Inebriation on Purim

  • Rav David Brofsky

The Gemara (Megilla 7b) teaches:

One is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until he cannot distinguish between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordekhai.”

Rabba and R. Zeira held the festive Purim meal together. They got drunk and Rabba slaughtered R. Zeira. The next day, he prayed for him and he was resurrected.

The next year, [Rabba] said to him: Let us hold the festive Purim meal together. [R. Zeira] said to him: Miracles do not occur every hour.

This startling passage raises many questions.

Regarding the facts of the story, the Maharsha (R. Shmuel Eidels, 1555–1631), in his commentary to this passage, explains that Rabba certainly didn't kill R. Zeira. Rather, he forced him to drink excessively, which made him ill. The Maharsha suggests that the unusual term “shachtei” ("slaughtered") employed by the Gemara refers to what Rabba did to Rabbi Zeira’s throat – forcing him to drink. 

From a practical, halakhic perspective, of course, the more pressing question is how we must understand the Gemara’s initial statement. Is there really an obligation to become inebriated on Purim, and, if so, to what extent?

The Rishonim take different approaches in interpreting this passage and determining the halakha.

The Ba'al Ha-ma’or (to the Rif, Megilla 3b) cites Rabbeinu Efrayim, who explains that the story of Rabba and R. Zeira is intended to contradict and reject the Gemara’s initial statement requiring drinking on Purim. Accordingly, the Ba'al Ha-ma’or rules that there is no obligation to drink on Purim. The Ran (ibid.) concurs.

By contrast, many other Rishonim, including the Rif (3b) and Rosh (1:8), cite this passage verbatim, implying that while the story of Rabba and R. Zeira may serve as a warning against excessive intoxication, the Halakha fundamentally accepts the Gemara's initial statement.

Interestingly, the Rambam (Hilkhot Megilla 2:15), writes:

How does one fulfill this obligation of the [Purim] meal? He should eat meat and arrange a meal according to his means, and drink wine until he becomes inebriated and falls asleep as a result

The Rambam adds that one should drink until one falls asleep, while omitting the Gemara's description of drinking "until one cannot distinguish between 'cursed is Haman' and 'blessed is Mordekhai.'” Why does the Rambam reformulate the Gemara's dictum, and does his new formulation alter the demands of this mitzva?

The Rema (695:2) seems to have understood that one drinks until he falls asleep, and thereby fulfills the requirement to drink until he cannot distinguish between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordekhai.”  The Arukh Ha-shulchan (695:3), by contrast, explains that the story of Rabba and R. Zeira serves to modify the initial statement, and reject the extreme obligation first proposed by the Gemara. In other words, while one should become mildly intoxicated on Purim, excessive inebriated is not mandated (and therefore, not permitted!).

The Orchot Chayim (Hilkhot Purim) also rejects those who mandate complete inebriation, and writes that one should merely "drink more than one is accustomed." He also rules that becoming completely inebriated constitutes a serious sin, as we shall see shortly.

The Tur (695) and the Shulkhan Aruch (695:2), following the Rif and Rosh, cite this Talmudic passage verbatim. Interestingly, the Arukh Ha-shulchan (695:5) expresses astonishment over the Tur and Shulchan Arukh’s ruling in accordance with the Rif and Rosh, rather than the more moderate positions of other Rishonim.

The Rema, however, writes:

And some say that one need not drink that much, and should rather drink more than he is accustomed to and then sleep, and by sleeping he cannot distinguish between the cursed Haman and blessed Mordekhai. Regardless of whether one [drinks] much or little, one should focus one’s heart towards the heavens.

Many Acharonim, including the Mishna Berura (695:5) and Arukh Ha-shulchan (695:5), advocate following the Rema’s ruling. 

When does one fulfill this mitzva?

The Rambam (2:15), and later the Tur and Shulkhan Arukh (605), imply that this mitzva is part of the obligation to participate in a festive Purim meal. R. Shimon Sofer, in his Hitorerut Teshuva (1:6), infers from the story of R. Zeira, who refused to attend Rabba's Purim meal the next year, that the drinking must accompany the Purim meal.

If so, one might question the practice of those who drink on Purim night, as the Shulchan Arukh (695:1) explicitly rules that one can fulfill the mitzva of se’udat Purim only during the day.

Assuming that one wishes to reach some level of inebriation, is there a "preferred drink" to should use for this purpose?

The Shulchan Arukh does not specify any particular beverage. However, some Rishonim explain the halakha of drinking on Purim as intended to commemorate the feasts that took place during the Purim story, which included indulgence in wine. This would certainly indicate a preference for wine. Furthermore, Rashi (Megilla 7b s.v. li-vsumei), the Rambam (Hil. Megilla 2:15), the Rokeach (237) and the Radbaz (1:462) also explicitly mention drinking wine. Some prove from these sources that it is preferable to use wine in fulfilling this mitzva (see, for example, R. Menashe Klein [1923-2011], Mishneh Halakhot 5:83).

