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Drinking on Purim

The custom to drink on Purim stems from an oft-quoted Talmudic dictum [Megillah 7b] "Michayev Inish Libesumei Bepuraya Ad Delo Yada Bein Arur Haman Ubaruch Mordechai" - one should imbibe alcoholic beverages on Purim until one is unable to distinguish between cursed be Haman and blessed be Mordechai.

What is often ignored is the episode recorded immediately after this statement. Rabbah and Rav Zeira made a Seudat Purim (Purim feast) together. Because of their inebriation, Rabbah arose and “slaughtered” Rav Zeira. Subsequently, Rabbah prayed on behalf of Rav Zeira, and the latter was revived. The following year, Rabbah invited Rav Zeira for the Seudat Purim, and Rav Zeira declined the offer saying, “Miracles do not occur all the time.”

What is the connection between these two serial sections of Talmud?

According to Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, one initial connection is that the drinking discussed in the Talmud is only within the context of the Purim meal (i.e. during the day). Indeed, the Rambam [Hilchot Megillah 2:15)] Tur Shulchan Aruch [Orech Chaim 695], and Shulchan Aruch [Orech Chaim 695] all present the rule of drinking on Purim within the laws of Seudat Purim.

However, the most important ramification of the Rabbah-Rav Zeira incident is a possible rejection of or limitation to the Rabbinic decree regarding drinking on Purim.

There are two extreme approaches to this issue. The Ba’al Hamaor and Rabbeinu Ephraim cited by the Rif both believe that the Gemara presents the Rabbah-Rav Zeira incident to demonstrate that this Halacha has been rescinded by the Gemara and that it is improper to drink on Purim.

On the other hand, Rif and Rosh cite the rule of "Michayev Inish Libesumei" without any reservations whatsoever. Apparently, they believe that the Gemara presents the Rabbah-Rav Zeira incident merely as a cautionary note, but it does not impact on the Halacha itself.

The Rambam [Hilchot Megillah 2:15] presents a middle approach asserting that one fulfills this rule by drinking wine until he is inebriated and falls asleep. The Aruch Hashulchan [695:3] explains that Rambam also believes that the Rabbah-Rav Zeira incident modifies the law, and therefore suggests this middle and safer position.

The Rama in his gloss to Shulchan Aruch presents a variation on Rambam's position and rules that one should merely drink a bit more than he is accustomed to drinking and subsequently become drowsy and unable to distinguish between "Arur Haman" and B"aruch Mordechai". Furthermore, the Rama concludes with the celebrated Talmudic teaching, "Echad Hamarbeh Ve'echad Hamamit Uilvad Shekivan Libo LiShem Shamayim" - one can do more or less as long as his intentions are focused on serving God.

The Chofetz Chaim, in his commentary, [Biur Halacha 692:2 s.v. Af] writes: “If one believes that drinking on Purim will interfere with his performing any Mitzva, such as reciting Birkat Hamazon, Mincha, or Maariv, or if he will behave in a boorish manner, it is preferable that he not drink (or become inebriated).”

Nowadays, in an era when substance abuse has become a real danger to our community, many rabbis, have discouraged any consumption of alcohol. In fact, several years ago, Rabbi Gedalia D. Schwartz, shlit"a and the late Rabbi Ahron Soloveitchik, ztz"l co-signed a letter reiterating that the consumption of alcohol on Purim is prohibited for minors and that even adults must limit their consumption of alcohol to an absolute minimum. (Rabbi Schwartz has also noted that the Hebrew word for drinking used by the Talmud and poskim is the unusual term - "libisumei" - which doesn't mean to drink large quantities, but merely to "taste.")

As the famous Talmudic authority, Meiri wrote, "Nevertheless, we are not obligated to become inebriated and degrade ourselves due to our joy. We are not obligated to engage in a simcha of frivolity and foolishness. Rather it should lead to a simcha of enjoyment, which should lead to a love of God and thankfulness for the miracles He has performed for us!!

Fri, March 5 2021 21 Adar 5781