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New York - Halachic Musings: To Drink Or Not To Drink? A Halachic Analysis Of Getting Drunk On Purim

Published on: March 5, 2015 10:12 AM
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File: Jewish men during Purim holiday in Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, Israel, 25 February 2013.  EPA/ABIR SULTANFile: Jewish men during Purim holiday in Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, Israel, 25 February 2013.  EPA/ABIR SULTAN

New York -  Can you feel Purim just around the corner? Who isn’t eagerly anticipating this annual Yom Tov extravaganza, featuring joyous dancing, Mishloach Manos, 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 (Esther Ch. 9: verse 19) as a day of Mishteh (referring to a wine feast) and the Purim turnabout miracle occurred at such wine feasts, there is a rare dispensation from the norm, and 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?

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Chayav Inish L’Vesumei… 

The Gemara in Megillah (7b) famously rules that ‘MeiChayav Inish L’Vesumei B’Puraya ad d’lo yada bein Arur Haman L’Boruch 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 is seemingly teaching us 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 Rabba 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 be brought back to life. His tefillos were answered and Rabbi Zeira rejoined the world of the living. Yet, the next year, Rabbi Zeira refused to join Rabba for his Purim seudah, duly noting that a miracle is not a common occurrence and one may not rely on such miracles.

Although there are different interpretations of this story, with several meforshim explaining that it is not to be understood literally, positing that Rabba 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, featured immediately following? 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’Boruch Mordechai? What does this enigmatic turn of phrase actually mean?

Ad D’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 (Megillah 3b) and Tur (Orach Chaim 695, 2), when codifying this mitzvah, do 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 quite drunk.

Yet, Rabbeinu Efraim, cited l’halacha by the Ran and Baal Hama’or (Megillah 3b), rules the exact opposite! He maintains that since the Gemara tells the story of Rabba and Rabbi Zeira after the ruling of getting drunk, it is not meant only as a cautionary tale detailing the evils of excessive alcohol imbibement; 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’Boruch Mordechai does not actually meant getting stone cold drunk. In fact, most commentaries offer many different rationales as to the Gemara’s intent with this phrase. Some say it means drinking until one can no longer perform the mental acrobatics necessary to be able to add up the Gematria 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 decide which was a 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-Bais 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 Purim time. 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 one’s fully getting drunk.

Rav Manoach Hendel of Prague, a contemporary of the Maharshal’s, in his Chochmas Manoach commentary to Gemara Megillah (7b), 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 be ‘getting plastered’. Rather, one should only drink 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 (Orach Chaim 695, 2) seems to imply that he agrees to the Tur’s interpretation, that one must get drunk, it must be noted that in his Beis Yosef commentary (ad loc. s.v. mitzvah) he completely rejects this approach, exclusively citing Rabbeinu Efraim (ibid.) and the Orchos Chaim (Hilchos Purim 38), who refers to getting drunk on Purim as ‘ain lecha Aveirah gedolah mezu’, the worst of Aveiros, and 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 Beis Yosef, and not ‘getting wasted’, as many mistakenly believe. 

Sleep It Off 

The Rambam (Hilchos Megillah Ch.2, 15) 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 ruling in Hilchos Dei’os (Ch. 5, 3) about one who gets drunk being a ‘sinner and a disgrace’.

The Rema (Orach Chaim 695, 2) 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.

So…What’s the Halacha?

It should be noted that several 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 Netillas Yadayim, Bentching or Davening while drunk, they all maintain that it is preferable not to drink at all, to ensure that all of one’s actions remain l’sheim shamayim.

The Pri Chadash cites several opinions regarding drinking on Purim and concludes that already in his time, several hundred years ago, with society’s decline over the generations, it is proper to follow the opinion of Rabbeinu Efraim, and only drink a small amount more than usual. This way one will be certain not to chas veshalom unwittingly transgress any prohibitions, and result in receiving blessings from Hashem. Not a daas yachid, the Pri Megadim, Aruch Hashulchan, and Mishna Berura all rule like the Pri Chadash l’maaseh.

If this was the case several centuries ago, how much more relevant is the Pri Chadash’s prophetic words nowadays, with teen alcoholism on the rise and not a year going by without hearing horror stories about the tragic results of excessive drinking on Purim? Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l decried the letzonus and zilzul that unfortunately has replaced Simcha shel Mitzva and become the norm among many, due to intoxication. And, more recently, Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky has publicly stated that “it is an Aveira to get drunk on Purim”. [See here: http://www.vosizneias.com/49255.]

