Today’s daf dives into a conversation reminiscent of a driver’s education class, albeit with a rabbinic twist. The question is not whether you can drink or drive, but whether you can drink and decide Jewish law. Not quite a life and death conundrum, but the rabbis take it quite seriously.
Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: If one drank a quarter-log of wine, he may not issue a halakhic ruling, as the wine is liable to confuse his thinking. Rav Naḥman said: This halakha is not excellent, as concerning myself, as long as I have not drunk a quarter-log of wine, my mind is not clear. It is only after drinking wine that I can issue appropriate rulings.
According to Shmuel, alcohol impedes the ability to properly flesh out a situation and decide Jewish law. But Rav Nahman says he can’t decide the law without it. If the discussion ended here, we might conclude to each their own. If alcohol impedes your thinking, then don’t drink and decide. And if alcohol helps you think more effectively, then drink up.
But the discussion doesn’t end here. The rabbis turn to the question of whether one may drink and pray, in the course of which we find this teaching:
What are the circumstances where a person is considered one who has drunk wine, and what are the circumstances where a person is considered one who is intoxicated with wine? One who has drunk wine refers to anyone who has drunk wine but whose mind remains clear enough that he is able to talk in the presence of a king. One who is intoxicated refers to anyone who is so disoriented by the wine he has drunk that he is not able to talk in the presence of a king.
Unlike the disagreement between Shmuel and Rav Nahman, which dealt with a fixed quantity of wine, this teaching suggests a more individualized standard. Yet in deciding whether one can drink and still fulfill one’s obligation in prayer, the rabbis don’t leave it up to the individual, instead suggesting an objective way to determine if one is sober enough to pray.
The rabbis go to debate how much wine one can drink, and of what kind, and remain clear-headed. And they debate how much time needs to pass after consumption in order to restore a sober state of mind. While this may seem excessive, it’s important to remember that wine was the beverage of choice in those days. Given that their tolerance for alcohol may have been higher than ours, and that their units of measurement can only be estimated today, it would seem prudent to follow the general rule outlined on today’s daf: If you’ve drunk so much you can’t talk in the presence of a king, you probably shouldn’t be praying (or driving!).
In modern times, the issue of alcohol and religious practice comes up in various places. One of the reasons given for the practice of fasting on the day of one’s wedding is so that the bride and groom are of sound mind and are knowingly entering their marriage with consent. And alcohol is considered a helpful tool in enhancing joy on Jewish holidays, particularly Purim and Simchat Torah. In fact, many communities recite Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing, during the morning service on Simchat Torah (normally it’s said during the later Musaf service) because the assumption is that if you wait the priests will not be of sound mind to properly bless the congregation.
The bottom line is that when engaging in religious acts, we should do so with dignity and a certain level of cognition and intention. That being said, Jewish life provides many opportunities for uncorking the wine, from Simchat Torah to Purim to weddings, not to mention every Shabbat. L’chaim!