As we learned back in Tractate Sukkah, the priests who served in the Temple were divided into 24 groups, or watches, that served for a week at a time. Each watch was further divided into families, and each family was assigned to perform the Temple service on a particular day of the week. Those families who were not on duty stood at the ready, assisting the designated family should the requirements of the day be more than they could handle.
Priests were not allowed to serve in the Temple while intoxicated, so the families on duty were forbidden from drinking during their 24 hours of service. The rest of the watch could drink at night, but were prohibited from doing so during the day, in case their help was needed.
Today’s daf suggests that these rules should be in effect in perpetuity:
Any priest who knows his priestly watch and the watch of his family, and he knows that the family of his forefathers was established as fit for the Temple service, it is prohibited for him to drink wine that entire day.
In the case of a priest who knows his priestly watch and does not know the watch of his family, and he knows that the family of his forefathers was established as fit for Temple service, it is prohibited for him to drink wine that entire week.
If he does not know his priestly watch or the watch of his patrilineal family, but he knows that the family of his forefathers was established as fit for temple service, he is prohibited to drink wine that entire year.
In other words, if you know you are from a family that served in the Temple, you cannot drink during your week of service on the specific day to which your family was assigned. If you do not remember which day that was, you cannot drink for the entire week. And if you don’t know the week to which your ancestors were assigned, you can’t drink all year.
While logic is often the foundation of talmudic arguments, this one also appears to rest upon hope. As the sages explain:
May the Temple be speedily rebuilt, and we will require a priest who is fit for the Temple service, and there will be none available.
It is reasonable to assume that the reconstruction of the Temple would take longer than it does to sober up. Yet the rabbis want us — or more specifically, the priests who would be called into service — to be ready, just in case. So they forbid priests from drinking when their family was to have served, and if they can’t remember when that was, they have to take a pass all of the time.
Lucky for the priests who enjoy a sip of scotch from time to time, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi has a different perspective.
What can I do? His misfortune is his advantage.
What does this mean?
As Rashi explains, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi acknowledges that not only has it been more than a century since the Temple was destroyed, but it does not appear that the Temple will be rebuilt anytime soon. As a result, the priests will not soon be called back to duty. While this is unfortunate for them, their misfortune has a silver lining: There is no need to preserve the prohibition on alcohol. And so, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi sees no other option than to allow priests to drink.
Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi offers a pragmatic approach. While he, like his colleagues, longed for the restoration of the Temple service, he was not willing to ban priests from drinking on the basis of hope in an improbable future. While the opinion of the sages is grounded in logic, it’s a bit far-fetched. Ultimately, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s more reasonable opinion becomes the law.
Read all of Taanit 17 on Sefaria.