In the final analysis, whichever opinion one follows, it seems that Hatzolah has 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.

For any questions, comments or for the full Mareh Mekomos / sources, please email the author: yspitz@ohr.edu. 

Rabbi Yehuda Spitz serves as the Sho’el U’ Meishiv and Rosh Chabura of the Ohr Lagolah Halacha Kollel at Yeshivas Ohr Somayach in Yerushalayim. 



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Read Comments (11)  —  Post Yours »

1

 Mar 05, 2015 at 10:47 AM anonymous Says:

I grew up among chasidim but nobody got drunk. Maybe to all you wise chachomim shiker iz er en trinken tit er vi a goy

2

 Mar 05, 2015 at 01:31 PM Anonymous Says:

Common sense says do not get drunk unless you are in your own home and going straight to bed. You have no right to put any innocent person in danger.

3

 Mar 05, 2015 at 02:24 PM lazerx Says:

There are always people who get drunk on Purim. I say a person should get drunk at least once in his life on Purim. Few people want to do it again.

The mitzvah is to get drunk, so do it while you are young, but in an environment that is the least dangerous and most supportive, like home or yeshiva...

If you don't want to get drunk, great, there are those who can give you a pass on the mitzvah, but to say we shouldn't allow such stuff, nah!

4

 Mar 05, 2015 at 03:03 PM Anonymous Says:

Several contemporary gadolim including Rav Aurbach and Rav Gavornlik slita, have paskind that in modern times, getting intoxicated on Purim poses much greater risk of physical harm to yourself and others and thus limits on drinking are essential. Rav Gavornlik especially notes the prtizus that can follow when one is drunk and likely to engage in illicit behavior with women that you are not married to and other inappropriate activity that one be unlikely for a ben torah when sober.

5

 Mar 05, 2015 at 03:40 PM Esther Says:

Reply to #2  
Anonymous Says:

Common sense says do not get drunk unless you are in your own home and going straight to bed. You have no right to put any innocent person in danger.

One of the problems with intoxication though is that one looses all common sense.

6

 Mar 05, 2015 at 05:24 PM savtat Says:

It is a day of miracles and Kiddush Hashem. So have a drink and be happy, not ugly.

7

 Mar 05, 2015 at 08:49 PM Normal Says:

#3 "I say a person should get drunk at least once in his life on Purim. Few people want to do it again." You are contradicting yourself. Either it's good to get drunk or it is not good. You can't have it both ways.

8

 Mar 05, 2015 at 11:51 PM lazerx Says:

Reply to #7  
Normal Says:

#3 "I say a person should get drunk at least once in his life on Purim. Few people want to do it again." You are contradicting yourself. Either it's good to get drunk or it is not good. You can't have it both ways.

I have seen my sons get really drunk on Purim. Today they drink very responsibly. When one has a bad hangover, it makes you realize that getting drunk looks better than it really is.

9

 Mar 06, 2015 at 03:55 AM Melech Says:

Yidden should not get drunk either on Purim, Simchas Torah, or at kiddishes, or simchas. Many people who get drunk, lose all inhibitions, and act either aggressively, or in other inappropriate ways. Such conduct if forbidden by Halacha. Also, when Yidden drive to Purim Seudahs, and engage in excessive drinking, unless they have a designated driver, they are placing others (as well as themselves) at risk, pertaining to the return drive.

10

 Mar 06, 2015 at 09:42 AM Pinteleyid Says:

There is a fascinating sicha on this subject from the Lubavitcher Rebbe that will give you a whole new appreciation for the above mentioned Gemara. Check likutay sichos, volume lamed alef (31), second purim sicha.
A freilichen Purim!

11

 Mar 06, 2015 at 11:22 AM Anonymous Says:

Ok this is a little bit "purim nachen kigel" but here is my two sense. Poeple think there are two choices drunk and not drunk. But there is a third middle approach. Thats called getting high. The mitzva of purim is to drink wine not shnaps. I don't think hatzola has had to many run ins with people who just stuck to wine. Generally if one drinks just wine and only by the seuda he will get high not drunk which is fine.
And yes this should apply even to teenagers. if parents or an adult is watching why not let them drink a little wine? Again not shnaps but wine? We often speak about the dangers of nbeing too restrictive on our children and how they may rebel if we are. Teens like to let loose if we can find a safe controlable way on purim why not? The alterantive is having them crash kaddeshim and getting shikkur every shabbos as an act of rebellion.We must allow them get loose on occassions.

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