He drank of the wine and he became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent (Bereishis 9:21)
After the flood, after the offerings of Noach were accepted by Hashem, and after He blessed Noach and his children, the Torah begins to chronicle the deeds of Noach. The first of them—the deed with which Noach inaugurated the new world—was to plant a vine. The Torah continues to narrate the harsh consequences of Noach’s drinking: “He drank of the wine and he became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. Cham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside.” (Bereishis 9:21-22).
Ramban, in his commentary on the verses, explains that the Torah chronicles the episode of the wine in order to illuminate its disgrace and warn of its danger: Even the great Noach, whose righteousness saved the entire world, was led astray by wine, bringing about personal calamity and eternal curse to his son. The Midrash (Tanchuma, Shmini 5) goes so far as to equate the evil of wine to that of the primordial Serpent.
Works of Mussar (such as Orchos Tzaddikim, Shaar Ha-Simchah and Shlah, Shaar Ha-Otios, Emek Berachah 3) have expounded, based on numerous verses in Scripture, on the unworthiness of drunkenness. Rather than elaborate on this point, we take the opportunity to elucidate some of the halachic aspects of this unique phenomenon.
A Most Heinous Crime: Indeed?
Orchos Chaim (Purim no. 38, cited in Beis Yosef, Orach Chaim 695) takes the opposition front to wine and drunkenness beyond mere morals and ethics. According to him, drunkenness is absolutely prohibited, and is ranked among the most severe prohibitions of the Torah. Because becoming drunk is an “absolute prohibition,” 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 manner.
This position, however, raises a patent difficulty. For if becoming drunk is a heinous crime, how then can the drunkenness of several great Torah leaders, as recorded in the Talmud and even in Scripture, be explained?
In one instance, the Gemara records a halachic ruling permitting anointing oneself with a specially prepared potion on Shabbos, 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).
A more renowned example of drunkenness is found 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, became drunk.
These anecdotes, and several similar narratives in the writings of Chazal, place a question mark over the ruling of 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 Orchos Chaim, is far harder to brush aside. If becoming drunk is strictly prohibited, how can it be that Torah leaders reached the state?
Moreover, a ruling of Shulchan Aruch, and the silence of surrounding commentaries, seems to imply that getting drunk is not a true prohibition. As part of the laws of prayer, Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 99:1) states that it is forbidden for somebody who is drunk to pray before Hashem. Although the proof can be deferred, the words lend themselves to the implication that it is forbidden to pray in a state of drunkenness, but not that drunkenness itself is forbidden.
The ruling of Orchos Chaim thus requires a measure of scrutiny.
Under the Influence
In order to reach a possible answer to this question, we must first introduce a number of halachic definitions with regard to drunkenness.
The Gemara (Eruvin 64b) teaches that it is forbidden for somebody who has drunk a reviis of wine to issue halachic rulings. The only exceptions to this rule, as the Gemara elsewhere (Kerisus 13b) explains, are rulings that are plainly obvious, and which require no halachic analysis. It thus emerges that even if a person has not reached the condition of inebriation, the very drinking of a reviis (86cc or 150cc, depending on dissenting opinions) disqualifies the drinker from issuing halachic rulings.
The law of issuing halachic rulings while under the influence of wine is derived from a corresponding law concerning entering the Mikdash. As the Gemara (Kerisus, loc. cit.) explains, it is forbidden for a Kohen to enter the Mikdash after drinking a reviis of wine, and doing so is considered a grave offence. The Gemara, as ruled by Rambam (Bias Mikdash 1:1), mentions a number of conditions for the full prohibition to apply: the wine must have fermented for forty days, and it must be undiluted.
However, it is not the liquid that the Torah is concerned about, but the effect that the beverage has on the person. As Rambam continues, the prohibition (though perhaps not to its fullest degree), both with regard to entering the Mikdash and with regard to issuing halachic rulings, applies even to other intoxicating beverages.
We therefore learn of a halachic status that we might call “being under the influence” of alcohol. Even before a person is actually drunk, a range of halachos apply to his state of being under the influence of alcohol.
Degrees of Drinking
One such halachah, a restriction that applies even before the state of drunkenness is reaches, is the law of praying while drunk. In respect of prayer, the Gemara (Eruvin, loc. cit.) clarifies 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. A shikor, however—a true drunk—may not pray, and his prayer is considered an abomination. “How,” continues the Gemara, “are a shatui and a shikor defined?” “A shatui,” the Gemara explains, “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 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 accepted. The most severe is a state of true drunkenness, which is defined by one’s ability to speak before 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).
