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Purim & Alcohol

Purim & Alcohol

Do I have to get drunk on Purim?

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Question:

I’m going to sound like a nerd, but I’m not. Do I have to drink on Purim?

Response:

Purim is not about drinking. Purim is about being drunk with sincere happiness.

Traditionally, Jews have celebrated Purim by drinking a little extra wine at their Purim feast with friends, and if that gets you there, then it’s the halachically prescribed way to do the mitzvah. Drinking, according to the sages of the Talmud, can heighten the joy and excitement of Purim. So they declared it actually is a mitzvah—as long as you are confident that your behavior will remain at the high standard expected by the Torah. If you are planning to drive, or you know that drinking can otherwise get you in trouble, then alcohol might as well be pork juice.1

So, what’s the whole story with people drinking on Purim? Why is Purim the holiday that’s not just happy, but totally, insanely nuts?

Here’s the story, straight and simple: Two and a half thousand years ago, the Jews in Shushan were delirious with joy. We’re not talking just happiness, but an explosive, spontaneous mass celebration that nobody had ever experienced since Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. So they wanted that for all generations, Jews should experience the same ecstatic celebration that they felt then.

Why were they so insanely happy? Not just because they were finally rid of Haman’s antisemitic thugs who had been harassing them for an entire year. It was deeper than that. It was because they had withstood an awesome challenge and came out with flying colors.

You see, this was the first time Jews had experienced antisemitism as an exiled nation. They had been picked out from all the other conquered peoples of the Persian empire for persecution because they were, well, just different. Any of them could have easily escaped that persecution and threat of annihilation just by deciding to be not different. By saying, hey, I’m just another Persian citizen. Speak Persian. Eat Persian. Do Persian stuff. Worship Persian idols. Simple. Like they say, why beat ’em when you can join ’em?

And why shouldn’t they have joined them? They had already gotten the boot out of the Promised Land. And at that point, the prophet Jeremiah had told them the exile was going to last 70 years. Well, they had counted the 70 years, and everyone figured it was up. And they were still in exile.

Worst of all, only a few years back they had actually started returning and rebuilding in Jerusalem, by royal decree. And then, after just one year, the whole project was axed by a new king’s royal decree. You know what it’s like when you see the light at the end of the tunnel—and then it goes out? Or, what if that light turns out to be a locomotive coming at you at full throttle?

Which is just how things looked then. The entire nation was under threat of termination, extinction and utter annihilation. And G‑d is nowhere to be found. So it would have been a simple, excusable, knee-jerk reaction for those Jews to say, “Look, He abandoned us, so why shouldn’t we abandon Him?”

But they didn’t. Every last Jew stood up and said, “I’m a Jew and I’m proud! Haman and his thugs can do what they want! I was born a Jew, and I’ll die one too!”

As you can imagine, they were fairly stressed out that year. But then comes the big civil war where Haman’s thugs come out in full force, and whaddayaknow, the Jews fight back and are miraculously saved! They see the G‑d of Israel is still on their side! So they break out the champagne and celebrate. Deliriously.

In many ways, Purim was like a second birth for the Jewish People. The first time they were born was at the foot of Mount Sinai, when they heard G‑d telling them, “I’m your G‑d; you are My people. Now, this is what you have to do . . .”

At that time, they didn’t really have much choice. I mean, here’s a G‑d who just liberated you from slavery amidst fantasmic miracles and hi-tech wonders, fed you bread from the sky and water out of a rock. And He’s choosing you for His people, with a promised land of milk and honey to boot. Who could turn down such an offer?2

But this time was the real birth, the true bonding of the Jewish people with one another and with their G‑d. Because this time they had every excuse to cop out. And they didn’t. This time was for real.

So, that explains the wild celebration. When the Jewish nation was born the first time around, everyone was also pretty euphoric. They say that at every word G‑d spoke, the souls of those Jews took flight. Special angels had to be appointed to stuff their souls back into their bodies each time. If that was so back then, you can imagine the euphoria when they were born for real this time around. And the Jews of Shushan wanted you to feel that exhilaration, that rapture, that jubilant ecstasy and bliss, every year again and again.

Okay, so how are you going to get there? You’ve got your own worries and concerns around your neck, anchoring you down and nailed into a body on earth. You need to break out. You need to be set free to fly in the ecstatic, egoless joy that they felt then.

Well, in the Talmud, Rava gives this advice for transcending the ego: “A person has to get drunk on Purim until he cannot distinguish between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai.’”3 That works for some people, especially those so high on their Jewishness already. Like they say, “Wine goes in and secrets come out.”4 Some people’s secret self is pretty holy. But the rest of us . . . well, we all know our own secrets.

Fortunately, there are alternatives.5 Some pretty good ones, too. Keeping in mind that you have to: a) give gifts to two poor people, b) give a food package to one friend, and c) celebrate a Purim feast (with a few l’chaims), here are some enhanced methodologies for an ultimate Purim:

  • Snap on a bright red nose, a curly purple wig and a lunatic smile. Drop into a retirement home or hospital and make an utter fool of yourself, just to cheer up all the lonely people. Nobody has to ever find out who you are. If you visit the psychiatric ward, just make sure you have a way to get out when you’re done.

