New York – Can you feel Purim just around the corner? Who isn’t eagerly anticipating this annual Yom Tov extravaganza, featuring joyous dancing, Mishloach Manos, colorful costumes, and of course, the Megillah reading? However, for many, it is the unique mitzvah to get drunk that they are eagerly awaiting. Since Purim is described in the Megillah (Esther Ch. 9: verse 19) as a day of Mishteh (referring to a wine feast) and the Purim turnabout miracle occurred at such wine feasts, there is a rare dispensation from the norm, and an apparent obligation to drink wine. Hopefully, the wine will enable one to experience a sublime, spiritual Purim. Yet, uninhibited drinking may also unfortunately result in catastrophic consequences. If so, what exactly is the Mitzvah of drinking on Purim?
Chayav Inish L’Vesumei…
The Gemara in Megillah (7b) famously rules that ‘MeiChayav Inish L’Vesumei B’Puraya ad d’lo yada bein Arur Haman L’Boruch Mordechai’ – a person is obligated to drink and get intoxicated on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between ‘Cursed is Haman’ and ‘Blessed is Mordechai’. The simple meaning is seemingly teaching us that we must get exceedingly drunk on Purim. Yet, as we will soon see, this assertion is anything but simple.
The very next line in the Gemara tells a fascinating story of Rabba and Rabbi Zeira who got excessively drunk together on Purim. In his drunken stupor, Rabba proceeded to kill (‘slaughter’) Rabbi Zeira. When he sobered up and realized what he had done, he davened that Rabbi Zeira be brought back to life. His tefillos were answered and Rabbi Zeira rejoined the world of the living. Yet, the next year, Rabbi Zeira refused to join Rabba for his Purim seudah, duly noting that a miracle is not a common occurrence and one may not rely on such miracles.
Although there are different interpretations of this story, with several meforshim explaining that it is not to be understood literally, positing that Rabba did not actually kill Rabbi Zeira, nevertheless, many commentaries are bothered by the Gemara’s choice of words. If the ruling is that one must get drunk on Purim, then why is this story, showcasing the potential drastic and tragic consequences of such drinking, featured immediately following? What message is the Gemara trying to impart to us? Additionally, what exactly does it mean that one must drink until ad d’lo yada bein Arur Haman L’Boruch Mordechai? What does this enigmatic turn of phrase actually mean?
Ad D’ad D’lo Yada…
As with many other issues in halacha, the answers to these questions are not as simple as they seem. Several authorities, including the Rif (Megillah 3b) and Tur (Orach Chaim 695, 2), when codifying this mitzvah, do indeed use the basic understanding of the Gemara’s ruling, that one is required to get so drunk on Purim that he cannot tell the difference between ‘Cursed is Haman’ and ‘Blessed is Mordechai’, implying quite drunk.
Yet, Rabbeinu Efraim, cited l’halacha by the Ran and Baal Hama’or (Megillah 3b), rules the exact opposite! He maintains that since the Gemara tells the story of Rabba and Rabbi Zeira after the ruling of getting drunk, it is not meant only as a cautionary tale detailing the evils of excessive alcohol imbibement; rather, it is coming to negate the ruling! According to this understanding, it is forbidden to get drunk on Purim!
V’lo Ad B’Chlal!
A different explanation of the Gemara is that drinking ad d’lo yada bein Arur Haman L’Boruch Mordechai does not actually meant getting stone cold drunk. In fact, most commentaries offer many different rationales as to the Gemara’s intent with this phrase. Some say it means drinking until one can no longer perform the mental acrobatics necessary to be able to add up the Gematria of Arur Haman and Baruch Mordechai (Hint: they both equal 502!). Accordingly, this is a much lesser degree of drunkenness. Others explain it means drinking until one can no longer decide which was a greater miracle: the downfall of Haman or Mordechai’s meteoric rise in prominence. Another interpretation is to drink enough to no longer be able to recite a lengthy Purim themed Alef-Bais acrostic poem in the proper order. An additional understanding is that one must get inebriated just enough to no longer be able to properly thank Hashem for the many miracles of our salvation Purim time. It is clear that many authorities throughout the generations felt uncomfortable with the literal interpretation of the Gemara’s teaching to get drunk on Purim, and each one interprets the instruction as such that it does not imply one’s fully getting drunk.
