Drinking on Purim

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

Print this page Print this page

Maimonides' reading finds substantial support in the comments of the 16th-century Talmud commentator R. Samuel Eliezer ben Judah haLevi Edels, better known as the Maharsha. The Maharsha understands the story of Rabbah and R. Zeira as an example of figurative language:

It is surprising to explain this as if Rabbah actually committed this crime, but rather, it is as if Rabbah butchered him. That is to say, Rabbah urged R. Zeira to drink too much until he got sick and almost died… The words "brought him back to life" in both the Bible and the Talmud can simply mean healing. If the Maharsha's reading underlies Maimonides' ruling that one should drink until one passes out, then perhaps, against the opinion of Rabbenu Ephraim ibn Avi Alragan, the story of Rabbah and R. Zeira is meant to be indicative of normative practice (the drinking, not the swordplay).

As the Italian commentator, R. Hizkiyah ben David DaSilva points out, if the story of Rabbah were meant to indicate that Rava's rule had been rejected, then why would R. Zeira refuse to join Rabbah the following year? Clearly, R. Zeira expected that Rabbah would continue to drink heavily on Purim (Peri Hadash). Following this line of reasoning, the point of the story is that one should get drunk until one is "dead to the world." Hopefully, one also has a friend who can nurse one back to sobriety, or at least back to consciousness.

When Not To Drink on Purim

More recent halakhic commentators have been somewhat more limited. The 18th-century codifier, R. Abraham ben Yehiel Michal Danzig wrote:

Since the entire miracle of Purim came about through wine, our sages obligated us to get drunk, or at least to drink more than what we are used to, in order to remember the great miracle. However, if one knows oneself, and is likely to neglect the performance of a mitzvah [commandment], such as washing one's hands before eating bread or making a blessing over food before and after eating or that one might forget to pray or might act in a light-headed way, it is better not to get drunk. (Quoted in Be'ur Halakhah 694, s.v. "Ad")

Don't get so drunk that you forget to perform any mitzvot. And count among those mitzvot the contemporary obligation to have a designated driver. Cars can be like Rabbah's sword, and one cannot count on a miracle.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.