Drinking on Purim: A Mitzvah?

Image: Two shot glasses full of liquor. Image by saragraphika.

Every year I have the discussion with someone: “Rabbi, doesn’t it say in the Talmud that we HAVE to get drunk on Purim?”

This is not a trifling matter. On the one hand, that is a traditional understanding of the command that we celebrate on Purim. But on the other, we now know more about the dangers of over-consumption of alcohol.

Jewish tradition both encourages the use of wine for celebration, and encourages moderation in the use of alcohol. Shabbat and holidays are welcomed with a kiddush toast. The Passover seder requires four cups of wine. Many life cycle events include a cup of wine: even the baby receives a taste of wine at his bris!

On the other hand, our tradition has warnings against alcohol abuse. Noah shames himself and is shamed by his children for becoming a drunk. A midrash speculates that the sin of Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, was that they entered the Tabernacle drunk. (Leviticus 10:1-11) A line in Sanhedrin 70a quotes Rabbi Meir as saying that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was actually a grape vine, because nothing brings so much woe to human beings as wine.

So, to return to the issue of Purim and drinking, the discussion is set in motion by this passage from the final chapter of the book of Esther:

Mordecai recorded these events, and he sent letters to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Xerxes, near and far, to have them celebrate annually the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar as the time when the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month when their sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration. He wrote them to observe the days as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor. – Esther 9:20-22

In Tractate Megillah 7b, the rabbis focus on the phrase “observe the days as days of feasting and joy.” Exactly how are we to observe it, they wonder?

Rava said: One is obligated to become inebriated on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai.”

So there it is, the famous line from the Talmud. However, notice (1) that that line is broken out from its context. Also (2) a key word in it is a bit less clear than it seems: the word for inebriated requires clarification from Rashi, who tells us that it means inebriated. The word itself is associated with fermentation, according to Jastrow (a dictionary of the Talmud.)

Then another story, not often quoted with the famous line, immediately follows:

Rabbah and R. Zeira joined together in a Purim feast. They became inebriated, and Rabbah arose and cut R. Zera’s throat. The next day he prayed on his behalf and revived him.

Next year he [Rabbah] said: Will the master come and we will have the Purim feast together. He [R. Zeira] replied: A miracle does not take place on every occasion. –Megillah 7b

 This story seems to warn against drunkenness. Two rabbis get drunk together, and one cuts the other’s throat. (The Aramaic is vivid: literally, he shekhts him, ritually slaughters him.)  Rabbah prays, and Rabbi Zeira is returned to life. The next year, Rabbah invites R. Zeira to celebrate with him again, and this time R. Zeira demurs with the warning that one cannot depend on miracles.
So: is this a story warning in general against drunkenness, or is it a story warning that the “drink a lot on Purim!” interpretation is incorrect?
Let’s loop back and look at Rava’s line from Megillah 7b again:
Rava said: One is obligated to become inebriated on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai.”
How else might we understand this, if not “drink lots on Purim”? If we take a clue from Jastrow, is there a way to do this by fermenting, by studying until the two statements are one?
What if we were to ask, “Are there any ways in which Haman and Mordechai are alike?
My initial reaction to this was to laugh, it is such a ridiculous question. One is the bad guy and one is the good guy! They aren’t anything alike!
But on second thought, read the book of Esther.  If we read it not in its sanitized version we tell children but the way it is written, Mordechai presses Esther to participate in the search for a new queen. This means joining the harem and becoming a one night stand for the king in hopes of securing a permanent position. In other words, Mordechai pimps his own neice, possibly to enhance his own power: not very moral at all.
But even more so, in chapter 9 of the book of Esther, Mordechai proves as bloody-minded as Haman. Haman and all his sons are executed on Mordechai’s order, as well as 5,000 Persians, and on the next day another 70,000 are executed.  This is at least as many dead people as Haman had ordered.
So how different are Haman and Mordechai? There’s a reason we don’t like to read chapter 9.
I do not know whether the story about Rabbah and R. Zeira is there to cause us to question Rava’s strange words. However, I do know that whenever someone says to me, “There’s a commandment to get drunk on Purim!” my reply is always, “Oh, really?”



Published by


Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at https://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

One thought on “Drinking on Purim: A Mitzvah?”

  1. I heard an Orthodox rabbi teach on this idea. He said that in his community it is accepted that one take a nap – thus becoming unable to tell the names of Mordechai & Haman apart. He was opposed to becoming drunk – too many negative consequences.

    Personally, I don’t want to drink until inebriated, but a nap is just fine.


Comments or Questions? Speak up!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s