R. Moshe Sternbach (Mo’adim U-zmanim 2:190) suggests that one should conduct the meal over wine to fulfill the obligation of “mishteh,” which indicates specifically wine, but one may also drink other alcoholic beverages if one enjoys them.

Although women are included in all the mitzvot of Purim, some sources suggest that it is inappropriate for women to become intoxicated (see Ketubot 65a, Pesachim 109a, and Mo’adim U-zmanim, ibid.).

Several Rishonim expressed great concern regarding this mitzva. The Orchot Chayim (ibid.), for example, writes that full inebriation is certainly prohibited, "and there is no greater sin, as it leads to sexual impropriety, bloodshed, and other sins." In fact, the Chafetz Chayim (R. Yisrael Meir Kagan, 1838-1933), in his Bei’ur Halakha (695:2), questions how the Rabbis could possibly encourage, or even mandate, behavior which has so often been the cause of sin. He cites the Eliya Rabba as explaining that since the miracle of Purim occurred as result of “mishta’ot” (feasts characterized by drinking) – the first feast which led to Vashti's demise, and, later, the feast at which Achashverosh ordered Haman's execution – we commemorate those miraculous events through drinking wine.

Nonetheless, some (Ra'avya 2:564) explain that the Gemara does not obligate drinking, but merely presents it as a mitzva be-alma (a mere good deed); one certainly fulfills the day's mitzvot even without drinking. Furthermore, R. Avraham Danzig (1748-1829) writes in his Chayei Adam (155:30):

If one believes that drinking on Purim will interfere with his performing any mitzva, such as reciting birkat ha-mazon, mincha, or ma'ariv, or if he will behave in a boorish manner, it is preferable that he not drink (or become inebriated), and all his deeds will be for the sake of Heaven.

A famous Talmudic statement (Bava Metzia 23b) allows one to alter the truth regarding "puraya," which is traditionally understood as referring to private sexual matters.  Maharsha, however, explains this term as referring to Purim:

Be-furaya – as a person is obligated to become intoxicated, the Rabbis would customarily lie, saying that they could not distinguish [between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordekhai”] even if they were not inebriated enough and could distinguish.

Apparently, one should not feel pressured to become inebriated, and may even lie if necessary.

The Bei’ur Halakha concludes his discussion of this topic by citing the following comments of the Me'iri:

We are certainly not commanded to demean ourselves through joy, as we are not commanded to engage in a celebration of frivolity and nonsense, but rather through joy that brings about love of God and thanksgiving for the miracles He wrought for us.

It is worth noting that while one who is intoxicated may still recite birkat ha-mazon (Shulchan Arukh O.C. 185:4), the halakha differs when it comes to tefilla. The Shulchan Arukh (99:1) writes:

One who drinks a revi'it of wine should not pray until he removes the wine [meaning, until its effects wear off]. And if he drank more, but he is able to speak before the King, then if he prays [the amida], his prayer fulfills his obligation. [However,] if he is unable to speak before the King, and prays, his prayer is an abomination and he must repeat his prayer when the wine is removed from him.

One should recite the mincha prayer before one's se'udat Purim, and be mindful to properly recite the arvit prayer after the meal.

Damages Caused on Purim; Costumes and "Shpiels"

The Rema (695:2), citing the Terumat Ha-deshen (110), writes, “Some say that if one damages another as a result of the Purim festivities, he is exempt from paying.” The Mishna Berura (13) cites the Bach, who distinguishes in this regard between minor and major damages. He explains that people are not "forgiving" of major damages, even if they result from the Purim festivities, and therefore the guilty party must compensate the victim in the case of major damage. Furthermore, while in some communities people may have been forgiving of minor property damages, one must certainly avoid behavior which leads to embarrassing or humiliating others in any way.

The Rema (696:4) notes the custom to wear costumes on Purim, including men wearing women's clothing, and vice versa. He justifies this behavior on the grounds that the intentions are for the day's festivities. The Taz (Y.D. 182), however, records that his father-in-law, the Bach, sought to abolish this custom. Certainly one who dresses up, and those who perform "Purim shpiels," should ensure that their actions are "le-shem shamayim" and in good taste. As we noted, the Acharonim (see, for example, Mishna Berura 696:31, Arukh Ha-shulchan 695:10) warn against excessive and inappropriate frivolity during Purim celebrations.

Purim sameach!

[Excerpted from Rav Brofsky’s Hilkhot Moadim: Understanding the Laws of the Festivals (Maggid Books, 2013).]