Purim: To Party Like a Jew

What does it mean to party like a Jew? As we know, there is a mitzvah to party on Purim – to have a feast and to drink some wine – in order to express hoda’ah, or gratitude to God for saving us from the anti-Semite Haman.  There is also a mitzvah of pirsumei nisa, of publicizing the miracle of Purim through reading the Megillah.  On the surface, then, it seems that on Purim there is one mitzvah of pirsumei nisa and a separate mitzvah of hoda’ah.  However, I came across a passage from the Meiri which made me rethink the entire holiday of Purim.

The Gemara in Pesachim states, “Amar Rav Yosef hakol modim b’Purim d’ba’inan na’mi lachem,” or “All agree with regard to Purim that we require that it be also ‘for you,’” i.e., we need to engage in physical pleasures like eating and drinking.  The Gemara then asks, “mai ta’ama” – what’s the reason? – to which it then answers, “Ymei mishteh v’simcha ktiv bei,” “[Because it is written:] to observe them as days of feasting and gladness” (Esther 9:22).  Commenting on this passage, the Meiri expounds that we exclude Purim from days on which you are permitted to fast “mishum pirsumei nisa,” to publicize the miracle. According to the Meiri, then, eating and drinking is not simply an expression of gratitude, but rather a fulfillment of publicizing the miracle of Purim.

In what way is feasting and drinking on Purim a fulfillment of pirsumei nisa?  Perhaps we relive the story of Purim partially by feasting, just as our ancestors feasted after defeating their enemies during the story of Purim?  Perhaps, or maybe there is more to our Purim feast.

When the Gemara writes that chayav enesh l’visumei, people should drink on Purim, many Rishonim, Rabbinic authorities like Rashi and the Rambam, specifically write that we should drink wine as opposed to other intoxicating beverages.  The reason for this is that many of the pivotal events of the Megillah were done at wine parties.  Maybe then the pirsumei nisa of feasting is not simply to recall the feast following the military victory, but also to help us relive the feasting throughout the entire story of the Megillah and to contrast the parties of Achashverosh and Haman with the parties of the Jews.

I find it so fascinating that in articulating how much one should drink on Purim, the formulation is that one should drink until he does not know the difference between the wickedness of Haman and the greatness of Mordechai.  Why did we adopt this formulation?  Perhaps this was the story of Purim, a time when there was no understanding of the difference between good and evil, between Mordechai and Haman, when decisions of life and death were made during wine parties.  The definition of the pagan wine party was a time of not knowing the difference between “the wickedness of Haman and the greatness of Mordechai!”  Purim is a holiday where God’s name is not mentioned and the Jews seem to act like non-Jews.  Mordechai who refuses to bow to Haman is the exception, not the rule!

Therefore, our Rabbis, in mandating a mitzvah of feasting on Purim, tell us that we are different than the pagans, not just in the way we pray, but also in the way we party.  This is why there is a specific mitzvah of a feast on Purim— to publicize the way that a Jew (vs. a pagan) celebrates.

What does an authentic Jewish party look like?  Dr. David Pelcovitz, in an article entitled, “Pathways to Happiness,” mentions that a test for true simcha is, “Ask yourself how you feel the morning after.  Perhaps the best example is how one who has a hangover following excessive drinking at a New Year’s eve party feels on January 2nd, relative to how one feels the morning after a spiritually uplifting Rosh Hashanah.”  How did Achashverosh feel after the party when he had Vashti dismissed?  He was devastated.  How should we feel after a Jewish simcha?  We should feel uplifted and closer to God.

Certainly, in today’s day and age, when many in the broader Jewish community suffer from the devastating effects of alcohol abuse, we should reexamine how much we drink on Purim, especially in front of our youth. Maybe we should follow the mitzvah of drinking according to the Rema: drinking a little more than normal and then taking a nap to fulfill the mitzvah.  The Rema clarifies, “By sleeping, he will not know the difference between [cursed be] Haman and [blessed be] Mordechai.”  The key is that we should ensure that after our Purim feast we truly feel closer to God, and inspired to create more opportunities to connect with Him in our daily lives.

Perhaps there is one more crucial difference between the pagan party and the Jewish party.  During the pagan party, life and death decisions were made: kill Vashti and kill the Jew. What happens during the Jewish party?  Purim is designated as a day of mishteh v’simcha, of feasting and happiness, u’mishloach manot ish l’rai’aihu, and of giving gifts to friends, u’matanot la’evyonim, and of charity to the poor.  A Jewish simcha always involves sharing the simcha with others.  If it’s only about me, then it’s not a Jewish simcha.  Perhaps we then need to ask ourselves who will be at our Purim seudah?  Are we sharing a Purim seudah with others who may need a place to eat?  What about mishloach manot?   If mishloach manot is about providing simcha to others, then we need to ask ourselves, are we only giving mishloach manot to our friends?  Shouldn’t we designate one or two mishloach manot for others, to people who aren’t on our friends list yet, individuals who will be pleasantly surprised that we thought of reaching out to them?  If Purim can be a time that we bring someone joy who needs it by including him or her in our simcha, then that’s Jewish simcha and that’s pirsumei nisa.  Then we will truly relive the story of the miracle of Purim, a story which not only celebrates our salvation but also our mode of celebration.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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