by R. Asher Bush
Every year as we approach Purim the routine seems more or less the same: schools and many rabbis point out that it really is not necessary or even appropriate to become drunk on Purim. Large segments of our community (most of their target audience) don’t take them seriously. When I say “don’t take them seriously,” I do not mean just ignoring the adult advice and drinking anyway. Rather, this advice is actually viewed as being something less than legitimate, a watered down way to observe Purim for those that have chosen or feel compelled to be “Politically Correct.” Even when the writings of the various Rishonim are brought to bear on this subject, they are generally viewed as little more than apologetics.
This short article will attempt to address this issue from a fresh perspective, one that will suggest that while there are several possible interpretations of this passage, it is possible that this was never the intention of the Talmud.
How to celebrate Purim:
The well-known passage in the Talmud1 states, “Rava said a person is obligated Levasumei on Purim until he cannot tell between blessed be Mordechai and cursed be Haman.” The key word here “levasumei” has deliberately not been translated. Many are familiar with Rashi’s2 interpretation that it means to become intoxicated; it is based on this reading that all other interpretations have been viewed as less than valid or apologetics. And while the words of Rashi are indeed always our starting point when learning and understanding a Gemara, they are rarely the end point of any sophisticated conversation or understanding.
As is noted, the Talmud uses a most unusual word here to speak of intoxication (assuming that is what it means) rather than the common and easily understood work “lehishtaker.” As seen in various other sources, this word also speaks of “bosem” – which means fragrance,3 sweetness or something pleasant4. Based on this, a number of Rishonim understand that from the very beginning the Talmud never legislated or even suggested drunkenness, rather a joyous feast full of all good things. This idea is spelled out explicitly by the Meiri5, the Kol Bo6, Nimukei Yosef7 (who actually attributes this to the Rambam8). In fact, each of them write strongly that it is inconceivable that the Sages would ever have instituted drunkenness as it is a grave sin and often the gateway to many severe violations of the Torah and of human dignity9. It is clear that each of these Rishonim all understood the word “levasumei” to mean to have joy or celebrate. As far as they are concerned the role of wine is no different than the role of fine meats or desserts, as the meal is to be a feast of the highest order10. Each, in turn, offers explanations of how the idea of not knowing between blessed be Mordechai and cursed be Haman is to be understood, perhaps best expressed by the Rosh11 who quoted the Talmud Yerushalmi which speaks of a text similar to our prayer “Shoshanas Yaakov” that includes the words “blessed be Mordechai, cursed be Haman.” In no case do they connect the “ad d’lo yada” to drunkenness.
The story of Rabba & Rabbi Zeira
Following the statement by Rava, the Talmud relates an anecdote of a Purim meal where excessive drunkenness had clearly taken place, so much so that in his complete drunkenness Rabba assaulted his friend Rabbi Zeira. It is striking that this is not a story about two random men who acted wildly but that the participants in this event were both among the leading sages of their generation.
Before analyzing this story, it is important to realize that Rava who stated the above law was a student of Rabba, meaning that he was aware of this story and nevertheless passed on this ruling12. But the Talmud did not present this topic in chronological order, rather it first quoted the ruling of Rava (the student), followed by this story of Rabba (his teacher) and Rabbi Zeira. It was based on this unusual sequence that Rabbeinu Ephraim13, a leading student of the Rif, understood that the Talmud was in fact repudiating this idea. Perhaps it might have been a good idea, but as seen from this story it can lead to horrible tragedies; and that was even true with great rabbis. This ruling of Rabbeinu Ephraim is accepted by the Ran and the Baal HaMaor, and is quoted approvingly by Rav Yosef Karo14. According to each of these Rishonim, the conclusion of the Talmud is that one should specifically not become drunk.