  • Hire a clown and offer to be his sidekick. Go with him to the local children’s hospital. Take along a pack of lollipops. Go wild.

  • Fill a shopping cart with groceries for a whole family. Drop in unexpected on some jobless immigrant family who can’t pay their rent. Fill up the fridge and write a check for the rent. Leave some toys for the kids.6

  • Dress yourself up along with your kids in full Purim gear. Run around your neighborhood the entire day delivering Purim packages (mishloach manot) to Jewish neighbors who’ve never heard of the whole thing. Continue until you collapse on the couch at the end of the day. Do this two years in a row, and you will transform your neighborhood.

I’ll bet, if you put your mind to it, you can think of way more. Or maybe don’t use your mind. On occasions like this, you might get further losing your mind a little. All in a good way.7

Footnotes
1.

In the words of Orchot Chaim, cited by Beit Yosef (Orach Chaim 695:2): “To be thoroughly drunk is completely forbidden. There is no greater sin than this, for it leads to adultery, bloodshed, and many other sins besides. Rather, you should drink a little more than you are accustomed to.”


And here is Maimonides, discussing drinking on other holidays: “When a person eats and drinks on a festival, he should not get pulled into the wine and laughter and frivolity, saying that the more of this, the greater the mitzvah of rejoicing on a festival. For drunkenness and too much laughter and frivolity are not rejoicing, but wild and stupid behavior. We were not commanded to be wild or stupid. We were commanded to rejoice, because this is a way to serve the Creator of all things, as it says (Deuteronomy 28:47), ‘Because you did not serve the L‑rd your G‑d out of joy and with a good heart when you had everything.’ This teaches that serving G‑d must be with joy. But it is impossible to serve G‑d in the midst of mockery, frivolity and drunkenness” (Mishneh Torah, Hil. Yom Tov 6:20).

2.

See Talmud, Shabbat 88a, where the rabbis claim it was downright coercion. They even go so far to say that the acceptance at the Torah at Mount Sinai was questionable due to this legal technicality—if not for the authentic, fully volitional acceptance on Purim.

3.

Talmud, Megillah 7b. Cited as the halachah in Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 695:2.

4.

“Wine” (yayin) and “secret” (sod) have the same numerical value (gematria) in Hebrew.

5.

Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Hil. Megillah ve-Chanukah 2:15) provides this option: “What are a person’s obligations at this feast? One must eat meat and prepare a fine meal according to what one can afford. One should drink wine until he is drunk, and fall asleep in his stupor.”

6.

A final note from Maimonides, near the end of the laws of Purim (2:17): “Better that a person should increase his gifts to the poor on Purim than to expand his Purim feast and gifts of food to his friends. For there is no greater and more beautiful celebration than to make happy the poor, the orphan, the widow and the immigrant. One who rejoices the hearts of these sorrowful people is similar to the Divine Presence, as the prophet says (Isaiah 57:15), ‘To revive the spirit of the downtrodden and to revive the heart of the oppressed.’”

7.

On all the above, see Likkutei Sichot, vol. 31, p. 177.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Tzvi Freeman July 7, 2016

To Bat-Ami I've obviously been misread. I never recommended Cannabis as an alternative to alcohol. On the contrary, I pointed out that it has the opposite of the desired effect.

Aside from being a gateway drug for many youth, Cannabis has long-term effects that can be even more detrimental than alcohol abuse. But that is not the subject of this article. Reply

Bat-Ami Pleasantville July 1, 2016

Dear Mr. Tzvi Freeman, Cannabis is proven, time and time again, as a gateway drug. It is highly addictive, and it can lead to abuse of other drugs to a fatal extreme. You may be learned in Torah, but Torah is not the only thing that we should study. Science knows more than you, and you must study scientific reports about cannabis (not growers' reports) before you suggest cannabis as an alternative to wine. Reply

jason July 1, 2016

Purim - The witness to "His" Faithfullness I have been studying the time of Esther and was intrigued by the event of Purim...that is how I ended up here. In full transparency, I see this prophetic book as a foreshadowing of things to come; too many things to list and will just share how I try to live daily:

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to reckless indiscretion. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.

Have a blessed day! Reply

Menachem Posner Chicago May 6, 2016

Borey ha-yayin? Creator of wine? You may be putting the cart in front of the horse. We do not choose foods to fit the blessings. On the contrary, the blessings are composed to match the food we eat. The obligation is to drink wine at the Passover seder. This is reflected in the blessing over the fruit of the vine. Reply

Anonymous April 26, 2016

Much needed! Thanks for posting! Reply

Anonymous March 24, 2016

I love the way Rabbi Tzvi Freeman writes!!!His articles bring joy and always brighten up my day.Thank you! Reply

Shmuel Ontario April 7, 2014

Purim & Alcohol I wish to agree to disagree. I have had alcohol poisoning and learnt that I do not need alcohol to fully appreciate the beauty of nature, sincere companionship and friendship and to adjust my moods to celebrate and laugh when needs be and to be earnest when needs be. Simchat Torah and Purim are momentous enjoyable times in my life and are celebrated without the need of intoxicants to enhance the moment. I am on a high already just being able to sing and dance with the Torah resting on my shoulder. Try it one day Rabbi, you will be surprised how truly uplifting it is and no regrets the following morning as you remember the sheer beauty of the celebration. Reply

Tzvi Freeman March 9, 2014

Re: Update regarding footnote 1 What you've written must be clarified. As written, it is inaccurate.

Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai suffered diarrhea from drinking wine, which lasted almost two months. He considered himself nevertheless obligated to drink, and his opinion is cited as the halachah. In other words, the wine made him ill, but did not endanger his life.

If, however, drinking wine is life-threatening for a person, that is another case altogether. The entire Torah is put aside for live-threatening matters, excluding only murder, idolatry and forbidden relationships.

Today, there are plenty of low-alcohol wines available. Alternatively, just add a small amount of wine to the grape juice. Without any wine, you've fulfilled your obligation of four cups, but those cups aren't considered a representation of freedom.

Alcoholics in recovery are advised to stay far away from any alcohol whatsoever. That is certainly a life-threatening situation. Grape juice is a valid alternative in such situations. Reply

Anonymous Camarillo, CA, USA March 9, 2014

Update regarding footnote 1 One is no longer allowed to drink all four cups if it makes the person as sick as described in footnote 1. We know now that a person whose body cannot handle alcohol properly and drinks anyway can die of liver disease as a result. Under Jewish law, one is never allowed to do something that will cause the person to die, even if it would otherwise be a Mitzvah. Reply

Douglad Nevada March 6, 2014

PURIM An old Jewish friend of mine once told me, "Drink on Purim is drinking to life's hidden treasures". Excellent writing Rabbi, excellent! Have a wonderful Purim!
P.S. No drinking and driving the taxi drivers car! Reply

Anonymous March 6, 2014

Love this answer! Love this answer! Thanks for posting it! Reply

David Mauritious March 5, 2014

Apologies to Rabbi Freeman who is of course a fully qualified Rabbi. I was being obstreperous. Reply

David rubin Mauritious March 5, 2014

"Fortunately there are alternatives" ?? Why do you assume drinking wine is unfortunate? It is a clear Halachah in Shulkan Aruch and as you quoted note 6 RaMbaM Reply

Fruma Delray Beach, FL March 5, 2014

Charity "•Fill a shopping cart with groceries for a whole family. Drop in unexpected on some jobless immigrant family who can’t pay their rent. Fill up the fridge and write a check for the rent."
Wouldn't it be a lot better to give anonymously? This kind of charity can be deeply embarrassing to the recipients. Reply

David Rubin Mauritious March 5, 2014

From memory, the drinking of wine is a requirement of Law on Purim and not a tradition as you have stated. Perhaps you are not a Rabbi but really Tuvyeh the Milkman? In addition you have not clarified the major distinction between wine and other types of alcohol, which completely misses the point, both here and other occasions when wine is either obligatory or prohibited. Reply

Tzvi Freeman March 5, 2014

Re: Cannabis instead of alcohol There does seem to be mention of psychotropics in the Talmud, although most of the instances cited are flimsy conjecture. In Tractate Kiddushin, Rav warns his son not to imbibe, since they are addictive. I haven't seen any mention of their use on Purim.

The miracles of Purim occurred through wine, just as the miracle of Chanukah occurred through oil. So we use oil on Chanukah, wine on Purim.

From my own observation I can say this: The loneliest guy in the world is the one accompanying a cannabis-stoned friend. Wine takes you out of yourself. Cannabis takes you into yourself. On Purim, you want to get out of yourself and make people feel needed, not lonely. Reply

Paul Westerink Outback Australia March 5, 2014

“To be thoroughly drunk is completely forbidden." And yet to be intoxicated enough so that:"until he knows not the difference between 'cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai."
Isn't there a contradiction here? I suppose this has been debated quite a bit. To me it seems a curly one. Being a Noahide, there is no injunction for me. However, L'Chaim to all my Jewish friends! What a funny problem this is ... Reply

Sientje Seinen Canada March 5, 2014

kosher wine Actually I like Kosher wine, it is the only wine that doesn't give me a headache. but should a person be joyful everyday of their lives for the gift of life? a precious gift? I know that Purim is special to the Jewish people, but surely it was the Lord's doing for Esther to be chosen as queen, so that she could expose Haman to the king and plead for her people? As nothing happens without chance. G-d bless. Reply

Bat-Ami New York March 5, 2014

Unfortunately, Maimonides and the sages of his day did not have psychological or scientific knowledge about the Disease of Alcoholism, which is chronic, progressive, fatal, and has a genetic component, No one - including Jews - is immune from it. Some people feel the effects of alcohol after one drink, and care for themselves enough to stop at one. But many people are not able to feel the effect so quickly, nor can they stop once they start. I wish the rabbinic community of today would do the right thing, recognize this problem, and instruct their congregations once and for all the dangers of drinking, as well as the concept of ad lo yada with the saner, wiser, and more modern interpretation. Reply

Anonymous March 4, 2014

I would also like answer to questions submitted by Miriam and Anonymous. Reply