A short statement of Rava is key in the unique character of Purim in the Jewish calendar: “”Rava said: A person must become inebriated on Purim until he cannot distinguish between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai.’” The instruction, as we are very much aware, is liable to cause us—whether performing the Purim mitzvah or as parents of children who wish to do so—no small headache.
The basic idea of drinking on Purim emerges not only from Rava’s instruction, but even from the Megillah itself, which states that the days of Purim were enacted for mishteh—a word that specifically implies a wine-feast. Such, indeed, was the original mishteh of Achashverosh with which the tale of Esther begins, as well as the later feasts of Esther herself.
The instruction to drink to the point of inebriation raises a number of questions. What is the level of drunkenness that a person is expected to reach? Is it possible that a Jew will be unable to distinguish between the curse of Haman and the blessing of Mordechai? When is there an obligation to drink—should one be drinking during the entire day? Must one drink wine, or is any alcoholic beverage sufficient? And how do Poskim generally relate to this most unusual instruction?
These questions, and more, are discussed below.
The Forbidden Drink
In discussing the specific mitzvah of drinking on Purim, it is worth beginning from the more general question of inebriation throughout the year. Is it permitted to get drunk, or is doing so a halachic prohibition?
The Talmud does not mention a general prohibition against inebriation. There are specific prohibitions, such as giving a halachic ruling while drunk, or Kohanim giving Birkas Kohanim after drinking alcohol—but there is no general prohibition against drunkenness.
Nonetheless, the Orchos Chaim (Purim no. 38; cited in Beis Yosef, Orach Chaim 695) writes that drunkenness is absolutely prohibited. Notwithstanding the absence of explicit rulings, he writes that there can be no greater prohibition than “losing one’s mind” to the bottle, and he even ranks the act among the most severe Torah prohibitions.
Because becoming drunk is an “absolute prohibition,” according to the Orchos Chaim the obligation of inebriation on Purim cannot be meant literally: “Rather, a person should drink slightly more than his regular custom.”
Precedents of Inebriation
Nonetheless, we find in the Gemara several examples and instances of individuals becoming drunk. One passage 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).
A more renowned example of drunkenness involves the twelve sons of Yaakov Avinu. Upon dining with Yosef (who knew his brothers, while they knew him not), the Torah records that “they drank, and they became drunk with him” (Bereishis 43:33-34).
The 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.
It seems that according to most authorities, inebriation is more of a moral wrong than a strict halachic prohibition. The Rambam (De’os 5:3) writes that one who becomes drunk is a “sinner and a disgrace.”
Levels of Drunkenness
There is room to make a halachic distinction between different levels of drunkenness.
Concerning prayer, the Gemara (Eruvin 64a) differentiates between somebody who is only somewhat under the influence of alcohol, and somebody who is fully drunk. A shatui, as the Gemara calls him, may not daven, but if he does so his prayer is valid; he does not need to daven again.
A shikor, however, who is fully drunk, is not only forbidden to pray, but his prayer is even 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 daven—yet in which one’s prayer is still valid. The more severe is a state of full 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 when he recovers (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 beracha (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, some maintain that one should 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 the “drunkenness of Lot”—“Rabbi Chanina said … if he reaches the drunkenness of Lot, he is exempt from everything.”
The Mishnah Berurah (99:11) 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 only concerning this third level of drunkenness—a level in which a person has no consciousness or mind.
Concerning the “drunkenness of Lot,” which is the understanding of a person who cannot distinguish between Haman and Mordechai, the Orchos Chaim rules that willfully entering such a condition is a heinous crime. The instances of leaders of Israel who became inebriated would not pose any difficulty, for they surely did not reach this extreme level.
However, it is noteworthy that according to this interpretation, it emerges that there is no halachic restriction on a person becoming drunk to a certain 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 to get drunk on Purim, cites the following anecdote:
“Rabba and Rabbi Zeira made a Purim feast together, and they got drunk. Rabba stood up and killed Rabbi Zeira. The next day, 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!” (Megillah 7b)
Based on this Gemara, Rabbeinu Ephraim rules that the halacha does not follow Rava’s statement. The reason 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 Rabbeinu Ephraim is noted by several rishonim (commentary to Megillah), and by some halachic authorities (see Taz, Orach Chaim 695:2). Yet, the Bach writes that even according to Rabbeinu Ephraim, a person should still drink more than his regular custom and become slightly inebriated.
The Rambam’s Opinion: Drinking Oneself to Sleep
As noted above, 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 the Name of Hashem.”
Although the Rambam refrains from adopting 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 person is obligated to become drunk on Purim until he cannot distinguish between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordecai.’”
However, a reading of the Beis Yosef indicates that this ruling should not be taken at face value. The Beis Yosef 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 Beis Yosef 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 of the idea of “until he cannot distinguish between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai.’”
The Magen Avraham (3) notes that the 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 interpreted 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 is 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.”
There is therefore 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 7b) 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 may become drunk with other beverages, but one should make sure to drink some wine, too, as a zecher for the Purim feast.
It is well known that Rav Yisrael Salanter used to get drunk in the literal sense of the word on Purim. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe writes of this as follows (Alei Shur, Vol. 2, p. 468):
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter 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.
It is worthy to 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.