We are an American generation sadly marred by excess, addiction, and reduced public morals. On line at the supermarket we see magazines that headline Lindsay Lohan, Brittany Spears, and Charlie Sheen. Purim is around the corner, and the question arises: What’s the deal with getting drunk on Purim? So here’s the deal:
An alcoholic in recovery may not drink wine on Purim and should drink only grape juice at the Passover Seder. Others need not drink wine on Purim if they prefer not to do so. Teens in particular should not be plied with wine. Any wine that one drinks on Purim is meant to be drunk specifically during the special Mitzvah Feast – the Purim Seudah eaten during Purim Day, replete with the careful recital of all brakhot (blessings) for washing one’s hands preparatory to eating bread, for eating the bread itself, and for thanking G-d after the meal during the four brakhot of the bentching grace after meals. One also may drink wine during any Purim celebratory meal on Purim night after Megillah reading. Again, however, the wine drinking must be tempered and must be only an adjunct to eating a mitzvah meal marked by the recital of brakhot. It is forbidden to drink too much, and Judaism points to Noah and Lot as examples of what happens to degrade the sanctity of the human spirit when one overindulges. One absolutely should withdraw from environments where celebrants drink too much. That is not Judaism. It is “Jersey Shore.”
The tradition of drinking alcohol, particularly wine, on Purim stems from the centrality of wine-drinking throughout the Megillah narrative. Stem? Where?
The encounter begins with King Achashverosh staging a massive empire-wide party of wine-drinking and eating for 180 days, followed by seven more days of wine partying for his inner circle and residents of his capital. The Megillah text, augmented by the Talmudic and Midrashic commentaries, tell us how detailed the wine aspect was. Each party-goer was served wine carefully selected for each participant from the vineyards of the respective province in which he lived. People were served wine aged longer than their respective ages. No one was forced to drink.
Under the influence of the wine, as partiers were arguing whether Medean women or Persian women are more beautiful, the King drunkenly decided to demonstrate that his wife’s appearance surpassed all and demanded that his Queen Vashti appear completely undressed – wearing only her tiara – before his advisors. According to the text, amplified by the Midrashic tradition, she refused and sent back a sharply worded response that her husband should be ashamed of himself for losing his sobriety in a way that her family’s men never would. The King became enraged and, as he lost his head in anger, he had her beheaded.
Later, when the King selected Esther from among the huge selection of women with whom he was spending respective nights, he celebrated with a wine party, the “Esther Party,” also accompanied by a tax holiday in her honor. In time, as Haman emerged with his genocidal plan to murder the Jews of all the King’s 127 provinces, Esther – prompted by Mordechai’s importuning and a city-wide three-day public Jewish fast for God’s mercy – devised a strategy to save her people. She invited the King and Haman to a private wine party in their honor. As amplified by the Midrash, that party made Haman oh-so-proud, but it planted concerns in the King’s mind: “What the heck was Haman doing at the private party? Why is my wife inviting this guy to our little private cozy wine party? Is something up between them? Are they having an affair? Are they planning to kill me, like anachronistically in Hamlet or something?”
It really bothered the King. That night he couldn’t sleep, maybe because he was afraid his wife and Haman were plotting his assassination. Maybe it was his Circadian rhythm. So, to calm himself down, and lacking a television to watch, an Ipod to hear, a Twitter account to Tweet, a computer to Facebook, or anything else, he turned to his favorite pastime: having his aides read him his favorite stories – namely, stories about himself, from his royal diary. They pulled out the book and started reading. It may even be that he worried whether he had failed in the past to show ample gratitude to someone who had saved his life by conveying an insider’s tip of an assassination plot. “Perhaps,” he may have thought, “if I demonstrate that I never forget inside-tippers, I can encourage someone else now to tell me whether Haman and my wife are conniving against me.” With G-d’s hidden face guiding the course of events, the reader turned to a long-forgotten entry about a murder plot that had been thwarted thanks to an inside tip that had come just-in-the-nick-of-time to save the King’s life. Hearing the story, he was reminded that he owed his life to Mordechai the Jew but never had done a thing to show gratitude. The time now was well into midnight, and he suddenly hears noise outside his window, in his courtyard. “Who in the world could that be at this time of the night?” he asks. It is Haman, so excited about hanging Mordechai the Jew tomorrow on the scaffold he has erected in his backyard, that he can’t sleep either. So Haman has come past midnight to ask the King’s OK to kill the Jew, even as the King is unable to sleep at midnight, perhaps concerned that Haman is planning with Esther to murder him . . . like, maybe, at midnight when he is sleeping? Or whatever.
