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Purim: To Drink or Not to Drink?

The Jewish people throughout history has always opposed drunkenness. 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 (Ketubot 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 related to drinking on Purim (Megillah 7b): “Rava said: a person must get drunk on Purim until he cannot distinguish between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai’. Rabbah and R. Zeira made a Purim feast together. They got drunk. Rabbah stood up and killed 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!’ “

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 Ahashverosh occurred at drinking parties (Sefer Abudraham, pp. 209-210). On the other hand, Rava was a vintner (Berakhot 56a and Bava Metzia 73a) and clearly liked to drink wine (Pesahim 107b). As for the strange story, Rabbi H. Z. Reines suggests that the entire episode is a Purim joke (Hadoar 5737, p. 266)!

Whatever the simple meaning is, it is clear that the poskim (halakhic authorities) throughout the generations felt very uncomfortable with Rava’s demand for drinking 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 Shulhan Arukh (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.
  • Finally, R. Menahem 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 God and to gratitude for the miracles which he performed for us”.

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 Ahashverosh, not of the Jewish people throughout its history. The poskim understood this significant difference. That is why they ruled: “heartfelt joy” – yes, “debauchery and foolishness – no. May we remember this crucial difference both on Purim and throughout the year.

Prof. David Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate the article, please contact Rabbi Golinkin The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.

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.

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