The Forbidden Drink
In discussing the specific mitzvah of drinking on Purim, it is worth beginning from the more general question of getting drunk throughout the year. Getting drunk is certainly unethical, as many mussar works note – but is it actually permitted to get drunk, or does doing so involve a full halachic prohibition?
The Orchos Chaim (Purim no. 38; cited in Beis Yosef, Orach Chaim 695) writes that drunkenness is absolutely prohibited, and is actually ranked among the most severe prohibitions of the Torah.
Because becoming drunk is an “absolute prohibition,” the Orchos Chaim states that the obligation of inebriation on Purim cannot be understood in a literal sense; “rather, a person should drink slightly more than his regular custom.”
Precedents of Inebriation
The position taken by the Orchos Chaim raises something of a difficulty – for we actually find several instances of Torah leaders becoming inebriated, without any mention of a possible transgression taking place.
In one instance, the Gemara records a halachic ruling permitting anointing oneself on Shabbos with a specially prepared lotion, which has the effect of “drying up” one’s wine. The Talmud explains that this procedure was followed by the most important disciples of leading Talmudic academies, for whom it was improper to remain drunk after their teachers had given them to drink (Shabbos 66b, and interpretation of Rashi).
We find a more renowned example of drunkenness in the twelve Tribes of Israel. Upon dining with Yosef – who knew them, while they knew him not – the Torah records that “they drank and they became drunk with him” (Bereishis 43:33-34). Seforno explains that the inebriation of his brothers was a part of Yosef’s plan, because it permitted him to plant his silver goblet in Binyamin’s bag, without the latter or his other brothers noticing. The fact remains, however, that the twelve brothers, the great shevatim themselves, reached some level of inebriation.
These anecdotes, and several similar narratives in the writings of Chazal, place a question mark over the ruling of the Orchos Chaim.
A moral wrong, such as that which Rambam (De’os 5:3) points out in stating that one who becomes drunk is a “sinner and a disgrace,” can be somehow explained by circumstance. An actual prohibition, such as the heinous prohibition suggested by the Orchos Chaim, is far harder to explain. If becoming drunk is strictly prohibited, how can it be that Torah leaders reached the state?
Levels of Drunkenness
Yet, there is room to distinguish between different levels of drunkenness.
In respect of prayer, the Gemara (Eruvin 64a) makes a distinction between somebody who is only under the influence of alcohol, and somebody who is actually drunk. A shatui, as the Gemara calls him, may not pray – yet if he does so, his prayer is valid, and he does not need to daven again.
A shikor, however – somebody who is truly drunk – may not pray, and his prayer is considered an abomination, so that he must daven again after recovering from his drunken state. The Gemara proceeds to explain the difference between the two states: “A shatui is one who is able to address the king; a shikor is one who is unable to address the king.” These principles are ruled by the Rambam (Laws of Prayer 4:17).
We thus learn of two distinct levels of drunkenness. The lighter of them is a state of being “under the influence,” in which one is forbidden to enter the Mikdash, to issue halachic rulings, or to pray – yet in which one’s prayer is still valid. The more severe is a state of true drunkenness, which is defined by one’s inability to address a king or nobleman. In this state, one’s prayer is not valid, and a shikor who prays remains obligated to pray once more (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 99:1).
Yet, even the full shikor is not considered to have entirely lost his faculties of speech and conscious thought. This is borne out by the laws of Birkas Hamazon, in which we find that even somebody who is actually drunk (unable to address a king) is permitted to recite the full berachah (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 185): The state of drunkenness is insufficient to waive the Torah obligation of reciting the blessing (see Mishnah Berurah 185:6).
Likewise, if the time for reciting the Shema is about to run out, one must recite the Shema even when drunk (Mishnah Berurah 99:8; 185:6 and Biur Halacha 5).
The Drunkenness of Lot
The Gemara also mentions a third, still more extreme level of drunkenness, at which a person’s words and deeds have no legal status, and the person is considered a shoteh (a fool) for all intents and purposes. This level of drunkenness is referred to a the “drunkenness of Lot” – “Rabbi Chanina said … if he reaches the drunkenness of Lot, he is exempt from everything.”
