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The Purim Drunk

The Purim Drunk



Are Jews actually supposed to get drunk on Purim? I understand there is a statement in the Talmud to that effect, but perhaps it is not to be taken literally? It seems such an unJewish thing to do! Surely there are other, more refined and more spiritual ways of celebrating and showing joy!


The source of this practice is a passage from the Talmudic tractate Megillah (7b):

Rava said: A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he does not know the difference between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordechai"

The issue of whether and how Rava’s statement should be implemented in practice is a matter of disagreement between various Halachic authorities. The question, however, is not what Rava means, but whether or not the Talmud contains another opinion, contrary to Rava’s (see Ran and Baal HaMaor on Talmud, Megillah 7b; Bach and Beit Yosef on the Tur, Orach Chaim, 695).

Many of the greatest Halachists follow Rava’s ruling. Maimonides writes: "What is the obligation of the [Purim] feast? That one should eat meat ... and drink wine until he is drunk and falls asleep from drunkenness" (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Megillah, 2:15). The Rif, Rosh, Tur and Shulchan Aruch all cite Rava’s dictum without any qualification. The Rama, on the other hand, comments that "There are others who say that one need not become that drunk, but rather that one should drink more than is one’s custom." The Rama concludes: "Whether one drinks more or drinks less, the main thing is that his intention is for the sake of Heaven."

To summarize: All Halachic authorities are unanimous in ruling that it is a mitzvah to drink, and drink to excess, on Purim, though there are differences of opinion as to whether the obligation is to get as drunk as Rava enjoins, or to a lesser degree. In any case, the concept of becoming intoxicated on Purim to the point that one’s reason is totally incapacitated is a legitimate Halachic position, which requires understanding and validation regardless of whether or not it is accepted in practice.

Our grandparents knew that shikker is ah goy--Jews don’t get drunk. How, then, do we reconcile the Halachah to get drunk on Purim with our understanding of the kind of life that the Torah commands us to lead? Can we allow ourselves to relinquish control over our behavior one day a year, or even once in a lifetime? Can we abnegate our awareness of the difference between good and evil for even a single moment?

The drunk that most people know (from TV, the neighborhood bar, or, unfortunately, in their own homes) is a vulgar and often violent creature. Is this because drinking generates vulgarity and violence? Obviously not. What excessive drink does is cloud the intellect and incapacitate cognition, freeing the passions of the heart from their internal jurist and regulator. The drunk who beats his wife also desires to beat her when sober; it is only that when sober, his mind is capable of recognizing the folly of the deed and of controlling his behavior. The drunk who shouts obscenities in the street is only expressing thoughts and urges he harbors all the time, but which he usually has sense enough to keep to himself.

But if the intellect stems what is worst in us, it also stymies what is best in us. We all know the feeling of being unable to "find the words" to adequately convey our thoughts, which are so much more subtle than the words and idioms available to us in the languages in which we speak and write. But reason itself is a "language" which captures but an infinitesimal fraction of what is sensed and felt by our deepest selves. To live a rational life is to filter our essentially supra-rational self through the constricting lens of reason. To confine our relationship with G‑d, our people, and our family to the realm of the intelligible is to repress all but a finite facet of their infinite depth and scope.

For 364 days a year, we have no other choice. Our mind must exercise complete control over our emotions and behavior, lest the animal in us rage rampant and trample to death all that is good in ourselves and our world. Furthermore, we need the mind not only as guardian and regulator, but also as facilitator of our highest potentials. It is the mind that navigates the workings of nature, enabling us to sustain and improve our lives in the service of our Creator; it is the mind that recognizes the goodness and desirability in certain things and the evil and danger in others, thereby guiding, developing and deepening our loves and aversions, our joys and fears; it is with our minds that we imbibe the wisdom of the Torah, allowing us an apprehension of the divine truth.

If the mind does all these things within the finite parameters of reason, concealing galaxies of knowledge with every ray of light it reveals and suppressing oceans of feeling with every drop it distills, it remains the most effective tool we have with which to access the truths that lie buried in the core of our souls and reside in the subliminal heavens above.

But there is one day in the year in which we enjoy direct, immediate access to these truths. This day is Purim. The Jew who rejoices on Purim—who rejoices in his bond with G‑d without equivocation—has no need for reason. For he is in touch with his truest self—a self before which his animalistic drives are neutralized, a self which requires no medium by which to express itself and no intermediaries by which to relate to its source in G‑d.

