הָקִיצוּ שִׁכּוֹרִים וּבְכוּ וְהֵילִלוּ כָּל שֹׁתֵי יָיִן עַל עָסִיס כִּי נִכְרַת מִפִּיכֶם:
because of the sweet wine, for it is cut off from your mouth” (Joel 1:5)
Before I get to the shticks this year, I want to write about the dangerous practice of drinking on Purim. Each year, some people overdo it and wind up sick, hospitalized, or worse. The problems are exacerbated by Rabbis who encourage and sometimes force students to drink regardless if the students have the alcohol tolerance or are of the legal drinking age.
On the other hand, the Talmud seemingly requires excessive drinking; in which case, even 13 year olds would be obligated. Lets begin with the relevant passage from Megillah 7b:
This is loosely translated as “Rava said: a man is obligated to get drunk on Purim until he does not know the difference between “cursed Haman” and “blessed Mordechai.” This of course, requires an immense degree of intoxication. Some major halakhic works simply cite this dictum without qualification (Rif 3b, Shulhan Aruch Orach Hayim 795:2). Consequently many take this statement at face value, and therefore drink and encourage others to get inebriated, under the assumption that they are fulfilling a rabbinic commandment.
I’ve found several sources on the web which deal with this issue in one way or another, but I’ve found most of them to be lacking in real analysis. What I will show here is that while this statement might be obligatory, it does not require the degree of drinking which is commonly practiced.
(For readability, I will be sacrificing some precision in translations).
First, let’s examine the odd idiom employed by the Talmud. Instead of using the common word “להשתכר” (l’hishtaker) to mean “to drink,” Rava says a person is obligated “לבסומי.” (levisumei) Rashi explains that “לבסומי” means to get drunk with wine, and he uses the expected terminology of “להשתכר ביין” (l’hishtaker b’yayin).
However, the word “לבסומי” (levesumei) connotes something other than drinking. We find this root used two other times in the tractate, usage indicated drinking. First, in the preceding sugya, we are told why it isn’t gluttony to partake in multiple purim meals. One answer given is “רווחא לבסימא שכיח.” – here meaning a person has room for “sweet things.”1 In Megillah 32a, R. Yohanan criticizes “those who read without pleasantness and learn without song” and applies Yehezkel 20:25. Abaye asks R.Yohanan if he isn’t a little extreme, “משום דלא ידע לבסומי קלא” – if people don’t make their voices nice or “sweet.” In our case, even assuming the word “לבסומי” does refer to drinking, the word does not necessarily describe the extent required by most people.
Consider the passage which immediately follows Rava’s statement:
- Rabbah and R. Zeira conducted their Purim meal in this manner: they got drunk (ib’sum), Rabba rose and killed R. Zeira. The next day, Rabbah prayed, and R. Zeira lived. The following year, Rabbah asked R. Zeira if they could make the Purim se’udah again in the same manner. R. Zeira responded, God does not perform miracles every time.
How should we understand Rava’s statement in light of this anecdote? Some explain that this serves as a rejection of Rava, others suggest that drinking is obligatory and this story provides a warning for drinking in excess.
I don’t read the anecdote as a response to Rava, but rather as an explanation of Rava’s statement. Textually, Rava’s statement precedes the story of Rabbah and R. Zeira. Chronologically however, Rabba and R. Zeira lived in the generation before Rava.2 Therefore, it is unlikely for Rabba and R. Zeira to be reacting to Rava. Furthermore, in the text of Rabba and R. Zeira’s story, we are only told that they “got drunk” – but not to any particular extent. If anything, Rava knew of Rabba and R. Zeira’s experience, and therefore limited the action of drinking until one loses his faculty for reason. I.e. one is obligated only until that point, but not to go beyond.
Interpreting Rava as limiting intoxication conforms with other Talmudic passages. Eiruvin 64a,65a defines three categories of drunkenness. There is no official blood alcohol level for determining these levels, but there are halakhic distinctions. First is shitui – a state of mild intoxication in which a person shouldn’t pray, but if he does, the prayer is valid because he is in a state where he could respectfully approach a king.
The second level, a shikkur, refers to someone who is too drunk to pray, but is still held responsible for his actions – in the sense that his business dealings are legitimate and he is punishable for any halakhic offenses. Finally, there is the person who even exceeds the inebriation of the shikkur – one who reaches the level of shikruto shel Lot. According to the Bible, Lot’s daughters got him drunk, slept with him, and got pregnant by him – twice.(Bereishit 19:31-38) At any rate, this would (hopefully) require a significant amount of alcohol. Someone who that intoxicated is exempt from all commandments and his business dealings are invalid. This is someone who completely lacks mental capacity.
While few people commit incest on Purim, many reach the level of shikruto shel Lot. I find it implausible that Rava would have required or advocated this degree of intoxication. Were that the case, Rava would require someone to get so drunk that he would no longer be obligated in any commandments.
According to the Talmud, even being in a state of shikhrut prevents someone from fulfilling basic religious obligations. A shikkur should not pray, and if he does his prayer is called “an abomination.”(Eiruvin 64a) A sage in this state may not decide Jewish law.(Eiruvin 64b) A drunken priest may not serve in the temple.(Yoma 49a) It is therefore hardly surprising that the R. Yohanan calls these people “rebellious” and “sinners”(Nedarim 20b).
Practically, few if any traditional halakhic sources advocate getting drunk to the extreme. Here are some opinions cited in various sources. (Note, this is not a complete list, nor does it cover multiple citations in one source – there is usually an overlapping of opinions).
Rosh (Megillah 1:8) – Based on the Yerushalmi, Rosh defines the limit of drunkenness to being able to recite the liturgical passage at the end of the Megillah reading.
R’avyah (Megillah 564) – It’s a commandment, but not obligatory. (Mitzvah, but not hiyyuv)
R. Ephraim, Ba’al Hameor, Ramban, Beit Yosef (695:1), Biur Halakha (695 sv Ad) and others – There is an obligation for besumei, but it’s an outright prohibition to get drunk (l’hishtaker) for drunkenness leads to licentiousness, murder, and lots of other bad things.
Rambam (Laws of Megillah and Hannukah 2:15), Ramo (695:2), others – Drink more than usual and sleep it off.
Maharil (Laws of Purim) – In Gematria, “cursed Haman” equals “blessed Mordechai” (in Hebrew). Therefore, you drink until you can no longer do the math.(Some people don’t even need the alcohol)
- There seems to be an obligation to drink, but in moderation
- The drinking should be done with a degree of reverence for the day. Happiness is ok, levity is not
- Rava continues that the meal must be held during the day. Since drinking is only in the context of the Purim meal, anyone who drinks at night does so purely for hedonistic reasons.
- If you wish to drink, know the limits of halakhic drinking and hedonistic drinking. Excess was never intended, nor should it be encouraged.
I don’t know if this will help matters. Those who want to get hammered are going to do so anyway. I do feel it’s necessary to write this to show people that Jewish law still applies on Purim. If you want to drink excessively, you have the free will to do so. However, if you do act irresponsibly, you do so without the consent of the halakhic tradition.
1. Rashi translates this usage as “?????? ????”.
2. Rabba (Bar Nachman) and R. Zeira were third generation Babylonian Amoraim, Rava was a fourth generation Amora. This of course, assumes we can rely on the attributions. Dikdukei Soferim does not note any other texts which include different people in these sugyot.