The Mishnah Berurah (99:11) thus teaches that somebody who has reached this a level of drunkenness cannot recite any blessings. His words and actions have no halachic value, and any berachah he recites will be meaningless.
It is therefore possible that the Orchos Chaim made his comment specifically concerning this third level of drunkenness – a level that denies a person his very consciousness and mind.
Specifically concerning the “drunkenness of Lot,” which is the literal understanding of a person who cannot distinguish between Haman and Mordechai, Orchos Chaim rules that willfully entering such a condition is a heinous crime. The instances of leaders of Israel who became inebriated thus no longer pose any difficulty, for they surely did not reach the extreme level of “the drunkenness of Lot.”
However, it is noteworthy that according to this interpretation, it emerges that there is no halachic restriction on a person becoming drunk to a degree. The simple reading of the Orchos Chaim appears to clash with this conclusion, for he adds that on Purim a person should only “drink slightly more than his regular custom.”
Dangers of Purim Drunkenness
The Gemara in Megillah, after mentioning Rava’s instruction of getting drunk on Purim, proceeds to cite the following anecdote:
“Rabba and Rabbi Zeira made a Purim feast together, and they got drunk. Rabba stood up and killed Rabbi Zeira. On the morrow, Rabba prayed for him, and revived him. The following year, Rabba said to him: ‘Come, let us celebrate the Purim feast together!’ Rabbi Zeira replied: ‘Miracles don’t happen every day!'”
Based on this continuation of the Gemara, RabbeinuEphraim ruled that the halachah does not follow Rava’s statement. The reason why the Gemara mentions the anecdote is to teach us of the dangers of drinking, and one should therefore avoid getting drunk on Purim.
The opinion of RabbeinuEfraim is noted by a number of rishonim (to Megillah, loc. cit.), and by some halachic authorities (see Taz, Orach Chaim 695:2). Yet, the Bach writes that even according to RabbeinuEfraim, a person should still drink more than his regular custom, and become slightly inebriated.
The Rambam’s Opinion: Drinking Oneself to Sleep
The Rambam severely criticizes the practice of getting drunk (De’os 5:3): “Whoever becomes drunk is a sinner, is shameful, and will lose his wisdom. If he becomes drunk before the common people, he desecrates G-d’s Name.”
Although the Rambam doesn’t adopt the Orchos Chaim‘s approach of considering drunkenness a formal prohibition, it is possible that this negative attitude towards inebriation led the Rambam to a novel interpretation of the obligation to drink on Purim.
Rather than drinking until drunkenness, the Rambam (Megillah 2:15) rules that a person must drink until he becomes inebriated and falls asleep.” It appears that this is how the Rambam understood Rava’s instruction of drinking until a person can no longer distinguish between the curse of Haman and the blessing of Mordechai. This is achieved, according to the Rambam, by drinking until one falls asleep.
Indeed, it is possible that the Rambam interpreted the word “livsumi,” which is generally translated as getting drunk, as meaning “drinking oneself to sleep,” for we find elsewhere that the word is used in this connotation (Bava Basra 73b).
The Rulings of the Shulchan Aruch and Rema
The Shulchan Aruch (695:2) cites the Talmudic instruction of Rava verbatim: “A man is obligated to become drunk on Purim so that he cannot tell the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordecai.’
However, a reading of the BeisYosef indicates that this ruling should not be taken at face value. The BeisYosef cites the above ruling of the Orchos Chaim, who writes that getting drunk is a forbidden practice – which makes a literal interpretation of the obligation difficult.
Moreover, the BeisYosef offers two alternative interpretations of the concept of “until he cannot distinguish between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai.'”
One possibility is that the instruction should not be understood literally, for this will imply reaching the drunkenness of Lot – but rather as getting drunk so that one cannot say the sentence: “Cursed is Haman and blessed in Mordechai; cursed is Zeresh and blessed in Esther; cursed are all the wicked and blessed are all the righteous.” Even a relatively low level of drunkenness will make it hard to say this complex sentence.
