Purim: To Drink or Not To Drink?
Can you feel Purim just around the corner? Who isn’t eagerly anticipating this annual Yom Tov extravaganza, featuring joyous dancing, Mishloach Manot, colorful costumes, and of course the Megillah reading? However, for many, it is the unique mitzvah to get drunk that they are eagerly awaiting. Since Purim is described in the Megillah as “a day of Mishteh” (referring to a wine feast), and the Purim turnabout miracle occurred at wine feasts, there is a rare dispensation from the norm, such that there is an apparent obligation to drink wine. Hopefully, the wine will enable one to experience a sublime, spiritual Purim. Yet, uninhibited drinking may also unfortunately result in catastrophic consequences. If so, what exactly is the mitzvah of drinking on Purim?
“Chayav Inish Livesumei”
The gemara in Megillah (7b) famously rules that “M’chayav inish l’visumei b’Puriya ad d’lo yada bein arur Haman l’baruch Mordechai” — a person is obligated to drink and get intoxicated on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between “Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai.” The simple meaning of this is that we must get exceedingly drunk on Purim.
Yet, as we will soon see, this assertion is anything but simple.
The very next line in the gemara tells a fascinating story of Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira, who got excessively drunk together on Purim. In his drunken stupor, Rabba proceeded to kill (‘slaughter’) Rabbi Zeira. When he sobered up and realized what he had done, he davened that Rabbi Zeira would be brought back to life. His prayers were answered, and Rabbi Zeira rejoined the world of the living. The very next year, Rabbi Zeira refused to join Rabbah for his Purim meal, duly noting that a miracle is not a common occurrence and one may not rely on a miracle.
Although there are different interpretations of this story, with several commentaries explaining that it is not to be understood literally, positing that Rabbah did not actually kill Rabbi Zeira, nevertheless, many commentaries are bothered by the gemara’s choice of words. If the ruling is that one must get drunk on Purim, then why is this story showcasing the potential drastic and tragic consequences of such drinking? What message is the gemara trying to impart to us? Additionally, what exactly does it mean that one must drink until “ad d’lo yada bein arur Haman l’baruch Mordechai”? What does this enigmatic turn of phrase actually mean?
“Ad D’lo Yada”
As with many other issues in halacha, the answers to these questions are not as simple as they seem. Several authorities, including the Rif and the Tur, when codifying this mitzvah, indeed use the basic understanding of the gemara’s ruling, that one is required to get so drunk on Purim that he cannot tell the difference between “Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai” — implying getting quite drunk.
Yet, the ruling of Rabbeinu Efraim, as cited by the Ran and the Ba’al HaMa’or, is the exact opposite. He maintains that since the gemara tells the story of Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira after the ruling of getting drunk, it is not meant exclusively as a cautionary tale detailing the evils of excessive alcohol. Rather, it is coming to negate the ruling. According to this understanding, it is forbidden to get drunk on Purim.
“V’lo Ad B’Chlal”
A different explanation of the gemara is that drinking “ad d’lo yada bein arur Haman l’baruch Mordechai” does not actually mean getting stone-cold drunk. In fact, most commentaries offer many different understandings of the gemara’s intent with this phrase.
Some say it means drinking until one can no longer perform the mental acrobatics necessary to calculate the gematrias of Arur Haman and Baruch Mordechai (hint: they both equal 502). Accordingly, this is a much lesser degree of drunkenness. Others explain it means drinking until one can no longer discern the greater miracle: the downfall of Haman or Mordechai’s meteoric rise in prominence. Another interpretation is to drink enough to no longer be able to recite a lengthy Purim-themed, Alef-Beit acrostic poem, in the proper order. An additional understanding is that one must get inebriated just enough to no longer be able to properly thank Hashem for the many miracles of our salvation in the Purim story. It is clear that many authorities throughout the generations felt uncomfortable with the literal interpretation of the gemara’s teaching to get drunk on Purim, and each one interprets the instruction as such that it does not imply getting fully drunk.
Rav Manoach Hendel of Prague, a contemporary of the Maharshal (mid 1500s), cites many of these explanations to elucidate the gemara’s intent. Interestingly, what they all have in common is that not a single one of them understands the gemara to mean actually getting drunk. Utilizing any of these aforementioned opinions would mean that one should definitely not “get plastered.” Rather, one should drink only a bit, somewhat more than he usually would, until he fulfills one of these understandings of the dictum of ad d’lo yada.
In fact, although the Shulchan Aruch seems to imply that he agrees with the Tur’s interpretation that one must get drunk, it must be noted that in his Beit Yosef commentary he completely rejects this approach, He exclusively cites Rabbeinu Efraim and the Orchos Chaim, who refer to getting drunk on Purim as ‘ain lecha aveirah gedolah mi’zu’ — the worst of transgressions. And he concludes that one should merely drink a tad more than he is accustomed to. This apparently means that when he codified the halacha in the Shulchan Aruch as drinking until “ad d’lo yada,” this should be understood in the light of his writing in the Beit Yosef, and not as ‘getting wasted,’ as many mistakenly believe.
Just Sleep It Off
The Rambam offers an alternate approach. He maintains that one must drink until he falls asleep. Meaning, if one drinks and then falls asleep, he has fulfilled his mitzvah of drinking on Purim “ad d’lo yada” — without actually getting drunk. When asleep, one certainly cannot distinguish between Arur Haman and Baruch Mordechai! This also fits well with his famous ruling in Hilchot Dei’ot about one who gets drunk being a “sinner and a disgrace.”
The Rema, when codifying the proper amount to drink on Purim, combines both of the latter approaches: drinking somewhat more than one is accustomed to regularly, and then going to sleep.
What Is the Halacha?
Many contemporary Gedolim personally followed the Rema’s ruling, including the Chofetz Chaim, the Steipler Gaon, and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach.
It should be noted that several prominent authorities who do rule that one should actually get drunk, including the Ya’avetz, Sha’arei Teshuva, Chayei Adam, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, and Kaf Hachaim, add an important caveat. If one might come to be lax in the performance of even one other mitzvah, such as netilat yadaim, birkat hamazon or tefillah while drunk, they all maintain that it is preferable not to drink at all, to ensure that all of one’s actions remain for the sake of Heaven.
The Pri Chadash cites several opinions regarding drinking on Purim, and concludes that already, in his time, several hundred years ago (late 1600s), with society’s decline over the generations, it was proper to follow the opinion of Rabbeinu Efraim and drink only a small amount more than usual. In this way one will be certain not to,
If this was the case several centuries ago, how much more relevant are the Pri Chadash’s prophetic words nowadays, with teen alcoholism on the rise and not a year going by without our hearing horror stories about the tragic results of excessive drinking on Purim? In fact, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zatzal, decried the unseemly levity and poor mitzvah performance that unfortunately has replaced the joy of the mitzvahs of Purim, and has become the norm among many as a result of extreme intoxication. And, more recently, Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky has publicly stated that “it is a transgression to get drunk on Purim.”
In the final analysis, whichever opinion one follows, it seems that Iggud Hatzolah has gotten it right with their annual Purim message: “Don’t get carried away this Purim!”
The author wishes to acknowledge excellent articles on this topic by Rabbi Moshe Brody, Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer, and Rabbi Binyomin Radner.