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‘Eat, Drink, and Be Merry’ Purim 5782

In the Jewish calendar, Purim can be justly called “the most wonderful time of the year”. The motif of Purim is unbridled joy. The Book of Esther describes it as [Esther 9:17] “a day of feasting (mishte) and merrymaking (simcha)”. On Purim, we eat until we burst, we drink to intoxication, and we are very, very, merry.

A similar commandment to be merry appears in conjunction with the holidays of Pesach, Sukkot and Shavuot. The Torah directs us [Devarim 16:14][1] “You shall be merry on your festivals”. The Rambam describes how this is performed in practice [Hilchot Shevitat Yom Tov 6:17-18]: “One is obligated to be joyful and of a good heart on [the holidays] – he, his children, his wife, the members of his household and all who accompany him… The children, for example, should be given parched grain, nuts, and sweetmeats; the women should be presented with pretty clothes and trinkets according to one’s means; the men should eat meat and drink wine, for there is no real rejoicing without the use of meat and wine.” According to the Rambam, holiday joy is regulated such that a person who eats a holiday meal without consuming meat has not discharged his obligation to rejoice.

Rabbi Yitzchak Ze’ev Soloveichik, known as the “Griz”, who lived in Volozhn, Belarus, and then in Jerusalem in the previous century, compares the requirements for merriment on Purim and on the holidays. He concludes that unlike a holiday, there is no obligation to eat meat at the Purim meal (se’uda). The justification is that a holiday requires “merriment” while Purim requires merely “feasting”. The Griz considers feasting a lesser form of merriment and so the requirement for meat is waived. Rabbi Jacob Emden, who lived in Germany in the eighteenth century, takes this innovation one step further. Rabbi Emden notes that it is forbidden to get married on a holiday because of the principle of “One must not mix happiness with happiness (ein me’arvin simcha b’simcha)”. The joy experienced on a holiday must emanate from the holiday itself and not from any external factor. On Purim, however, weddings are permitted. Rabbi Emden concludes that this leniency stems from feasting being a lower form of merriment and, as such, Purim feasting is permitted to be diluted by the happiness associated with a wedding.

Rabbi Asher Weiss, one of the most accepted halachic decisors (posek) in our time, takes issue with the innovations of the Griz and Rabbi Emden. He asserts that not only is the merriment required on Purim not less than that required on a holiday, it is even greater. Referring to the verse in the Book of Esther, Purim requires both feasting and merriment while holidays require only merriment[2]. For this reason, we are not limited in our expression of merriment on Purim. We are not required to eat meat and wine in order to be happy – we can eat whatever we want[3] – a juicy steak, an impossible burger, or even an ice-cream cone. And because of the great level of merriment on Purim, we are unconcerned that an additional source of joy, such as a wedding, will impinge on the merriment of the day. The more merriment, the merrier.

In this essay, we will consider an alternative method of contrasting the joy experienced on Purim with the joy experienced on a holiday. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik, who led North American Jewry in the second half of the previous century, analyses holiday joy. Writing in “Shiurim Le-Zekher Abba Mari, vol. 2”, he asserts that the commandment to be merry is fundamentally an internal experience. The merriment on a holiday emerges from “standing before G-d”. While merriment has external expressions, fulfilled through eating, drinking, and the like, the source of this merriment emerges from a person’s closeness to G-d.

What is the etymological source of the Hebrew “mishte (feasting)”? The root of the word mishte is the verb SH-T-H (sha’to), meaning “to drink”. “Mishte” is the causative form of the verb, meaning “to cause to drink”. Understood simply, a “feast” is an event in which we pour drinks. Folding this translation back into Rabbi Soloveichik’s interpretation of holiday merriment, we can see that while the joy experienced on a holiday comes from within, the joy experienced on Purim comes from the outside. On Purim, we use external means to make ourselves happy: We imbibe intoxicating beverages, we wear costumes and masks, and we eat to our heart’s desire[4]. On Purim, merriment comes as a result of feasting while on a holiday, we feast in order to express our merriment.

I suggest that the reason that the reason that we use external means to stimulate our merriment on Purim pertains to a sobering source of Purim. Rabbi Tzvi Sinensky[5], a contemporary Rabbi living in Philadelphia, directs our attention to the Talmud in Tractate Megilla [14a] that asks why the Hallel (Thanksgiving) prayer, a prayer typically recited to commemorate the salvation of the Jewish People, is not recited on Purim. The Talmud proposes two answers and in this essay we will zoom into the second one[6]: After the miracle of Purim, after the Persian diaspora had been rescued from certain extermination, the Jewish People were still the servants of King Ahasuerus. As they remained in exile under Persian rule, their salvation was consequently incomplete and so did not create an obligation to say Hallel. Rabbi Sinensky writes, “Our outward celebration, while genuine, masks the anxiety that simultaneously lies beneath the surface of our smiling veneer. While we celebrate having dodged a bullet, we recognize that we are far from out of the woods. After all, although the Jews had successfully averted the threat of genocide, supreme optimism in the future was unwarranted. Despite Esther and Mordechai’s considerable political influence, there was no guarantee that the capricious Ahasuerus would not be swayed again to issue another decree against the embattled nation.”

While G-d had well and truly saved the Jewish People, who was to say how long that salvation would last? I remember Purim in 1991, which fell after six weeks of dodging Iraqi SCUD-B missiles, each one carrying half a ton of explosives and potentially armed with chemical and biological agents. We were told that the Gulf War was over and that we could unseal our sealed rooms. I was overjoyed but my wife was much less sanguine. Who was to say Saddam wouldn’t lob another one over the fence? We had been saved but it sure didn’t feel that way. On Purim, we must force ourselves to overcome our fear, no matter how justified, and to recognize our own salvation. We accomplish this by acting jubilantly, by drinking alcohol, by singing and dancing. Even if we are not yet merry, we must act as if we are, hoping that our actions will resonate and stir the fire in our soul.

The French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr once wrote, “The more things change, the more they stay the same”. The ancient Persians ruled by King Ahasuerus, have been replaced by an equally insidious regime ruled by mullahs and religious extremists. Leaving their unquenchable thirst for nuclear weapons aside, Iranians have taken over large chunks of the country formerly known as Syria. Soldiers from their elite Republican Guard lie only a few miles across the border. They are arming the Hezbollah in Lebanon with guidance systems for thousands of their rockets. They regularly send armed drones into Israeli airspace to “test the waters”. How can we celebrate Purim when the sword of Damocles is held by a thread over our necks? Not only can we celebrate, we must celebrate. We must eat, drink, and be merry. If Mordechai and Esther could recognize their own salvation, then we can recognize ours. And I’ll drink to that any day.

Purim Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.

[1] Similar commandments are found in other locations in the Torah.

[2] Rabbi Weiss proves his thesis using halachic reasoning that is beyond the scope of this essay.

[3] The normative halacha regarding the requirement of eating meat at the Purim seuda is also beyond the scope of this essay. The interested individual is urged to contact his own rabbi.

[4] In a perfect world – a world in which I had more time – I would have continued down this path, exploring the potential difference between the hedonic pleasure experienced on Purim versus the eudaimonic satisfaction experienced on a holiday.

[5] See this link: https://jewishchronicle.timesofisrael.com/a-sobering-purim/

[6] According to the first answer, the reading of the megilla takes the place of the Hallel.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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