In memory of
Rabbi Prof. David Hartman z”l
“Rabbi of his people,
Leader of his nation” (Sanhedrin 14a)
Yehi zikhro barukh!
Question: According to a well-known custom, drinking on Purim is required for Jews celebrating the holiday. What is the origin of this custom? Are Jews really required to get drunk on Purim? (This responsum is an expanded version of my brief articles which are listed below).
Responsum: The Jewish people throughout history have always opposed drunkenness). That is the message of the stories of Noah and Lot (Genesis 9:18-27 and 19:29-38) and the opinion of the book of Proverbs (23:30-35). According to one opinion found in the midrash, Nadav and Avihu were killed because they were drunk (Vayikra Rabbah 20:9, ed. Margaliot, p. 463 and parallels). Furthermore, drunkenness leads to forbidden sexual relations (Ketubot 65a and Numbers Rabbah 10:3) and “there is nothing that causes a person greater lamentation than wine” (Sanhedrin70b).
I) The Primary Talmudic Source
As a result of the attitude described above, it is difficult to fathom the primary Talmudic source related to drinking on Purim (Megillah7b):
אמר רבא: מחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי.
Rava said: a person is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until he does not know the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordekhai”.
Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira made a Purim feast together. They became intoxicated. Rabbah stood up and killed Rabbi Zeira. On the morrow, Rabbah prayed and revived him. The following year, [Rabbah] said to him: “Let Master come and we will make the Purim feast together!” Rabbi Zeira replied: “Miracles don’t happen every hour!”
Rava’s statement begs an explanation. Rabbi David Abudraham (Spain, 14th century) explained that the Sages required drinking on Purim since all of the miracles in the days of Ahashverosh occurred at drinking parties (Sefer Abudraham Hashalem, pp. 209-210). In my opinion, Rava may have required drinking on Purim because he was a vintner (Bava Metzia 73a) who traded in wine (Berakhot 56a) and he clearly liked to drink wine even on Erev Pesah (Pesahim107b).
As for the strange story, some rabbis took it literally (see Ahrend, pp. 66-67) but others engaged in apologetics. Rabbi Avraham the son of Maimonides (Egypt, 1186-1237), says that Rabbah only injured Rabbi Zeira seriously but did not kill him (quoted by Reines, p. 266, Ahrend. p. 67 and Ben Ari, p. 6). The Maharsha (Poland, 1555-1631) to Megillah 7b says that Rabbi Zeira became very ill due to the fact that Rabbah forced him to drink too much wine. The (Provence, d. 1315) ad loc. says that “shahtei“, “he killed him” should be read “sahtei“, “he squeezed him” and that “ahyei” means “he healed him” rather than “he revived him”. Rabbi Azariah of Figo (Venice, ca. 1600; quoted by Ahrend, p. 68) says that Rabbah confused Rabbi Zeira to such an extent that he could not distinguish between the miracles of Blessed be Mordekhai and Cursed be Haman. Dr. Ahrend himself says that Rabbah struck Rabbi Zeira forcefully but did not actually kill him or that Rabbi Zeira fainted because he drank too much wine (Ahrend, pp. 70 ff.).
Rabbi Alder (pp. 13-14) says that the story comes to teach us that the world is precarious and that God can repair it, just like in the Purim story. Finally, H. Z. Reines suggests that the entire episode is a Purim joke (Hadoar 5737, p. 266)!
II) The attitude of the poskim (halakhic authorities) to this passage
A) Some rule according to the simple meaning of Rava’s dictum
At least eight poskim quoted or paraphrased Rava or added a brief comment (Rif, ed. Vilna, fol. 3b; Sefer Ha’ittur, fols. 111a-b; Sefer Harokeah, paragraph 237, p. 138; Rosh to Megillah, Chapter 1, paragraph 8; Tur OH 695; Rabbeinu Yeruham, Netiv 10, Part I, ed. Venice, fol. 62c; Rabbi Menahem ibn Zerah, Tzeidah Laderekh, Warsaw, 1880, fol. 137a; Rabbi Isaac Tirnau, Sefer Haminhagim, ed. Shpitzer, p. 160; Shulhan Arukh 695:2).
However, many poskim throughout the generations felt very uncomfortable with Rava’s demand to get drunk on Purim, and therefore they tried to circumvent or limit the requirement of drinking on Purim. They did so in different ways.