The Jew who rejoices on Purim no longer requires the mind to tell him the difference between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordechai"; he is above it all, relating to the divine truth that transcends the bifurcation of good and evil. For the Jew who rejoices on Purim, the mind is utterly superfluous, something which only encumbers the outpouring of his soul, something which only quantifies and qualifies that which is infinite and all-pervading. So he puts his mind to sleep for a few hours, in order to allow his true self to emerge.

The Marriage Broker

I once heard a parable that explained the mitzvah of getting drunk on Purim in the following way:

A time-honored institution in many Jewish communities is the shadchan, or marriage broker. The shadchan is more than a "dating service"; he is a middleman who accompanies the deal from its inception all the way to its conclusion. He meets with the respective families, notes their desires, demands and expectations, and presents them with a proposal. He then presides over the negotiations, convincing each side to make the concessions required so that the deal can be closed. Then the boy meets the girl, and the shadchan’s work begins in earnest. The boy wanted someone more beautiful, the girl wanted someone with better prospects. The shadchan explains, cajoles, clarifies and exaggerates; he gives long speeches on love and what is important in life. He succeeds in arranging a second meeting and then a third. More meetings follow, and the engagement is formalized. In the critical months between the engagement and the wedding, the shadchan advises, encourages, assuages doubts and heads off crises.

Then comes the wedding. The bride and groom stand under the canopy, and the shadchan is the proudest man in attendance. At this point, the shadchan is discreetly taken aside and told: "Thank you very much for what you did. Without you, this union could never have been achieved. Now take your commission and get out of our lives. We don’t want to see you ever again."

In the cosmic marriage between G‑d and Israel, the intellect is the shadchan. Without it, the relationship could not have been realized. But there comes a point at which the shadchan’s brokering is no longer needed, for something much deeper and truer has taken over. At this point, the shadchan’s continued presence is undesirable, indeed intolerable.

Purim is a wedding at which the shadchan has been shown the door, a feast celebrating the quintessential bond between G‑d and Israel. There are "drunks" at this feast who have achieved a state of cognitive oblivion; but in no other way do they resemble the stereotypical drunk.

You will not see them hurling fists, insults or obscenities at each other, or slobbering over their domestic troubles. You will see outpourings of love to G‑d and to man. You will see pure, unbridled joy.

You will see people who are disciplined and aware: not with a discipline imposed by the watchdog of reason, not with an awareness brokered by the mind, but with a discipline and awareness which derive from the uninhibited expression of the spark of divine truth that is the essence of the human soul.

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Anonymous Russia July 16, 2013

John Williams I don't think jews should celebrate their mass murders as holidays.

It's offensive to the relatives of their murder victims. Reply

Anonymous February 23, 2013

ridiculous I know 6 young people who have been killed by drunks and a 7th stabbed in the heart. I drank when I was young myself until I realized that I would say things and act differently even at only 2 drinks! So, I began to think: "If I can hear myself talking differently after only 2 beers, then what is happening in my mind before I become aware of it? I began to learn the affects of alcohol and found that a chemical change begins to take place within our brains, the moment alcohol gains entry in through the bloodstream. I never touch it anymore.

We do not have to taste poison to know it is poison when the behavioral evidence is so overwhelming. G_d enabled us by our own created nature, though marred by sin, to distinguish the consequences of seeds we sow. Satan loves for us to think we are exempt from consequences that others may have as a result of it, but it could never happen to you right? Reply

Tom Delaney St. Paul, MN February 21, 2013

I think the mitzvah has plenty of room for minimal (if any) drinking of alcohol on Purim. Note that the tractate says "know" the difference, not "hear" the difference. So I propose we're not talking about sensory debilitation by alcohol here. If we are actually talking about a difference to be known and then unknown, maybe it is something along the lines of a paradox to be embraced. When we say "the difference between 'cursed be Haman' and 'blessed be Mordechai'" how huge of a paradox is a person trying to mentally embrace? Maybe not a very big one? And then also, how much alcohol does any given person need in order to mentally embrace that paradox? Maybe not much, if any at all? This is just the way I see the involved questions and perhaps I am missing something important. I wish everyone and their families a very festive Purim!

