Getting Drunk on Purim
By Moe Fine
Perhaps one of the more fascinating aspects of our religion is the strange requirement that obligates men to get drunk on Purim. Mostly we think that religion preaches self restraint and "clean cut, healthy family" type living. Well, obviously, Judaism is for all that, but, it also includes this one "let's blow it" type of holiday that traces it's origins to the Talmud.
The Rabbis of the Talmud said, "A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he can no longer distinguish between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordachai." This statement of the early rabbis who lived during the Talmud (about 1700-1800 years ago) had caused much concern by the later rabbis who concerned themselves with the codification of Jewish law (about 1000 years ago until today). (Exactly what the position of the rabbis in the period in between was can only been assumed that it did not bother them.)
Now some rabbis understand the words literally, and others understand the word to mean not really to get drunk. Those who understand the words literally, we don't have to prod our imagination to understand them. Yet other rabbis did not see this as an opportunity to get smashed in the sanctity of the Torah's teachings. They explained that the idea here isn't the drinking but the joy that is expressed when we realize the good that G-d has done for us. With the aid of a bit of wine, we are able to bring out more clearly our expressions of joy and gratitude to G-d, This thanks can be on a much deeper level when we ingest more wine than is our accustomed habit.
Others saw it coupled with the comparison between the cursing of Haman and the blessing of Mordachai. This they felt had deeper implications, such as the gematria (the mathematical equivalent of the Hebrew letters that comprise the words) of "cursed be Haman" which "happens" to be equal to "blessed is Mordachai". They reasoned that as long as one can reckon the gematrias, one may continue to drink, but once the mind becomes blurry, and the proper gematria can not be computed, then the drinking must cease.
Other later rabbis, to whom drinking is abhorrent, suggest that one may drink only a bit more than one is used to drinking, and then take a nap. In this way, the person drank a bit more on Purim, and since he slept, he did not know the difference between cursed be Haman and blessed be Mordachai. Hardly keeping in the holiday spirit, yet these rabbis were more concerned that no sins should be caused by drinking, therefore, it is better to sleep.
What seems to end up here is a watered down version of Purim which seems to void the holiday of all festivities other than ramming some food down the tubes.
Yet there are other concepts in the purpose of drinking that should be explored before you sip your favorite non alcoholic grape juice and retire for a nice snooze. One is the idea that maybe there is something deeper in imbibing that the sages of the Talmud wanted to impart to us. The other is that the words of the sages must be understood fully.
The actual words of the Talmud, which is brought down in the code of Jewish law is that "a man is obligated to get drunk . . ' the word is not really to get drunk, the true translation of it is "to smell nice". In Aramaic, the language of the Talmud "le-basumi" really is related to the Hebrew word "bosem" fragrance. That means that a person is suppose to make himself fragrant, meaning becoming something that another person would enjoy.
When you think of something fragrant, perhaps you think of a flower or of perfume. Another person can enjoy the fragrance with out diminishing that essence of the original. When we smell a flower, we do not diminish the flower, the flower may continue to grow, yet we can get benefit from it. Secondly, the fragrance is to us the least physical of our senses, seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, and smelling.
In addition, the comparison of Haman and Mordachai is interesting. We realize that there are two parts to the Purim story. One part is the downfall of our archenemy, Haman. When he was in power, we Jews were doomed to extinction; with his removal, our lives could have returned to it original pace. We really did not have a need for Mordachai to be selected to become the vicar of Persia. With out Mordachai, we could have continued our daily existence as we have in so many other lands.
Why was Mordachai elevated? What divine purpose was there in that? What is there to compare with the downfall of Haman, in which our lives were spared, to the elevation of Mordachai, which we could have done with out.
But no, there is something special in the special selection of Mordachai. In Mordachai becoming the vicar of Persia, we Jews were able to go beyond our mundane daily activities of merely making a living. We could not strive and actively work to rebuild that part of our life that had been taken from us, the holy Temple in Jerusalem. And so it was that the exile in Persia began to approach the end.
Yet as we have another drink and begin to ponder this, we see that the hand of G-d is not stingy. When G-d gives his blessing we must take it and act upon it. The average Jew at that time would not have wanted anything other than a return to regular life, yet it was G-d's plan that we return to our supra existence in the Land of Israel with the rebuilding of the second Temple.
And having another drink, we could possibly realize that the word Haman really has more than one meaning. HaMan, spelt in Hebrew the same as Haman, means "the manna" that fell from heaven during the forty years that the Jews traveled in the dessert. This was the food of G-d for a nation of spiritual souls; it had whatever taste that you desired. After eating it, it was completely absorbed in the system and no waste excrement was purged from the body. Yet it was on this HaMan that the Jews complained, with no reason to G-d.
To complain to G-d about a gift that He has given you is a terrible thing. If G-d gives you something, there is nothing better. Perhaps we may want something else, but G-d in his infinite wisdom knows what you really need and deserve. Complained about HaMan (the manna from heaven) we ended up with Haman (from Persia).
We must always thank G-d for that which He has given us. As we ponder and contemplate the goodness that he has bestowed upon us both personally and nationally, we should be swept up with thanks. Our hearts should yearn to praise G-d and our hearts should beat with anxiety to meet He who is so kind.
Only as we continue to drink and we release ourselves from our worldly preconceptions and prejudges can we free ourselves on this special day only to sing true praise to He who is all good and giving. Through this realization we will merit not just living during the building of the third Temple, but also participating in the renewed service to G-d, each person according to his talents and abilities, and may it be swiftly and speedily in our days.
from the March 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine