Question: According to a well-known custom, drinking – and drinking to excess – on Purim is required for Jews celebrating the holiday. What is the origin of this custom? Are Jews really required to get drunk on Purim?
The Jewish people throughout history has always opposed drunkenness. That is the message of the stories of Noah and Lot (Genesis 9:18-27 and Genesis 19:29-38) as well as of the book of Proverbs (23:30-35). In Leviticus 10:1-2, Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron, are killed. According to one midrash in Leviticus Rabbah 20:9 and others, it was because they were drunk!
In other Jewish texts, drunkenness leads to forbidden sexual relations such as the Talmud relates in Ketubot 65a and in a midrash from Numbers Rabbah 10:3. If that is not enough, the Talmud in Sanhedrin 70b states, “there is nothing that causes a person greater lamentation than wine.”
So, what are we to make of the primary Talmudic source related to drinking on Purim from Megillah 7b?
“Rava said: a person is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until he does not know the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordekhai.’”
אמר רבא: מחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי
Here, the Talmud relates this story:
“Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira made a Purim feast together. They became intoxicated. Rabbah stood up and killed Rabbi Zeira. On the morrow, Rabbah prayed and revived him. The following year, [Rabbah] said to him: ‘Let Master come and we will make the Purim feast together!’ Rabbi Zeira replied: ‘Miracles don’t happen every hour.’”
Poskim, halakhic authorities, throughout the generations felt very uncomfortable with Rava’s demand for drinking on Purim, and therefore found methods to limit or circumvent the requirement.
In recent years, we have witnessed a marked increase in the use of wine, alcohol and drugs leading to accidents, injuries and substance abuse. The poskim understood this significant difference. These are the ways of Noah, Lot and Ahashverosh – not of the Jewish people throughout its history. That is why many of them ruled: ‘joy of delight’ – yes, ‘debauchery and foolishness’ – no.
May we remember this crucial difference both on Purim and throughout the year.
For the complete version of this Responsum, please see: https://schechter.edu/just-how-drunk-should-a-jew-get-on-purim-responsa-in-a-moment-volume-7-issue-no-5-february-2013/