Purim may serve as your pre-game for St. Patty’s Day, but has the drinking tradition been taken out of context by some costume-clad party-goers who think Vashti looks better with beer goggles? Rabbi Shira Stutman uncovers the truth about what Judaism says on getting hammered over Haman and ending up with a hangover that puts the groggy in grogger.
KS: Many people associate Purim with heavy drinking. Is this a modern interpretation of the holiday or a tried-and-true ancient tradition?
RSS: Like all good Jewish questions, the answer to this one is “yes.”
On the one hand, it is an ancient tradition. The story of Esther ends with the instruction from Mordecai to the Jewish people to celebrate this holiday as “y’mei mishteh v’simcha”–days of drinking and joy (Esther 9:22). In the Talmud, we learn that “Rava said: It is one’s duty, levasumei, to make oneself fragrant [with wine] on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between ‘arur Haman‘ (cursed be Haman) and ‘barukh Mordekhai’ (blessed be Mordecai)” (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 7b).
But also in perfect rabbinic fashion, there was never consensus on what exactly levasumei meant. Rip-roaring, hangover-inducing drunk? Or just a little tipsy? In different communities, in different eras, and depending on what culture we lived in (i.e. hard-drinking or teetotalism), there would be more or less drinking. In mid-20th century America, Purim went pediatric, all about kiddies winning those poor goldfish at the carnival and not as much about adult celebration.
It’s starting to change–I hope–and not just by the carnivals refraining from giving out goldfish. Nowadays, more communities are wrestling Purim away from the kiddies and returning it to its proper place as an R-rated holiday. Pass the flask.
KS: What is Judaism’s general take on alcohol consumption?
RSS: Did I just say “pass the flask”? What I should have said is, “pass the flask responsibly.” Above all else, Judaism privileges human dignity and safety. I could list any number of values and mitzvot that are integral to our tradition and insist that we take care of ourselves and those around us: lo tirtzach, do not murder; b’tzelem elokim, we were all created in G-d’s image; k’vod ha’briyot, honoring all living creatures; lo l’vayesh, do not embarrass yourself or others, etc. Abstaining from drink can be a mitzvah, too. We should never ever pressure others to consume alcohol.
In general, Judaism holds that alcohol consumption should be in moderation. On Shabbat, at Havdalah, at wedding ceremonies, at the Passover seder—these are all times when we’re instructed to drink wine but are also given specific amounts to drink. If you read the minutia you’ll learn which goblets are too big and which too small, how much wine is enough and how much is overdoing it, when and where and why to drink. Alcohol—like sex or money—is a powerful tool, which can be used for joy or for destruction. Use it for good.
KS: True or false: The tradition of alcohol on Purim exists solely to make the sound of incessant groggers more tolerable?
RSS: False. We’re supposed to hear the Megillah not only on Purim eve when the majority of drinking takes place, but also on Purim morning when, let’s just say, a grogger and a hangover don’t mix.