only on someone who will enjoy becoming drunk, but not on someone who feels that it will harm him. A prohibiting position, however, was adopted by R. Zerahya Halevi (12th century, Provence) in his Sefer Hamaor. He approvingly quotes R. Ephraim, who contended that the Talmud's inclusion of the nearly fatal feast of Rabba proves that we ultimately ruled that people should not intoxicate themselves. A particularly harsh condemnation of Purim drunkenness was taken by the Provencal scholar R. Aharon Hakohen of Lunel. In his early 14th-century halachic compendium, Orhot Haim, he forcefully bans intoxication, asserting that it only leads to cardinal sins like murder and illicit relations. True happiness, he contends, stems not from frivolity, but 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 Gemara's criterion to confuse Mordecai and Haman was the maximum allowable level of intoxication. One can drink up to that point, but not beyond. Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Rama, 16th century Poland) 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 of consciousness in which he cannot distinguish between Haman and Mordecai! (OC 695:2). Many modern decisors adopted this moderate position. The two most prominent early 20th century Ashkenazi decisors, R. Yehiel Michel Epstein (Aruch Hashulhan 695:5) and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (MB 695:5), both endorsed Rama's position. Kagan further cites other decisors who noted that intoxication does not justify boorish behavior or a failure to fulfill other mitzvot, including prayers or grace after meals. Therefore, one must be sober enough by the end of the meal to recite Birkat Hamazon and the evening prayers later that night. At the end of his ruling, Rama 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 R. Menahem Hameiri (13th century, Provence), 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 recommend that people not get drunk on Purim. From my perspective, many people are not able to confine themselves to the intentions of the drinking obligation. Even well-intentioned people end up in drunken stupors, vomiting, or acting boorishly. In recent years, moreover, there are growing reports of people endangering themselves and others, especially with drinking outside of the context of the meal. Let us, instead, rejoice in the continued vitality of the Jewish people, and share our happiness with our friends and those less fortunate than us through the other mitzvot of the day like matanot le'evyonim (gifts to the poor). The writer, editor of TraditionOnline.org, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. [email protected]