Drinking on Purim

Yesterday at shul, I taught some texts relating to the well known tradition of drinking on Purim until one doesn’t know (ad d’lo yada) the difference between “Cursed be Haman” and “Blessed be Mordecai”. The origin of the tradition is a single sentence in the Talmudic tractate of Megilla in which Rava says that a person is obligated livsumei bipurya, which can be translated in many ways but seems to have some relationship with drinking wine on Purim ad d’lo yada.

For many, this turns drinking wine or liquor to excess on Purim into a religious obligation. I do not have any problem with those who can drink alcohol doing so on Purim and there were a couple of Purims when I was younger when I clearly drank too much. But, the idea that this “mitzvah” to get drunk on Purim means offering liquor to kids  below the drinking age or not taking into account the danger of driving under the influence of alcohol is offensive and dangerous. This is not just a modern concern. Rabbis throughout the ages have tried to find ways to tone Rava’s statement down a bit: to claim that he meant something different or to lower the threshold for how much alcohol consumption fulfills the responsibility.

There are many different approaches to the question. Maimonides wrote about the need to drink just enough to insure that you sleep soundly because while asleep one certainly can’t tell the difference between “Cursed be Haman” and “Blessed be Mordecai”.

Other commentaries point out that the numerical values (gematria) of the words arur Haman (Cursed be Haman) and baruch Mordecai (Blessed be Mordecai) are in fact identical showing that one needs to have a clear mind to be able to distinguish between the two. Likewise, the difference between blessing and curse and between good and evil is sometimes very narrow and even the slightest amount of alcohol might dull our ability to tell the difference. Thus, one need only have the smallest amount to drink before one has fulfilled Rava’s teaching.

Then there are those who say that there was a long piyyut, a religious poem, from Rava’s time for which the chorus of each verse was either “arur Haman” or “baruch Mordecai” and that one needed to be very clear thinking in order to say the verses correctly. Thus, once you started garbling this rather complicated song, you stopped drinking.

But, of all of the answers my favorite is that which says that the text in the Talmud doesn’t have to be read: “one gets drunk on Purim” but “one gets drunk with Purim”. The letter bet in Hebrew can mean either on or in or it can mean by means of. So, some say Rava’s tradition is that we need to become intoxicated with the joy of Purim until we lose sight of the difference between Haman and Mordecai.

I like that interpretation the best because while it doesn’t eliminate the idea that one would choose to celebrate Purim with feasting, which is entirely appropriate, it stresses that it is the holiday itself which should be the focus not the eating and drinking. And, it also reminds us that on occasion any celebration can get out of hand. The moment that we lose sight of right and wrong, the celebration should stop. That is true whether we are talking about losing sight of the messages of the holiday or when Purim’s playfulness and mockery begins to hurt people. We need to celebrate but we need to never lose sight of the difference between good and bad and right and wrong.

One way to remind ourselves of that is to observe the fourth of the four mitzvot of Purim. We need to hear the Megilla being read, celebrate, give gifts to friends (shalach manot) and to make sure to engage in an act of charity (matanot lievyonim). That final mitzvah is mentioned in the Megilla. Mordecai tells the Jews of Shushan to celebrate the first Purim by giving gifts to friends while when he speaks of future Purim celebrations, he makes sure to add that they should give tzedakah as well. Perhaps that first Purim celebration was just a bit too self-indulgent and Mordecai wanted to make sure that for future years, Jews would keep in mind that our celebrations need to be moderated and one way to do so would be to give charity to make sure there was good that come from our celebration. 

Enjoy this happy month of Adar and enjoy a happy, meaningful and safe Purim!

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