B) The Geonim Ignored Rava’s Obligation
Halakhic works from the Geonic period (ca. 500-1000) such asHalakhot Gedolot by Rabbi Shimon Kayara (ed. Venice, fols. 40b-41a) and Halakhot Ketzuvot (ed. Margaliot, pp. 85-87) ignored this passage. In other words, they decided that it is not legally binding.
C) The story comes to cancel the requirement
Rabbeinu Ephraim of Kala Hamad, a disciple of the Rif (North Africa, 11th-12th century), said that since the Talmud then quotes the story that Rabbah stood and killed Rabbi Zeira because he got drunk, the statement of Rabbah (Rabbeinu Ephraim seems to have had the reading רבה Rabbah in both the opening sentence and the story so he felt that the story came to cancel out the requirement. On the other hand, most of the manuscripts have the reading רבא Rava in the story (see Ahrend, note 1 and Dikdukei Sofrim ad loc.). However, Prof. Shamma Friedman has shown that it is very hard to distinguish between Rabbah (third generation) and Rava (fourth generation) because in the better manuscripts of the Talmud they are indistinguishable – Rava can end with the letter hey and Rabbah with the letter alef – see Sinai 110 (5752), pp. 140-145.) is set aside and one should not get drunk on Purim. (Many of the modern rabbis who have discussed Rabbeinu Ephraim’s opinion have quoted and discussed the passage inSefer Ha’eshkol, ed. Auerbach, Part 2, Halberstadt, 1868, p. 27. I have refrained from doing so because some modern scholars think that this book was actually created by Rabbi Auerbach in the 19thcentury – see Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 2, col. 147! Indeed, the Laws of Purim are missing in Shalom Albeck’s more reliable edition of Sefer Haeshkol, Jerusalem, 1934 and every statement found in the Eshkol on our topic is also found in one of the other Rishonim so Auerbach could have copied them from there). This statement by Rabbi Ephraim is quoted by many poskim and many of them seem to agree with him. (Rabbi Shmuel Yerudani, Ohel Moed, Part II, fol. 63a; Hiddushei Haran to Megillah 7b and in the Ran on the Rif to Megillah, ed. Vilna, fol. 3b at bottom; Rabbeinu Ephraim, ed. Schepansky, Jerusalem, 1976, p. 249 and pp. 421-423; Rabbi Zerahia Halevi in his Sefer Hamaor to the Rif on Megillah, ed. Vilna, fol. 3b at the bottom; the Meiri to Megillah 7b, p. 30 in the name of ketzat Geonim; Shitat Ribab to the Rif, quoted in Dikdukei Sofrim to Megillah 7b, p. 26, end of note 8; Shibolei Halaket Hashalem, paragraph 201, ed. Buber, p. 158; Rabbi Yoel Sirkes in the Bah toTur OH 695 s.v. vetzarikh).
D) Emphasis on the Words Arur Haman (Cursed be Haman) and Barukh Mordekhai (Blessed be Mordekhai)
1. Rabbi Asher ben Shaul of Lunel (Provence, ca. 1211), quoted by Rabbi David Abudraham (Sefer Abudraham Hashalem, p. 209) suggested that there was a complicated piyyut (liturgical poem) where one verse had the refrain Arur Haman and the next had the refrain Barukh Mordekhai. “And [to recite this piyyut] requires a clear mind because sometimes a person is not mindful and makes a mistake. And Rabbi Yitzhak wrote a piyyut like this.” In other words, it requires less drinking to reach a state of confusion about this poem. Indeed, such a poem can be found in Mahzor Vitry, p. 217, which was written inFrance ca. 1120.
2. Others say that the sentence in question was longer and more complicated, like one found in the Sefer Yerushalmi which is no longer extant: Arura Zeresh, berukha Esther, arurim kol hareshaim, berukhim kol hayehudim (Tosafot to Megillah 7b s.v. delo yada; Ran on the Rif to Megillah, ed. Vilna, fol. 3b at bottom; Rosh to Megillah, Chapter 1, paragraph 8; Meiri to Megillah ad loc.; Rabbeinu Yeruham, Netiv 10, Part 3, ed. Venice, fol. 63c; and cf. Siddur Rav Sa’adia Gaon, p. 257; Shibolei Haleket, ed. Buber, paragraph 200, p. 157).
