Too Much Drinking On Purim?

By Rabbi Dovid Markel

 

Dear Rabbi,

Over the years, I have witnessed my share of Purim merriments. While it is a beautiful holiday in so many aspects and there is often a palpable joy in the air, I cannot help but be put off with all the drinking that goes on. I see young people drinking, old people drinking and everyone in between; all drinking. Oftentimes, their l’chaims seem to overstep the line, entering the realm of wildness. Can this drunkenness really be part of Judaism?

Shlomo

 

Dear Shlomo,

You ask a very good question and I appreciate your frankness. Unfortunately, the alcohol intake on Purim is greatly abused. While saying l’chaim can definitely be a positive thing, the rambunctious way that many people drink on Purim oftentimes can be more of a celebration of Haman than a simcha for Mordechai. For that I can give no excuse. Let me try to explain however, the spiritual benefit in drinking alcohol to begin with. To understand this, we need to take a step back and analyze the issue at its core.

Though on Purim one need not necessarily drink themselves to oblivion,[1] from time immemorial there has been a spirit of imbibing more alcohol on Purim than one would otherwise. What’s particularly interesting, is that though the Talmud generally decries drunkenness,[2] at the same time, it states that one must indeed imbibe alcohol on Purim; why the change?

In Chassidic thought it is explained, that the holidays of Purim and Yom Kippur are intrinsically connected. In fact, the words Yom Kippur can be translated to mean, “A day that is similar to Purim.”[3] The essence of the correlation of the two holidays is expressed in the above undertaking of being “ad d’lo yada” (in a state of not knowing) during Purim.

On Yom Kippur we reach a profound level within our souls that overrides our regular conscious minds and which facilitates our awakening to do teshuva. On Purim, we reach this same level through ad d’lo yada, which is facilitated through the consumption of alcohol.

In general, there are two mind-states within which people operate. There is the rational mode—the conscious  and logical decisions that we make, and then there are the choices that we make which we cannot explain; things that we do that are suprarational, which can only be described as reflexive of our essential identity and characteristics.

Paradoxically, it is our irrational choices that express who we really are on the deepest of levels, as it is there where the person’s self is fully expressed, unadulterated by reason. Through this same idea concept the Talmud[4] relates, that if one wants to know a person’s true colors, they should look at how he conducts himself when drunk, how he behaves when in a temper and how generous he is with his possessions. It is those choices that are spontaneous rather than calculated, where a person is seen for who he is at his essence.

In our service of G-d, there are as well two manners in which we can operate. We can choose to serve G-d because we have intellectual proofs to His existence and we rationally decided that serving G-d is in our best interest, or we can connect to G-d because the essence of our soul instinctively relates to Him in a way that cannot be confined to reason, as it completely surpasses rationality.

While during the year the objective of our service of G-d is to permeate the faculties of our minds, on Purim we are capable of connecting to deeper levels of our soul than we ordinarily relate to and can serve the Almighty through our soul—unadulterated by reason.

This is expressed in the Purim story, in that in order to annul the decree against the Jews, the Jewish people had a self-sacrifice that surpassed reason for the duration of a year. This degree of self-sacrifice can only come from the essence of the soul that is one with G-d.

To re-experience this every year on Purim, it is a custom to drink alcohol, which serves to weaken our rationale. Drinking on Purim is more than the physical intake of alcoholic beverages; it is about coming in touch with a part of our soul that we are not connected with during the rest of the year.

There is, though, a litmus test to determine if the l’chaim is for the sake of Heaven or if it is mere frivolity. If, through drinking, one comes closer to their soul, then they are on the correct path.  If the individual isn’t coming closer, they are on the wrong track and they would probably be better off not drinking at all.

In truth, we need not partake of too much alcohol in the actual sense. When we learn Chassidus and the inner secrets of the Torah, we accomplish the same end.

Within Torah there are two general parts: There is the Niglah, the revealed aspects of Torah, which includes the Talmud and Halacha (Jewish law), and there is as well the Sod of Torah, the hidden component, which includes Chassidus and Kabbalah.

This latter dimension is called the soul of Torah, compared to the exoteric section that is referred to as the body. The revealed part of Torah is compared to water and the hidden parts to wine. Just as physical wine reveals our souls, so too does the wine of Torah reveal our souls.

This Purim you can drink the wine of Chassidus—the plus side is that there is no hangover and it is a lot safer!

 

[1] There are many authorities who say that one should not drink to that extent. See Rabbeinu Efraim, Megilla 7b, who says that from the story where Rabba kills R’ Zeira after drinking, we learn that it is not a good idea to drink. Rambam (Laws of Megilla 2:15), Tur and Shulchan Aruch all say however, that one should imbibe alcohol on Purim to this extent. Many have the custom to drink more than they usually would, and then go to sleep, so that they are not aware of the difference between Haman and Mordechai. For what one should do practically, contact your competent, practicing Orthodox rabbi.

[2] Pesachim 113a. “There are three people that G-d loves…and someone who does not get drunk…”

[3] The Hebrew reading can be read “Yom K’Purim”—a day like Purim.

[4] Eiruvin 65a. There are those that add laughter, as laughter too is an instinctual, natural response.

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