Ben-Tzion Spitz
Former Chief Rabbi of Uruguay

Purim for Non-Alcoholics

In order to understand the challenges of the Jewish celebration of Purim for non-Alcoholics, we first need to define the current religious/social/cultural phenomena of drunkenness on this particular holiday and we may be served by a contrast to the Alcoholic’s experience.

An alcoholic is a person, for whatever reason, that has an addiction to alcohol. Their addiction is such that they cannot control themselves or refrain from drinking even when it is clear and obvious that negative repercussions will ensue. Alcoholism is a disease, at times fatal. According to most professionals, it cannot be cured, only treated and managed. Alcoholics benefit from therapy, medical treatment and the famed 12-step program, Alcoholics Anonymous.

It would not be difficult to imagine that the culture of drinking on Purim would be a living hell to an alcoholic that is refraining from drinking. He knows that one drink could very well mean his death. It could lead him to that spiral of intoxication that often seems like it will be the last. But first, let us understand and for those unfamiliar, introduce the Purim drinking phenomena.

Approximately 2,500 years ago, the Persian Empire, at that time the world power on Earth, had decreed to exterminate all of its Jewish citizens. As an aside, this is the first point in history where the Nation of Israel is labeled “Jewish” (Yehudim in Hebrew, of the tribe of Judah, the most representative tribe of Israel at that time). As per the story documented in Megillat Esther, the Jews are saved and set the date of Purim (the 14th/15th day of the Hebrew month of Adar) as an eternal celebration. The Rabbis instituted a number of commandments: reading of Megillat Esther, charity, giving food parcels to people and a joyous feast on the day of Purim. The Rabbis state that it is a positive precept to drink at this meal.

One should drink at the festive meal of Purim. However, according to the Rabbis one is prohibited from getting drunk. In more than one source the Rabbis consider getting drunk forbidden and even as one of the worst acts, as a “Chilul Hashem”, a desecration of God’s Name for which only death absolves.

The question then becomes how does one draw the line between drinking and getting drunk? How do we define drunkenness?

Returning to the alcoholic, the question for him is very simple. He cannot afford even one drink. One drink to him means death. An alcoholic is exempt from the command to drink, whether it is the weekly Sabbath “Kiddush” (consecration of the day), the Four Cups that we are mandated to drink during the Pesach Seder, or the drinking during the festive meal of Purim.

As difficult and tragic as an Alcoholic may have it vis-à-vis the directive to drink wine according to Jewish law, there is a large percentage of humanity that does not suffer from this ailment and can drink alcohol without danger or fear of addiction.

However, it is worthwhile to note, that just as people have different tolerances to the amount of alcohol they can consume and the progression of incapacitation, so to, there is a spectrum of addiction to alcohol. There are people with mild addictions who suffer infrequently. At the end of the spectrum are the perpetual drunks at death’s door. Also, to bear in mind, there are a growing number of reports of young Jews whose first encounter with heavy use of alcohol and the beginnings of their own alcoholism commences with Purim. That should give every celebrant pause. You may be witnessing, at your own festive meal, the beginning, or for some, the continuation of an addiction nightmare that destroys lives and families.

But now let us return to the happy non-alcoholic. He can drink with impunity. He wakes up the next day and thereafter with no desire whatsoever for alcohol. He is blessed. He can safely drink. However, the prohibition against getting drunk remains.

What is underneath the drinking in Jewish law? First of all, the biblical drink of choice is always wine (according to Maimonides, red is superior to white wine). There is never an obligation to drink beer, liquor, vodka or any other beverage. The juice of the grape has an inherent sanctity that it brings to an occasion.

We consecrate the Sabbath day every week on a cup of wine. It elevates the day and us. On Pesach our drinking of ample wine highlights our freedom and majestic status. On Purim, it is an aid, a lubricant to ease our daily concerns and assist in our joy and celebration on this festive holiday. We are meant to be happier and more relaxed than usual. We are meant to lower some of our inhibitions, be friendlier, more outgoing, but never crossing any limits of propriety. All laws and standards of behavior remain in force. The permission to imbibe more than usual is not permission to be rude, disrespectful, or gross.