3. Rabbi Alexander Zusslin Hacohen (Germany, 14th century) explained that “ארור המן” “cursed be Haman” equals “ברוך מרדכי” “blessed be Mordechai” in gematria –– they both add up to 502! — and it requires less wine to become that intoxicated (Sefer Ha’agudah, Tractate Megillah, Chapter 1, paragraph 7, ed. Cracow, 1571, fol. 130a = ed. Brizel, Jerusalem, 1966, p. 87, which is quoted in Minhagei Maharil, ed. Spitzer, p. 426; cf. Ohel Moed, Part II, fol. 63a; Abudraham Hashalem, p. 209; Nimukei Yosef toMegillah, ed. Blau, New York, 1960, p. 18; Rabbeinu Yeruham, op cit., fol. 62c).
4. Rabbi Yosef Haviva (Spain, 15th century) wrote that “one should not go crazy in his drunkenness and be drawn after laughter, levity, and profanity… and the early Prophets only enacted ‘a day of feasting and joy’ (Esther 9:17 etc.). Rather one should say funny things so that the beholders will think that one cannot distinguish between [“cursed be Haman” and] “blessed [be Mordechai]” (Nimukey Yosef to Megillah 7b, ed. Blau, p. 18).
E) Sleep as an Alternative
1. Maimonides (Egypt, 1135-1204) ruled as follows: “How is the requirement of [the Purim] Seudah? That he should eat meat and prepare a nice feast according to what he can afford, and he drinks wine until he gets drunk and falls asleep” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Megillah 2:15). Rabbi Yehiel Michal Epstein (Russia, d. 1908; Arukh Hashulhan OH 695:3) thinks that Maimonides rejected Rava’s statement. It seems more likely (see the Maggid Mishnehad loc and the article by Sh. H. Kuk) that he interpreted “to become intoxicated” in Rava’s statement that one should drink until he falls asleep and then he does not know the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordekhai”. Once again we see an attempt to limit the amount of drinking on Purim.
2. The Rema, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Cracow, 1525-1572), follows this approach in his Darkei Moshe to Tur OH 695 (where he quotes Rabbi Yisrael Bruna) and in his glosses to the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 695:2): “that he should drink more than is his custom (see Orhot Hayyim and Kol Bo below) and he should sleep and, since he is asleep, he does not know the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordekhai’ “.
F) Emphasis on the word ad (until)
In the Talmud, when the word ad (until) appears, the Talmud frequently asks: ad bikhlal or ad velo ad bikhlal, “until and including or until but not including”? This standard question allowed twoposkim to reduce the amount of drinking on Purim.
1. Rabbi Meir ben Shimon Hameili (Provence, early 13th century) explained: “Ad – up to – but not including (Sefer Hameorot toMegillah 7b, ed. Blau, p. 320).
2. Rabbi Natanel Weil (Germany, 18th century) gave a similar explanation: “Ad – up to and not including, because otherwise he would reach the drunkenness of Lot” (Korban Netanel to the Rosh to Megillah, Chapter 1, paragraph 8, note 10).
G) Emphasis on the word mihayav (is obligated)
1. Rabbi Eliezer ben Yoel Halevi, the Ra’aviyah (Germany, 1140-1225) said that this is a mitzvah b’alma velo l’ikuv, a general mitzvah and not a necessity (Sefer Ra’aviyah to Megillah, paragraph 564, ed. Aptowitzer, Vol. 2, p. 285 which is partially quoted in Hagahot Maimoniot to the Rambam 2:15, subparagraph 2 and in Minhagei Maharil, ed. Spitzer, p. 426). A similar opinion is expressed by Rabbi Jacob Mollin, the Maharil (Germany, d. 1427; in his Responsa 56:9, ed. Satz, p. 61).
2. Rabbi Meir ben Shimon Hameili (loc. cit.) adds another interpretation: “… not exactly, rather an exaggeration… but drunkenness is a serious prohibition and there is no sin greater than it for it itself is the cause of forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed and of a number of prohibitions and even of idol worship and denying the existence of God. And this is not the joy written in the Bible (Esther 9:17 etc.), but this is called laughter and derision and levity…”.