The story unfolds into the next day, and another Esther wine party. Again, just the three of them: the triangle of King, Haman, and Esther. And it is there, under the influence of that wine, that Esther reveals her nation, her place of birth, and that Haman is planning to murder her people. As she reveals to the king, for the very first time, that she is a Jew, a member of that people whom Haman has undertaken to obliterate, the King goes into a rage, loses his head augmented by the wine, and orders Haman hanged.
So that is the reason that our Rabbis encouraged us to drink some wine at the Purim feast. The Jews of that miraculous period gave gifts of food to one another, so we give mishlo’ach manot. They circulated the Megillah narrative among their 127 provinces, so we assemble to read it and to hear every word. They feasted, so we feast. They drank some wine, so we drink some wine. In a famous Talmudic aphorism, our Rabbis taught that we should drink enough wine so that we would not be able to discern between “Arur Haman” (Cursed is Haman) and “Barukh Mordechai” (Blessed is Mordechai). Babylonian Talmud, Mesechet Megillah 7b; Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 695:2. In one particular outlier incident, the Talmud in Mesechet Megillah recounts that two rabbis, Rabbah and Rav Zeira, made for themselves a private Purim feast, and one got so drunk that he inadvertently killed the other. When he sobered, he was so remorseful, prayed so hard, and called upon all his holy merits from an otherwise spotless life that he succeeded in bringing about the miracle of a lifetime, as his deceased rabbinic friend returned to life. The Talmud continues, recounting that the next year the same rabbi invited his same friend to another two-man private Purim party, but this time his friend turned him down, explaining: “I can’t count on miracles every year.” (Literally: “Miracles do not happen all the time.”)
So there we have the dichotomy: yes, good to drink wine. Forget the difference between Haman and Mordechai. But don’t get all-that-drunk. Our greatest Rabbinic Sages over the centuries have wrestled with the dichotomy, looking to harmonize the themes. One Rabbi, the Magen Avraham, noted that the gematria numerology – the sum of the letters of the words, with each Hebrew letter having a numerical value – of “Arur Haman” (Cursed is Haman) is 502. And the letters comprising “Barukh Mordechai” (Blessed is Mordechai) also equal 502. (See M.A. Comment 3 on Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 695:2.) So, he said, drink only until you can’t do the tally of those numbers in your head. Another taught that you should drink only enough to make yourself a bit drowsy, which will lead you to fall asleep, and – unless you have a Purim dream – you then will be in state where you don’t know the difference between Haman and Mordechai. (See, e.g., Ram”a on Shulchan Arukh 695:2.) A similar approach is taken by Rambam (Maimonides). (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Megillah 2:15).
In recent years, as American culture in general, and our teen culture in particular, has grown depressingly coarse – witness television shows like “Jersey Shore” and “Skins” and a society where more people know the daily thoughts, so to speak, of Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan than they do of their Congressional representative or the Poet Laureate of the United States – more rabbis than ever have called for bans on teen drinking during Purim and also have condemned the practice of certain outlier sects who would encourage drinking to the point of barfing on Main Street. Judaism despises drunkenness, and Rambam explicitly warned against it. (See, e.g., Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot 5:3; Hilkhot Sh’vitat Yom Tov 6:20)
It therefore devolves on the individual to know his or her limits, his or her values. If you are drinking some wine at a Mitzvah Purim Feast, a Seudat Purim marked by reciting brakhot (blessings) when washing your hands and eating bread, and then reciting more brakhot at the bentching prayers after the meal, that’s cool. On the other hand, if it is not a Seudah feast of Mitzvah, but just one more excuse to go drinking and getting a “buzz,” then such wine drinking would be forbidden as a coarse denigration of the extraordinary sanctity of the human soul that was created in the image of G-d. It would be a mockery and desecration of the miracle of Purim. And it would be a shame.
Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is a columnist for several online magazines and is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at rabbidov.com.