Many seem to believe that permission to drink equals permission to be wild. There was an experiment that was done with college students where half of the students were given large quantities of beer and the other half was given water with the flavor of beer. After a few drinks, the water-drinkers behaved as wildly and rowdily as the beer drinkers. There is a social play-acting involved in any group-drinking.

In a crowd, the first barrier to fall is usually the sexual one. Whether it is verbally, visually, or physically, both men and women become more daring, more adventurous, in giving expression to their fantasies. Conversations become louder and more rambunctious. The line between happy and inappropriate becomes thin indeed.

It seems to me that the line at which one becomes drunk is very hazy. By the time someone is close to that line it is often too late and he or she will lack the judgment to refrain from another drink. Then without realizing it, they have crossed into that territory of inappropriate or offensive talk or behavior, lack of coherence or coordination and progressive mental incapacitation, all of which are repulsive to those not in a similar state of inebriation.

What is the point until one should drink? The one clue the Rabbis give to this subjective question is the mysterious line that one should not be able to distinguish between “cursed is Haman (the villain of the Esther story) to blessed is Mordechai (the co-hero with Esther)”. This line has been a source of great controversy with people interpreting it as per their drinking preferences.

When the Rabbis want to describe that someone is really drunk, they called it the “drunkenness of Lot” that under the influence of alcohol allowed himself to have incestual relations with his two daughters. According to various Rabbinic interpretations of the Purim drinking directive, we are directed to only reach a relatively mild level of intoxication.

Nonetheless, the question remains. The simplest answer given by the Rabbis is: you should drink just a little bit more than what you are accustomed to. Therefore, a person who barely drinks wine would satisfy the requirement to drink with just a sip. A person who is accustomed to having a glass of wine with his meals might be required to drink another glass. A person who is accustomed to heavy drinking during his meals may have other issues to worry about than the requirement of Jewish law as to how much he should drink.

Another curiosity the drinking on Purim reveals is the level of hypocrisy that exists in Jewish observance. People who pay little attention to other Jewish laws, all of a sudden become highly observant of this particular command. As is stated in the vernacular, “they are full of it.” Their drinking binge may merely masquerade a closet alcoholic or a repressed soul seeking an excuse to bring his fantasies, delusions, turmoil and demons to the fore. I council such disturbed people to seek therapy and not subject the public to their private ailments. The Talmud states that “when wine enters, secrets come out.” Well, some secrets should remain that way. If one is a holy saint, then please, get so intoxicated that you reveal the metaphysical mysteries of creation. But for the rest of us – put a lid on it. Please, spare us.

For many, many people, Purim has become the most horrible holiday of the year. To see their friends, parents, children, spouses and even Rabbis get drunk and behave in offensive ways is just disgusting. Where there is fear or danger of people drinking too much, they are much better off not drinking at all.

So how do you know how much to drink? If there is a chance you may drink too much – then you shouldn’t drink at all. If you can limit yourself and drink just a little bit more than is your weekly custom, then go ahead, fulfill the command and get a little lift in the enjoyment of the holiday.

If you suspect you may overdo it, if someone has hinted or told you that you drank too much in the past, do yourself and especially those around you a big favor. Don’t drink. You may be surprised that you and those around you may actually enjoy the holiday more.

About the Author
Ben-Tzion Spitz is the former Chief Rabbi of Uruguay. He is the author of six books of Biblical Fiction and hundreds of articles and stories dealing with biblical themes. He is the publisher of Torah.Works, a website dedicated to the exploration of classic Jewish texts, as well as TweetYomi, which publishes daily Torah tweets on Parsha, Mishna, Daf, Rambam, Halacha, Tanya and Emuna. Ben-Tzion is a graduate of Yeshiva University and received his Master’s in Mechanical Engineering from Columbia University.
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