Drinking on Purim

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

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Most people assume that one must become so befuddled that one can no longer distinguish between the most wicked of people and the most righteous. Some, however, have noted that the two phrases, "arur Haman" and "barukh Mordekhai" have the same numerical value according to the traditional counting of the Hebrew letters called gematria (502). This point is somewhat obscure. Are we to assume that people are sober enough to calculate the gematria of these phrases, but drunk enough to get the words confused because they have the same gematria? However puzzling, this seems to be the opinion of the 17th century halakhist R. Abraham Abele ben Hayyim haLevi Gombiner.

Alcohol and Swordplay Don't Mix Perhaps the Talmud tells the following story in order to provide some degree of clarification of Rava's requirement to get drunk: Rabbah and R. Zeira got together for Purim Seudah (the feast on the afternoon of Purim). They got very drunk, and Rabbah got up and cut R. Zeira's throat (literally, Rabbah butchered him). The next day, Rabbah prayed on R. Zeira's behalf and brought him back to life. A year later, Rabbah asked, "Would you like to have Purim Seudah with me again this year?" R. Zeira replied, "One cannot count on a miracle every time." (Megillah 7b) Cute story, but what does it have to do with how much one is supposed to drink? Traditional interpreters have four basic approaches. The most eminent sources, including the Rosh, the Tur, and Yosef Karo, simply quote Rava's statement that one "becomes fragrant" without any reference to the story of Rabbah. Presumably, R. Zeira had a hard night, but why should that spoil the party for everyone else?!

The opposite approach is attributed to the late 11th-century North African halakhist Rabbenu Ephraim ibn Avi Alragan, "Based on the story of Rabbah getting up and slaughtering R. Zeira, we reject the statement of Rava, and it is wrong to act in such a way" (quoted by the Ra"n, ad. loc.).

Maimonides, however, replaces the "can't tell the difference between Haman and Mordecai" standard with one that is more easily appraised:

How does one fulfill the obligation of the Purim Seudah? One should eat meat and prepare as nice a meal as one can afford and drink wine until one becomes drunk and falls asleep from drunkenness. (Laws of Megillah 2:15)

Falls asleep? Many contemporary halakhists see Maimonides as limiting the application of Rava's "can't tell the difference…" rule; one only has to get drunk enough to fall asleep. This reading is strange. Rigorous double-blind controlled testing reports that one loses the ability to count up gematria significantly quicker than one passes out in a drunken stupor. Nevertheless, if Maimonides, who was, after all, a doctor, says that one hasn't fulfilled one's obligation until one is out cold on the floor, then maybe that should be the standard. Of course, from a public health perspective, going to sleep is preferable to picking up a sword (or car keys).

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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.