This distinction gives rise to important halachic ramifications. If one sees that the time for prayer (for instance, the Shacharis or Minchah prayers) is running out, it is permitted to pray even after drinking a measure of wine, provided one does not fall under the category of shikor. If one has reached the level of shikor, it is forbidden to pray even when the time will run out, and, after becoming sober, one must compensate for the lost prayer by praying the following prayer twice over (Mishnah Berurah 99:3, 17).
However, it is important to note that even the full shikor is not considered to have entirely lost his faculties of speech and conscious thought. This is clearly 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 Grace after Meals (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 185). The reason for the distinction between prayer and Birkas Hamazon is that the blessing after eating bread is a Torah mitzvah, and although one must be wary of reaching the condition, the state of drunkenness is insufficient to waive the Torah obligation of reciting the blessing (see Mishnah Berurah 185:6).
For the same reason, although it is prohibited to recite Krias Shema while drunk—the stringent laws of prayer apply even to the recitation of the Shema—nonetheless, 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).
As Drunk as Lot
In addition to the levels of drunkenness mentioned above, the Gemara (Eruvin 65b) mentions a third, even more extreme level of drunkenness: “The monetary dealings of a drunk are valid; if he commits a crime whose punishment is death, he is put to death…. The general principle is that he has the status of an ordinary man for all intents and purposes, except that he is exempt from prayer. Rabbi Chanina said: This rule applies only insofar as he has not reached the drunkenness of Lot, but if he reaches the drunkenness of Lot, he is exempt from everything.”
The above teaching of the Gemara confirms that the words and deeds of an ordinary drunk retain their halachic significance: his dealings, and his deeds, have the same consequences as those of ordinary people. However, there is a level of drunkenness at which a person’s deeds lose their halachic relevance. After reaching the “drunkenness of Lot,” meaning a stage at which a person is no longer conscious and in control of his actions, he becomes equivalent to a minor or a deranged person, whose words are not “halachic words” and whose deeds are not “halachic deeds.”
Mishnah Berurah (99:11) thus teaches that somebody who has reached this a level of drunkenness cannot recite any blessings—and should he actually recite a blessing he would not fulfill any obligation, for he is considered a shoteh and is exempt from all mitzvos.
Which Level of Drunkenness is Forbidden?
The obligation on Purim, as the wording of the Gemara goes, is to become drunk to the degree that one cannot distinguish between arur Haman and baruch Mordechai—a level of drunkenness that one might think corresponds to the “drunkenness of Lot.” It would appear that Orchos Chaim made his comment specifically with regard to this level of drunkenness—a level that denies a person his very consciousness and his very mind. Specifically concerning reaching the “drunkenness of Lot,” Orchos Chaim rules that willfully entering such a condition is a heinous crime.
In this light, there is no longer any question on the Orchos Chaim from instances recorded in Scripture and in the writings of Chazal in which great and righteous Torah leaders became drunk. Without a doubt, the drunkenness mentioned by the Gemara (Shabbos 66b) does not refer to the “drunkenness of Lot,” for had the disciples become drunk to such a degree, they would have been unable to take the antidote prescribed by the Gemara. The same is surely true of the shevatim, and of other instances in which drunkenness is mentioned, and the contradiction with the ruling of Orchos Chaim is thus resolved.
Indeed, Rav Leib Mintzberg (Torasi Bekirbam, vol. 1, p. 242) has written that there is no doubt that it is forbidden for a person to bring himself to the level of “the drunkenness of Lot,” whereby he entirely loses the Divine Image in which man was created. Although Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 695:2) does not mention this prohibition (though he cites it in Beis Yosef), and quotes the obligation of becoming drunk on Purim without qualification, we may assume that the intention is not to reach the “drunkenness of Lot,” but only to reach the level of shikor.
 However, Rabbi S. R. Hirsch writes that they did not get drunk with intent; because they had not drunk wine for many years, they had become extremely sensitive to the effect of alcohol, and they became drunk after consuming only a small amount of the beverage.
 It is possible to state that Shulchan Aruch only wishes to discuss the laws of prayer, and does not wish to get sidetracked with the prohibition or otherwise of getting drunk. Whether is it permitted or not, the phenomenon of drunkenness exists, and the laws of somebody who has become drunk must be taught. Nonetheless, the slight implication remains, and the silence of commentaries fortifies the impression that praying while drunk, and not actually being drunk, is forbidden.
 See Mishnah Berurah, ibid. 6, concerning the question of when a person is considered ‘negligent,’ and may pray the compensatory prayer, and when the act of missing the prayer is considered ‘willful,’ and the compensatory prayer may not be recited
 It is interesting that Mishnah Berurah does not distinguish between one who is obligated in Birkas Hamazon on a Torah level, and one whose obligation is only rabbinic. This distinction has been made by other authorities, such as Maamar Mordechai and Ketzos Hashulchan.
 Concerning other blessings, see Mishnah Berurah 99:11 and 185:5.