But what about the other explanations, how do they account for this story? It is clear that this story has been recorded to teach something, and the likely lesson according to Rashi would be that even though intoxication is part of the day, it cannot ever get to the point of danger as seen in this story. Needless to say, this lesson alone would be worth stating, as each year our community suffers as young and sometimes not such young people drink and drive, walk into traffic or suffer alcohol poisoning or various other dangerous and even lethal results. Others will not suffer physical harm but may degrade themselves, their friends and families, and G-d and His Torah15.
But what about the many Rishonim who explicitly say that there never was any obligation to become intoxicated, what place is there for this story? It seems likely that even without a mandate for intoxication, it is quite common that the idea of a party and fine food and drink will be understood by some people to mean intoxication, or at least will lead to that. So even though the mandate as spelled out by Rava was never to include drunkenness, merely to have a fun time with a great feast, friends and family, it can easily devolve into a drunken feast. This was seen in the feast of Achashverosh and now in the feast of Rabba and Rabbi Zeira. The point of this story then comes as a reminder of the proper and improper ways to celebrate, meaning joy and good spirits, not drunkenness and tragedy.
It emerges that there are three approaches to understanding this passage of the Talmud. The best known opinion as expressed by Rashi is that one should actually get drunk. A second opinion, originally articulated by Rabbeinu Ephraim and accepted by many is that this indeed was the original intent of Chazal but they rescinded it upon seeing how poorly it worked in real life. And the third approach being that this is never what Chazal intended, rather to have a beautiful celebration with fine food, drink, friends and family. It is worth noting that whichever approach is followed, it is clear that the only place Poskim16 have given to wine is in the course of the Purim meal, and not just random drinking or drunkenness.
It is with this background that the words of the Ramo17 should be understood where he writes “whether one does (drink) a lot or a little, it should be (decided) based on acting l’shem shamayim-for the sake of heaven.” At the risk of being judgmental, it is hard to imagine how many people actually make the decision to drink in excess thinking this is the best way to come close to and serve G-d. Parenthetically, it is worth noting that drunkenness on Purim is rarely seen in women, only men; somehow that 50% of our population has managed to fully and properly celebrate Purim in the proper spirit without the need for spirits and all that comes with them.
Megilla 7b ↩
Megilla 7b, s.v. L’avsumei ↩
As seen in the Bracha ‘borei minei besamim’ ↩
The word is used twice more in Mesechta Megilla, on the same page Abaye quotes a folk saying in which it refers to sweet treats and at the very end of the Mesechta (32a) he again uses it, this time referring to a pleasant song or voice. ↩
Megilla 7b ↩
Laws of Purim ↩
Megilla 7b ↩
This text is not seen in our versions of the Rambam, in Laws of Megilla 2:7 he writes “What is the obligation of this meal: one should eat meat, setting out a beautiful feast according to one’s means and drink wine until one is inebriated and falls asleep.” How the Rambam saw this in the text of the Talmud is a good question. The Aruch Hashulchan (995:3) suggests that the Rambam was following the approach of Rabbeinu Ephraim; as noted, the Nimukei Yosef assumed otherwise. ↩
Even the Mishna Brurah (695:4) who does not really take a stand on the larger issue cautions that drinking should never get to the point of causing one degrade others or neglect even basic obligations such as Birkas Hamazon. In conclusion (695:5) he recommends following the Rambam and taking a nap after drinking a little more than usual rather than risking inappropriate conduct. ↩
The Maharil (Minhagim, Purim 105t) writes that this is based on the words of the Megilla (9:22) which calls Purim days of “Mishte & Simcha.” ↩
Megilla 1:8 ↩
There is an alternative version of this text seen in footnotes on the Ran which has the name ‘Rabba’ for both the ruling and the anecdote. It would seem that this would support the assertion of Rabbeinu Ephraim even more strongly. ↩
Quoted on this passage by both the Ran and the Baal HaMaor ↩
Beis Yosef, OC 695 ↩
Chayei Adam 155:30, Mishna Brurah 695:4 ↩
Rambam Laws of Megilla 2:15, Shulchan Aruch 695:1 & 2. ↩
OC 695:2 ↩