Another option is that the intention is the Rambam’s approach, according to which the intention is that a person should fall asleep thorough drinking. Though not mentioned by the Shulchan Aruch, this approach is cited by the Rema, and it appears that even the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch should be understood in the light of his writing in the Beis Yosef.
Following similar lines, later authorities offer different interpretations to the idea of “until he cannot distinguish between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai.'”
The Magen Avraham (3) notes that numerical value of “cursed be Haman” equals that of “blessed be Mordechai” (both add up to 502), and the requirement is to drink until one is unable to do the math – a far lesser level than the literal interpretation of the words.
Another original interpretation of the instruction is as giving thanks to Hashem: One must give thanks both for the downfall of Haman, and for the greatness and blessing of Mordechai. The degree of drinking is quantified as the level at which one no longer distinguishes between the two blessings: the downfall of Haman and the rise of Mordechai (Taz; Mishnah Berurah 4).
It is therefore clear that poskim throughout the generations felt uncomfortable with the literal interpretation of Rava’s demand to get drunk on Purim, and each authority interprets the instruction such that it does not imply one’s fully getting drunk – certainly not the drunkenness of Lot.
When to Drink
The wording of the Rambam (Megillah 2:15), who mentions the concept of drinking wine as part of the obligation of the feast of Purim, implies that the idea of becoming inebriated applies specifically during the Purim se’udah. Based on this there will be no mitzvah in drinking outside of the meal.
The Gemara is somewhat indicative of this – the anecdote of Rabba and Rabbi Zeira took place specifically during the Purim feast. Moreover, the Shulchan Aruch also mentions the obligation to become drunk together with the halachos of the Purim feast.
Indeed, the Tur writes that “there is a mitzvah to invest in the Purim feast; a person must become drunk until he cannot distinguish between the curse of Haman and the blessing of Mordechai; and if he eats at night he does not fulfill the mitzvah.”
Thus, there is certainly no halachic point of getting drunk outside the Purim meal.
What to Drink
On the Talmudic instruction of getting drunk on Purim, Rashi (Megillah loc. cit.) makes specific mention of wine, and although the Gemara doesn’t mention it, some understand that one must specifically drink wine on Purim (based on Avudraham; Chayei Adam 155:30).
The reason for this is that the miracle of Purim took place specifically by means of a wine feast, and our drinking of wine thus recalls the miracle of the time (see Radvaz, Vol. 1, no. 462).
Nonetheless, the Gemara itself makes no mention of wine, and a number of authorities write that one fulfill the instruction by drinking other alcoholic beverages (see Nimmukei Orach Chaim 695:4; Shevilei David 696; Gilyonei Ha-Shas), explaining that Rashi, too, mentioned the normal beverage without meaning to limit the mitzvah to wine.
The Steipler (Orchos Rabbeinu, Vol. 3, Purim 92) makes a compromise, writing that one can become drunk with other beverages, one should make sure to drink some wine, too, as a zecher for the Purim feast.
It is well known that RavYisrael used to get drunk – in the literal sense of the word – on Purim. Rabbi ShlomoWolbe writes of this as follows (Alei Shur, Vol. 2, p. 468):
“Rabbi YisraelSalanter used to get extremely drunk on Purim. Yet in this state he would spend the entire day speaking novel words of Torah, with razor-sharp clarity and creative genius, in all areas of the Talmud. He used to call this, “giving the body a test,” to see whether even his physical body was an embodiment of Divine wisdom. …
For us, who are small in Torah and in the service of God, it is enough to “drink more than usual, without getting so drunk” (Rema, Orach Chaim 681:2). Let us guard the loftiness of the day and not let it turn into an empty waste of time.
We conclude with the words of the Meiri: “In any case, we are not commanded to get drunk …for we were not commanded to engage in debauchery and foolishness but to have heartfelt joy which will lead us to the love of God and to gratitude for the miracles which he performed for us”.
Wishing all readers a joyous and spiritually uplifting Purim.