Drinking on Purim

A lighthearted look at the source of the obligation to get drunk on the holiday.

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Does Judaism encourage drinking? In reference to Purim, the Talmud states that one is to drink to the point of not knowing the difference between "cursed is Haman" and "blessed is Mordechai." In modern times, the sensitivity to alcohol abuse has caused this custom to lose popularity among many groups, while still remaining strong in others. In the spirit of Purim, this article looks at traditional definitions of what it means to drink too much. Spitzer urges anyone who reads this article to seek halakhic (Jewish legal) advice about the "obligation" to get drunk on Purim from someone who is a competent, and preferably sober, halakhic authority.

When it comes to drinking on Purim, the Talmud clearly understood what the scroll of Esther (the Megillah) was all about. In practically every chapter of the Megillah, someone is imbibing heavily at a drinking party. And the scroll concludes with Mordecai's instruction to the entire Jewish people to celebrate these days as "yemei mishteh v'simchah, days of drinking and rejoicing" (Esther 9:22).

An ambiguous law like that, however, would not be left unqualified by the rabbis. On Passover, precise amounts are defined so that one may fulfill the obligations of eating matzah and drinking the four cups of wine. So one might expect that the rabbis would define "days of drinking" in terms of the volume of wine or the number of hours one would be obligated to drink.

The rabbis of the Talmud paid close attention to the nature of the obligation. On Passover, the four cups of wine are for joy and for sanctification, but they also have symbolic associations with the expressions that God used for Israel's redemption. On Purim, however, the wine (or liquor) is not symbolic. It is functional. Consequently, the nature of the obligation is not defined by volume, but rather, by the effect upon the drinker.

How Drunk Is Drunk?

"Rava said: It is one's duty levasumei, to make oneself fragrant [with wine] on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between 'arur Haman' (cursed be Haman) and 'barukh Mordekhai' (blessed be Mordecai)" (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 7b).

What degree of drunkenness is meant by this? The word levasumei is sometimes translated as "get mellow;" others simply say "drink." The word levasumei, however, is from the same root as besamim (fragrant spices, like those that are smelled during Havdalah at the conclusion of the Sabbath). Minimally, one must drink so that others would smell it, although if they are also drunk, who would be able to check? Maximally, one must become, to use a technical term, "stinking drunk."

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.