Purim: Respecting the Limits

Avrohom Gordimer

The final hours of my Purim this year were utterly ruined by several incidents of irresponsible drinking. It is time that our communities aggressively tackle this most serious matter head-on.

No, I am not advocating the approach of not drinking. I myself, in a very controlled way, imbibe on Purim in a manner that totally fulfills the mitzvah of “Ad d’lo yada” according to the Shulchan Aruch. At that time, during my seudas Purim, I experience the Mishteh and Simchah qualities of Purim, as I focus internally and share divrei Torah about what I believe are the inner meaning of the day and the true significance of Purim drinking. I make sure that drinking concludes two hours before Maariv, that drinking occurs exclusively at the Purim seudah (v. Rambam Hilchos Megillah 2:15 and Shulchan Aruch O.C. 695:2), that the only intoxicating beverage present is wine (v. Rambam ibid.), and that minors only imbibe a very small, monitored amount. These guidelines typically ensure a really inspiring, joyous and outstanding Purim, which my family and guests appreciate and seek to replicate.

This year, several incidents upon which I will not elaborate spoiled everything.

While we are all familiar with the grave dangers of overuse of alcohol on Purim (see also), and such dangers must be our primary motivation to curb irresponsible drinking, do we ever think about how the overuse of alcohol utterly distorts and perverts the message of Purim? Rather than focusing on perceiving the Hidden Hand of Hashem and appreciating the exuberance of salvation from mortal existential enemies, irresponsible alcohol consumption on Purim thoroughly impedes the message of Purim from resonating in the head and heart of the drinker.

The case is somewhat similar with regard to Mishlo’ach Manos, whose theme is the expression of friendship and brotherhood. Yet how much frustration and strife are caused by turning this mitzvah into an effort to outdo others, or to deliver Mishlo’ach Manos to every single possible acquaintance despite the cost, distance and logistics, stressing oneself and one’s family the entire day in a mad rush to “make all the rounds” without stop? Does this augment feelings of friendship and brotherhood? Is this the authentic fulfillment of this mitzvah?
While it is far easier for each person to establish his own protocols and parameters for the distribution of Mishlo’ach Manos, the issue of drinking on Purim requires a communal-wide effort.

Let us consider implementing the following steps:

1. Serving alcohol (preferably just wine and beer) only at the seudah and not at any other times during Purim

2. Removing all alcohol from the table at a designated time during the seudah, so that everyone can daven Maariv on time, with a minyan, and in a sober state

3. Not serving alcohol to juveniles in the absence of their parents, and not serving them any more than a minimal, symbolic amount (such as a very partial cup of low-alcohol wine) – and only serving them when permitted by law, of course

4. Totally banning the provision of alcohol to groups of yeshiva bochurim who stop by to collect funds for their yeshiva, or for whatever other reason – Aside from serving these young men alcohol being a highly irresponsible practice in general, hosts must realize that these young men often plan to travel elsewhere during the day; enabling these young men to become intoxicated, knowing that they will then travel on, poses a very serious risk to life. In fact, such conduct is punishable under Social Host Liability statues and can incur fines and even imprisonment in most jurisdictions.

At Chanukah-time, my rebbe would occasionally comment about how our society defeats the message of Chanukah by canceling Torah learning in favor of excessive amounts of time for Chanukah celebrations. With Purim, the same sadly holds true, as the themes of the day can be distorted and perverted by practicing the mitzvos of Purim in a manner that is antithetical to their intent, and, in the case of drinking, utmost sakanas nefashos can be engendered.

Let’s commit ourselves to change this state of affairs, such that next Purim will be a day of Mishteh v’Simchah in a manner that reflects the authentic objectives of the holiday and that embodies Kiddush Shem Shamayim and true concern for our chaveirim.

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21 Responses

  1. ksil says:

    Your main point here seems to be to stop the underage, irresponsible consuming of alcohol.

    This would be lovely, but requires the Rebbeim of these children to be on board with this. My experience is that the Rebbeim are the ones encouraging it, providing it and getting completely smashed themselves. Get them on board, and this rational proposal may go somewhere….but without them, it’s a dead-end.

    One more thing, this seems to be the only outlet all year long for some of these yeshiva buchrim. Everything else is ASSUR (even cartoon movies about Purim and Lester). Why not we lighten the grip on our youth, such that they are not wound up like a spring ready to explode the moment they are allowed to breathe. Just a thought.

  2. SA says:

    Our local email forum in our Jerusalem neighborhood has been commenting on this issue the whole day.

    The streets clogged by vans bearing gangs of wild and/or drunk yeshiva bochurim led Egged to stop sending buses into the neighborhood for several hours in the afternoon/evening, seriously inconveniencing families with young children and the elderly. Several people reported:

    — Having to keep their doors locked throughout Purim so as to block gangs of “marauding” bochurim from entering without being given permission to enter, which they do (it’s happened to me);

    –Buildings that shut down their elevators on Purim so that the gangs don’t damage them (more inconvenience to young families and the elderly, as above);

    — Families who long ago stopped inviting relatives and friends from out of the neighborhood for Purim seuda because the traffic is impossible — a real hardship in a country with no Sunday and not many other opportunities for family/social gatherings;

    — Families who leave the neighborhood for Purim because they can no longer bear the traffic snarls, blaring music, firecrackers (many of which sound like bombs) and other disturbances.

    My out-of-the-neighborhood acquaintances have a running joke about the fact that we show up with mishloach manos at 8:30 a.m., but we have no choice; if you’re on the road in Jerusalem after noon or so, you’ll have hard time getting anywhere. What has Purim come to?

