Drinking on Purim

The Talmud teaches that one is required to get drunk on Purim until one cannot distinguish between "cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai".[1] The reason for this requirement is in order to recall the many miracles of the Purim story which actually occurred during the course of wine parties, such as Vashti’s downfall, Esther’s rise to royalty, and Haman’s execution.[2]

How drunk is one supposed to get on Purim? The Talmud relates that Rabba and Rabbi Zeira once held their Purim seuda together. Rabba became so intoxicated at the meal that he got up and "slaughtered" Rabbi Zeira as a result of having become so drunk. Not to worry, though. The following day Rabba prayed for Divine mercy and had Rabbi Zeira resurrected.[3] The following year, Rabba again invited Rabbi Zeira over for the Purim meal, but Rabbi Zeira declined the invite, explaining that one cannot always expect miracles to occur.

One who suspects that their drunkenness could lead to murder or other unacceptable conduct should not drink, though all others are indeed required to intoxicate themselves on Purim.[4] According to many authorities, one is literally required to get drunk on Purim to the point that one cannot distinguish between "cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai".[5]  This was in fact the practice of many great rabbis.[6] Other authorities suggest that the point of intoxication one must reach is simply where one would be unable to recite the ancient liturgical poem of "cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai".[7] Yet others suggest that one is merely required to drink "a little more than usual" on Purim which would bring on drowsiness and cause one to fall asleep.[8] One can certainly not tell the difference between "cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai" while one is sleeping.[9]

Additionally, there are a number of inspiring homiletical interpretations regarding how much one should drink on Purim.[10] Among the more widely cited is the suggestion that one must become intoxicated to the point at which one would be unable to calculate the gematria, the numerical value, of "cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai.[11] Women should not drink on Purim as it is considered unbecoming for women to become intoxicated, certainly not in public.[12]

There exists a very different approach to the issue of drinking on Purim as well. According to some authorities one should, in fact, not drink on Purim at all. Indeed, it is suggested that the entire reason that the Talmud troubled itself to record the story of Rabba killing Rabbi Zeira was in order to show us precisely why we should not drink on Purim.[13] Common custom, however, is not like this view.

Contrary to popular misconception, the mitzva of drinking on Purim is intended to be performed exclusively with wine, to the exclusion of all other alcoholic beverages.[14] It is also noted[15] that drinking wine on Purim is meant to be reminiscent of the verse:" wine gladdens the heart of man".[16] Some authorities suggest that because wine was a much stronger drink in Talmudic times than it is today, it is permissible to drink whiskey and other alcoholic beverages in fulfillment of this mitzva as well.[17] So too, the drinking is meant to take place specifically within the context of the Purim seuda, and it is not intended to serve as an excuse for a drinking spree throughout the day.[18] The mitzva of drinking is in effect only on Purim day. There is no mitzva to drink on Purim night.[19]

There also exists what seems to be somewhat of a compromise approach to the requirement of drinking on Purim. Some authorities suggest that drinking is merely recommended, but not truly required.[20] Likewise, one who has a weak disposition or otherwise feels that drinking will harm him is exempt from the requirement to drink.[21] One is also not permitted to drink excessively on Purim if one fears that it may lead to violating, or being unable to fulfill other important mitzvot such as reciting the birkat hamazon after one's Purim meal or davening ma'ariv the night following Purim. Indeed, in such situations, it is far better for one not to drink at all.[22]

[1] Megilla 7b

[2] Abudraham;Purim

[3] Megilla 7b

[4] Rambam Megilla 2:15, O.C. 695:2

[5] Bach 695

[6] Siddur Ya'avetz

[7] Beit Yosef O.C. 695, Aruch Hashulchan 695:3

[8] Rambam Megilla 2:15

[9] Rema 695:2, Mishna Berura 695:5

[10] Bach 695, Aruch Hashulchan O.C. 695:2-5

[11] Magen Avraham 695:3

[12] Shevet Halevi 101:18, Moadim U'zmanim 2:190, Rivevot Ephraim 1:458

[13] Ba'al Hamaor

[14] Hitorerut Teshuva O.C. 3:491, Nitei Gavriel p.83, Rambam Megilla 2:15

[15] Mikraei Kodesh;Purim

[16] Tehillim 104

[17] Moadim U'zmanim 2:190, Shvilei David 695:3. See also Sefer Gilyonei Hashas;Pesachim 117, Daat Kedoshim (Botchatch) Vol 2. p.88

[18] Rambam Megilla 2:15

[19] O.C. 695:1

[20] Maharil 56, Aruch Hashulchan 695:4

[21] Shaarei Teshuva 695:2

[22] Biur Halacha 695, Kol Bo