Anonymous February 15, 2013

Continued... Since many of today's leading rabbis have a hard time not taking Rava's word literally, I wish they would at least add some more rules to this Halachah.... Judaism is known for being very particular about our daily lives - why not add rules: if you do get drunk - do it in the company of people that you trust. Do not do it in front of young children. Only after a certain hour. Etc etc... Reply

Anonymous February 15, 2013

No happiness when it is forced... I saw the horror in the eyes of the 8 kids of my next door neighbor when they witnessed their dad's intoxicated behavior. Sometimes they were giggling, but only as a mean to get some relief from their anxiety.
This family is so kind, gentle and loving, and so is the father, and he wasn't involved in any abusive or violent behavior. He was just not himself. Much louder. Maybe walking funny, acting silly. But it was not funny to anyone around him, I believe not even to himself. It was awkward, embarrassing to the adults around, but it sure felt like a complete trauma to his kids - witnessing how the wonderful stable loving figure that they trust can suddenly turn into something they cannot predict, so quickly and just because he drank. No happiness involved when you feel inside you that the person doesn't not really want/like/enjoy to get drunk (nor knows how to) and does it because he HAS to. Reply

Anonymous colusa, california March 7, 2012

Divine Spirit True meaning is often found on the higher level. The Divine Spirit will enable a person to fulfill the obligation to enter a realm where he does not know the difference between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordechai". This would be entering the realm of the Divine Attribute of Mercy. Reply

Anonymous Martinsville, VA, USA March 7, 2012

Drunk on Purim Thank you for this wonderful answer to a question many Jews have asked themselves. I am sure there are people out there who know themselves enough to know they shouldn't get drunk, even on Purim, because of their tendencies. There are people who are alcoholics and Purim is no different, therefor it's not much of a celebration. But, for those, like myself, who are responsible drinkers and know that I do not have ill tendencies when drunk, find joy in drinking on Purim. I do not get drunk enough not to remember Purim or enough to not be able to walk, but like many others, I am a happy drunk and love this celebration. I do not focus on drinking and it does not consume my mind while listening to the Megillah. Instead, it is just another part of the celebration, like eating cake is on a birthday. With the wine I am no longer insecure about my insecurities and I am truly myself, with no worries. I am like a free bird and I love the fellowship with my fellow Jews. It truly is a joyous time. Reply

Thoughtful Believer Ruidoso, NM March 1, 2012

Drunkenness? The yayin is a mocker, strong drink a brawler; and whosoever is seduced to be led astray thereby is not wise. (Mishle 20:1 OJB)
Any questions? Better to obey G_d than man. Reply

Anonymous 6330, W.A. March 20, 2011

Purim getting drunk I don't want too, I have seen too much bad stuff.
Everyone can be happy without being drunk.
Being drunk is not that good.
anyway happy Purim
G-d Bless Reply

Anonymous Blythe, California March 15, 2010

Purim and the Divine Attribute of Mercy It seems the pervading message of Purim is Mercy. It is first displayed when, after 3 days of community fasting, Esther is extended the King's scepter rather than the death penalty for breaking the royal law of entering the King's presence without his authority. Mercy is then 'tasted' when the opportunity is taken on Purim to ascend past the level of receiving Mercy, to the level of having Mercy. It seems this is emulated by the drinking until he does not know the difference between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordechai", and manifested by "outpourings of love to G-d and to man". Reply

Joe Harrisburg, PA February 10, 2010

sober drunk Thanks for helping me to understand drinking and its relation to Purim. As a sober drunk, it is so important for me to be reminded of what it really is we're doing. Thank you Reply

Anonymous March 10, 2009

wow!! this article is great, because it shows how drinking which seems like such a low thing and can bring a terrible outcome, but if used in the right way, the torah way it can bring you closer to God.
thanks Reply

Dan Gwaltney St. Louis, MO, USA August 4, 2008

drunkeness In all due respect sir, this is a shocking justification of what nature itself even rebels.

Those who get drunk, discover an inert nature of sin within them which is brought to the surface. The climax of the logic of your piece equates to the idea that if you are good, only good will come froth from you. History, current cultures and morgue records prove differently.

God allowed many things at many times because of the hardness of our hearts. But the progressive revelation of His very being should promote us within the seasons of growth He has determined. His plan for man is progressive in the sense that man is slow in true learning.

Either the spring is bitter or is sweet. Drunkeness reveals the sin nature in us. Sin will never be passive in us, by the same toxic drink that causes another to kill, steal & destroy. It is my own heart I fear for when left to itself, I will release the wickedness that yet remains. Not even for a day, will I unlock this sin nature.
Thks Reply