Rav Manoach Hendel of Prague, a contemporary of the Maharshal’s, in his Chochmas Manoach commentary to Gemara Megillah (7b), cites many of these explanations to elucidate the Gemara’s intent. Interestingly, what they all have in common is that not a single one of them understands the Gemara to mean actually getting drunk! Utilizing any of these aforementioned opinions would mean that one should definitely not be ‘getting plastered’. Rather, one should only drink a bit, somewhat more than he usually would, until he fulfills one of these understandings of the dictum of ad d’lo yada.
In fact, although the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 695, 2) seems to imply that he agrees to the Tur’s interpretation, that one must get drunk, it must be noted that in his Beis Yosef commentary (ad loc. s.v. mitzvah) he completely rejects this approach, exclusively citing Rabbeinu Efraim (ibid.) and the Orchos Chaim (Hilchos Purim 38), who refers to getting drunk on Purim as ‘ain lecha Aveirah gedolah mezu’, the worst of Aveiros, and concludes that one should merely drink a tad more than he is accustomed to. This apparently means that when he codified the halacha in the Shulchan Aruch as drinking until ad d’lo yada, this should be understood in the light of his writing in the Beis Yosef, and not ‘getting wasted’, as many mistakenly believe.
Sleep It Off
The Rambam (Hilchos Megillah Ch.2, 15) offers an alternate approach. He maintains that one must drink until he falls asleep. Meaning, if one drinks and then falls asleep he has fulfilled his Mitzvah of drinking on Purim ad d’lo yada without actually getting drunk. When asleep, one certainly cannot distinguish between Arur Haman and Baruch Mordechai! This also fits well with his ruling in Hilchos Dei’os (Ch. 5, 3) about one who gets drunk being a ‘sinner and a disgrace’.
The Rema (Orach Chaim 695, 2) when codifying the proper amount to drink on Purim combines both of the latter approaches: drinking somewhat more than one is accustomed to regularly, and then going to sleep.
So…What’s the Halacha?
It should be noted that several authorities who do rule that one should actually get drunk, including the Ya’avetz, Sha’arei Teshuva, Chayei Adam, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, and Kaf Hachaim, add an important caveat. If one might come to be lax in the performance of even one other mitzvah, such as Netillas Yadayim, Bentching or Davening while drunk, they all maintain that it is preferable not to drink at all, to ensure that all of one’s actions remain l’sheim shamayim.
The Pri Chadash cites several opinions regarding drinking on Purim and concludes that already in his time, several hundred years ago, with society’s decline over the generations, it is proper to follow the opinion of Rabbeinu Efraim, and only drink a small amount more than usual. This way one will be certain not to chas veshalom unwittingly transgress any prohibitions, and result in receiving blessings from Hashem. Not a daas yachid, the Pri Megadim, Aruch Hashulchan, and Mishna Berura all rule like the Pri Chadash l’maaseh.
If this was the case several centuries ago, how much more relevant is the Pri Chadash’s prophetic words nowadays, with teen alcoholism on the rise and not a year going by without hearing horror stories about the tragic results of excessive drinking on Purim? Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l decried the letzonus and zilzul that unfortunately has replaced Simcha shel Mitzva and become the norm among many, due to intoxication. And, more recently, Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky has publicly stated that “it is an Aveira to get drunk on Purim”. [See here: http://www.vosizneias.com/49255.]
In the final analysis, whichever opinion one follows, it seems that Hatzolah has it right with their annual Purim message: ‘Don’t get carried away this Purim!’
The author wishes to acknowledge excellent articles on this topic by Rabbi Moshe Brody, Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer, and Rabbi Binyomin Radner.
For any questions, comments or for the full Mareh Mekomos / sources, please email the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rabbi Yehuda Spitz serves as the Sho’el U’ Meishiv and Rosh Chabura of the Ohr Lagolah Halacha Kollel at Yeshivas Ohr Somayach in Yerushalayim.