Purim, Alcohol, and the Messages We Send

It’s hard to believe but Purim is just around the corner. In less than two weeks, Jews all over the world will gather and celebrate a day endowed with meaning and infused with joy.  Purim provides adults and children with the opportunity to connect with God and with each other in a remarkable way, offering an experience which can be impactful and, at times, transcendent.  Many enjoy cherished memories of Purim celebrations which inspired sustained periods of growth and elevation.

One of the unique features of a traditional Purim celebration is the excessive consumption of wine. Although there is a Talmudic basis for this practice, many rabbinic scholars have established limits and set specific parameters, in an effort to dissuade individuals from becoming intoxicated.  Among the great rabbinic authorities who have advocated such an approach, are Nimukei Yosef (Megillah 7a), Rama (O”C 695:2), Chayei Adam (155:30) and Aruch Hashulchan (O”C 695:3-5).  It is not my intent to offer my own view regarding the halachic definitions and parameters of alcohol consumption on Purim. It would be presumptuous (and irrelevant to most) for me to express an opinion regarding this matter. Our rabbis have presented a remarkably wide spectrum of views, all a matter of public record.

For full disclosure, it has never been my personal practice to become overly intoxicated at a Purim seudah.  Yet, for my entire adult life, I enjoyed the practice of drinking considerably more wine than I did on any other day throughout the year (which, admittedly, is not all that much).  Our personal Purim seudos have always been especially celebratory and festive, reflecting deep and genuine expressions of religious emotion and joy. I will not deny that these experiences were sharply enhanced by the impact of our collective alcohol consumption.

For the past several years, however, I have consciously limited my alcohol consumption on Purim to no more than a single token drink. This deliberate choice was proudly broadcast to the other participants, most of whom chose to follow this lead. What initiated this sudden change of practice? What precipitated such a significant departure from our customary Purim experience?

Truthfully, I cannot point to a particular event which motivated this change. It was not a reaction to a specific experience, nor a developing crisis in my life. My personal decision to abstain from alcohol on Purim is driven by a desire to communicate clear and consistent messages to myself, my family, and anyone else who may happen to be paying attention.  As a father, as a rabbi and as a teacher, I find it increasingly more challenging to effectively promote intolerance towards excessive alcohol consumption throughout the year, while simultaneously tolerating such indulgences on Purim.  For many, particularly among our youth, the perceived disparity between these two messages is both glaring and compelling.  Our commitment to teaching the value of self-control and our continued efforts to promote intolerance for drugs and alcohol are not merely obstructed by this apparent behavioral contradiction; they are entirely compromised.  To be clear, I do not have the slightest temptation to dismiss or revise Talmudic texts, nor do I intend to imply any grievance with our sacred traditions. On the other hand, Purim does not exist in a vacuum.  With the setting of the sun and the cleansing of our bloodstreams, our religious obligations, social challenges, and personal struggles all resurface and are they right where we left them before the festivities began.  Is it realistic to assume that we can effectively communicate and inspire the virtues of self-control, while faced with conflicting messages that are, for the most part, too nuanced to reconcile?

Additionally, it is no secret that many in our community suffer, directly or indirectly, from the devastating effects of alcohol abuse.  While many of us are able to enjoy the harmlessly benign effects of alcohol consumption one day a year, others among us suffer from the torment and misery of alcohol abuse every day of their lives.  How do we, as individuals and as a community, indulge so excessively, while simultaneously protecting and supporting those among us who may be painfully triggered by our actions? Is it even possible to participate in planned and organized intoxication without provoking sadness, pain, or grief among those most vulnerable and afflicted?   

I offer these questions without presuming to have all of the answers. For myself, the decision to celebrate a dry Purim seems most appropriate and responsible, given my current surroundings and circumstances.  Of course, I will continue to cherish the memories of past Purim celebrations, powerfully enhanced by the alcohol accompaniments.  I will not attempt to forget nor revise the inspiring memories and impressions that were created by rebbeim who radiated joy and transcendence, while under the simultaneous influence of alcohol and Torah.  For now, though, I pray that my children, students, and peers can discover meaning and find inspiration in other opportunities that the day of Purim offers.  We may, in fact, miss the alcohol-induced joy of Purim.  Regardless, we’ve got bigger issues to deal with at the moment.

About the Author
Rabbi Larry Rothwachs serves as senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Aaron in Teaneck, NJ and Director of Professional Rabbinics at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.
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