3. Rabbi Menahem Hameiri is also opposed to Rava’s obligation in his commentary to Megillah 7b (p. 30): “In any case, we are notcommanded to get drunk and to degrade ourselves out of joy, for we were not commanded about joy of debauchery and foolishness, but about joy of delight, that we should reach from it the love of God, blessed be He, and gratitude for the miracles which He performed for us”. In other words, the Meiri was one of the fewposkim willing to reject Rava’s statement in a clear-cut fashion.
4. Rabbi Aaron of Lunel (Provence, 14th century) ruled “that he should drink more than his normal custom in order to rejoice greatly and make the poor rejoice and he shall comfort them… and that is true joy” (Orhot Hayyim, Din Se’udat Purim, paragraph 38, ed. Florence, 1750, fol. 121a = Kol Bo, ed. Lvov, 1860, paragraph 45, fol. 5d = ed. Jerusalem, Vol. 2, 1990, p. col. 334; which is quoted by the Beit Yosef to Tur OH 695 and by the Rema in OH 695:2). This is the most original interpretation: that the purpose of drinking on Purim is to help us fulfill the mitzvah ofmattanot la’evyonim (alms to the poor) and not simply to get drunk.
5. Rabbi Yosef ben Moshe (Germany, ca. 1470) in his Leket Yosher (ed. Freimann, Berlin, 1903, Part OH, p. 156) says that the obligation only falls on a person who enjoys getting drunk, but not on someone who feels it will harm him. (Cf. a similar opinion in Kaf Hahayyim to OH 695, subparagraph 16.)
6 Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hakohen says (Mishnah Berurah to OH 695, subparagraph 4) following Elyah Zuta “that in any case he must be careful [at the Purim Seudah] regarding Netilat Yadayim, Hamotzi,and Birkat Hamazon, and it should be the joy of fulfilling a mitzvah”. In other words, you can drink but don’t overdo it.
In recent years, we have witnessed a marked increase in the use of wine, alcohol and drugs by Israeli youth, in part 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, Lotand Ahashverosh – not of the Jewish people throughout its history. The poskim understood this significant difference. That is why many of them ruled: “joy of delight” – yes, “debauchery and foolishness” – no. May we remember this crucial difference both on Purim and throughout the year.
10 Adar 5773
Rabbi Aaron Ahrend, Badad 8 (Winter 5759), pp. 65-75
Rabbi Daniel Alder, Judaism 40/1 (Winter 1991), pp. 6-15 (which is based on a paper which he wrote for me in Spring 1986)
Aaron (Mate) Amit, Alon Kesher, Yeshivat Maaleh Adumim, II Adar 5749
Nili Ben Ari, Amudim 702 (Adar 5766), pp. 5-7
Rabbi Shlomo Brody, The Jerusalem Post Magazine, March 21, 2008, p. 38
Rabbi David Golinkin, Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly 64 (2002-2003), pp. 81-82 = Insight Israel: The View from Schechter, Jerusalem, 2003, pp. 27-29; Iyunei Shabbat, Parashat Zakhor, 5756 (Hebrew and English); Yediot Aharonot, 20.3.2008, p. 28 (Hebrew).
Rabbi Moshe Isserles, Sefer Mehir Yayin,Oradea, 1939, pp. 73-74
Rabbi Sh. H. Kuk, Beit Haknesset 1/3 (Purim 5706), p. 8 = Iyunim Umehkarim, Vol. 2,Jerusalem, 1963, pp. 51-52
Julius Preuss, Biblical and Talmudic Medicine,New York, 1978, pp. 572-574
Meir Rappeld in: Daniel Sperber, Minhagei Yisrael, Vol. 6,Jerusalem, 5758, pp. 207-226
H. Z. Reines, Hadoar 56/17 (7 Adar 5737), p. 266
Yisrael Schepansky, Hadarom 28 (5740), pp. 165-175
Eliezer Schweid, Sefer Mahzor Hazemanim, Tel Aviv, 1984, pp. 135 ff.
Rabbi Yehudah Shaviv, Barkai 4 (5747), pp. 117-125
Rabbi Pinhas Hakohen Wilman, Sinai 94 (5744), pp. 273-277
Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, Hamo’adim Bahalakhah, Tel Aviv, 1960, pp. 203-208
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.