Alcohol and religion do have somewhat of a love-hate relationship, not unlike alcohol’s relationship with college. It’s true, alcohol (wine especially) does tend to play a role in a lot of religious practices and rituals. For the most part however, religions have been known to frown upon drinking. Some, like Islam, have even banned it all-together. And then there’s Judaism.
Judaism is one of few religions that explicitly encourage drinking on particular occasions. Surprisingly, this actually goes far beyond the very moderate taste of wine one would get at Kiddush. You would think that four glasses on Pesach would be a stretch, excusable only by the option to opt out with Kedem. There is one Jewish holiday, however, that leaves all other instances far behind. By now you’ve probably realized where I’m going with this.
Purim seems to stand out in that the alcohol related mitzvah — or commandment — is not only to drink wine but also to actually get drunk. And I’m not talking “two shots at your uncle’s wedding” drunk. I’m talking full on “coming to this frat party was regrettable, I shall drink away my anxiety” drunk.
All right. Maybe not that drunk, and certainly not that type of drunk (in fact, quick disclaimer, drinking out of regret or anxiety is pretty much the exact opposite of the mitzvah,) but it does seem like there is meant to be an extensive amount of drinking involved.
You may or may not have heard this quote from Ravah, a Talmudic commentator on Jewish scripture: “A person is obligated to become drunk on Purim until he doesn’t know the difference between ‘wicked is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai.’” It almost sounds like Ravah is encouraging blacking out! (I did say almost.)
So what could possibly be the spiritual purpose behind losing one’s senses, or “ad delo yadah?” Well, there are quite a few different answers to this question, but the simplest and most common one you will hear is probably “joy.” It’s not simply that alcohol makes us happy, but rather that culturally, it plays a significant role in communal celebration (otherwise referred to as “parties”).
The emphasis on celebration and community has allowed for some slightly more moderate interpretations of the mitzvah. The Sfas Emes (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter) states, “The intent of the Talmud is NOT that one is obligated to become so drunk that he doesn’t know the difference. Rather, he is obligated the entire day to participate in a festive meal UNTIL he becomes too drunk, at which point he is NO LONGER obligated. But anyone who has NOT reached that point is also fulfilling his obligation,” (emphasis mine) meaning that the point is to stop short of excess.
While there is dispute over whether or not we are to take Ravah literally, or as Rabbi Ephraim suggests (as quoted in Hidushei Ha’Ran), reject Ravah’s statement all together, it is generally agreed that Purim is, above all else, meant for rejoicing. This does imply that there may be other ways of achieving the level of joy intended. A codifier of Jewish law named the Rama, or Rabbi Moshe Isserles, for example, mentions that “There are others who say that one need not become that drunk, but rather that one should drink more than is one’s custom.” He goes on to say, “Whether one drinks more or drinks less, the main thing is that his intention is for the sake of Heaven.” Essentially, it’s the thought that counts.
If alcohol isn’t your thing, you could probably still fulfill the mitzvah with whatever it is that brings you a euphoric sense of gratitude and joy, whether it’s dancing to your favorite song, long (celebratory) walks on the beach or excessive consumption of chocolate. The possibilities are endless.
So by this point, you may be wondering why you’re reading this in November. It’s because — well — college. For some, the level of alcohol consumption Ravah describes for one day in the year occurs on a bi-weekly basis. This, as we might imagine, can often end very badly. Purim goes to show that spiritually, alcohol does seem to possess some extent of value, but only when limited to the right time and place. It’s good to remember that there are alternative ways to find the same level of joy. We must be reasonably senseless. If there’s one scholarly insight I hope for you to take away from this article, it’s that alcohol can always be substituted with chocolate, assuming you’re willing to share it.