  3. DF says:

    The author’s comments reflect a regulatory mindset, or, if you prefer, a nanny-state way of thinking. “The world can be fixed, if only we come up with enough rules and regulations.” I myself have a more libertarian way of thinking. By heavy anecdotal evidence, as well as by voting patterns, I venture to say most orthodox Jews have a similar libertarian view of life. So I would propose an alternative to R. Gordimer, and any other individual or organization who, like clockwork, trots out the ol’ finger-wagging right around this time of year: teach and preach the ills of overdrinking [which no one denies] all you want. Then step gently aside, and let people decide for themselves how they want to handle themselves. Lo olecha ha-malacha ligmor.

  4. Baruch says:

    I agree a trillion percent, but sadly I think this is a “bracha levatalah.” A big part of the problem, I think, is that in Israel (among charedi and dati leumi circles) getting outright drunk, even on Purim night when there is no mitzvah of drinking, is totally accepted as part of the Purim celebration. There is not even a second thought that maybe it’s not appropriate or safe for teenage yeshiva bochrim to get stoned; it’s just taken as a given. And like many aspects of frum life in EY, this has made its way to the American Orthodox scene. I think in today’s zeitgeist the only way to change the tide would be to get statements from “the gedoilim” of EY, which will never happen.

  5. Bob Miller says:

    Some have turned Simchas Torah into a drinking binge, too, and then no injunction exists to over-drink whatsoever!

  6. Yaakov Novograd says:

    I heard HaRav C. P. Sheinberg z”l say, some 3 decades ago, that one ought to awaken early on Purim morning to learn, and to daven with the “netz”, in order to then (before the day gets too busy) drink wine and take a nap to reach “ad d’lo yada” as the R’mo z”l suggests in “shulchan aruch”.

    How many of us can fulfill the R’mo during the seudah? Over the years, I accomplished the above on a few Purims and then during the seudah, with family and guests, drank just a little to help the “focusing on perceiving the Hidden Hand of Hashem and appreciating the exuberance of salvation…”

    It appears that a “communal-wide effort” is usually much easier suggested than implemented. Instead, hopefully all who recognize the truth in your essays, will follow the wise saying that my father a”h posted: “If each homeowner sweeps before his own front door, then the street will be clean.” And, perhaps, as Ramba”m z”l (chapter 6, halacha 1 of Hilchos Dayos) writes, if we don’t live in such a neighborhood, it’s probably time to consider moving!

  7. reder says:

    Rabbi Gordimer, as usual you hit the nail on the head. I too drink at the seuda only, and would hate to have to stop what can be a very uplifting experience. Yet, there is no doubt that things have gotten out if control. As you are undoubtedly aware, drinking has become a real issue in yeshiva all year long.Yes,yeshiva bochurim need an outlet but what of the refinement of character which is a hallmark of what our yeshiva strive to produce?

  8. Raymond says:

    We as human beings must never forget that we are created in the Image of G-d, and as such, have a responsibility to always uphold at least some measure of personal dignity. While I do think that sometimes the very religious among us carry this principle too far, and are actually guilty of too much dignity, certainly that extreme is more in keeping with our Divine Image, than the opposite extreme that is brought out of us when we drink too much alcohol. In short, I see no constructive purpose served whatsoever in drinking too much.

    Perhaps the one group of people who can somewhat justify excessive drinking on Purim, are those Torah scholars, whose Torah learning is so deeply engraved into their innermost core, that drinking only causes words of Torah to come out of their mouths even more. I strongly suspect, though, that this makes up only a tiny percentage of religious Jews. And so yes, as usual, the Rambam has the most rational, sensible approach to this issue, namely to drink only wine, and only at the Purim meal on Purim.

  9. Ori Pomerantz says:

    The Megillah is also a cautionary tale about the dangers of alcohol consumption.

  10. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Rabbi Gordimer’s post seems to be a reaction to the excesses of great irresponsibility. This is a shame. IMHO the injunction of the Sages to drink until one can no longer distinguish between the blessing of Mordechai and the cursing of Haman. The clear angular walls become fuzzy and quiver and we look at things through an altered state of perception. Too much control misses the point of this exercise. This year being a year with an extra month of Adar, we are currently reading the book of Vayikra. The beginning portions of Vayikra contain the juxtaposition of “adam”, a human being, an elevated being, when he comes close to Hashem, and later a “nefesh”, a “soul”, a mere life-force, which falls into error, sins and becomes defiled. The purpose of drinking on Purim is to use wine to anesthetize the animal soul to leave the holy human being in his spiritual glory, loving G-d, Torah and his fellow Jew. This is because the Jew is defined primarily by his holy divine soul, his ultimate humanity. When a person not permeated with Torah drinks a quantity of alcohol, there is a danger that such a person will do the opposite, put his divine faculties which are merely superficial to sleep and let out the demonic animal. In order to drink responsibly on Purim we need to work on ourselves all year long to prepare for it. It is a challenge. Let’s not give up. Let’s try.

  11. cvmay says:

    “Yet, there is no doubt that things have gotten out if control”

    This statement can be used in ever Torah observance. Tznius has gotten out of control, Parnassa and lack of Panassa has gotten out of control, Lashon Harah has gotten out of control, Physical/Emotional abuse has gotten out of control, Respect for Rabbanim/Gedolim out of our circle has gotten out of control, Chutzpah & Entitlement has gotten out of control.

    Question to ask is WHY have things gotten out of control?

  12. Nachum says:

    DF, how does the state enter into things at all? Any proposal of R’ Gordimer’s is going to be private- neither he nor the Jewish community has any police power.

  13. SA says:

    DF — With all due respect, serving alcohol to minors and driving drunk are both against the law. Throwing up on other people’s carpets or sofas or entranceways may not be, but it’s certainly damaging. We’re not even talking about those once-in-a-while tragedies we hear about connected to alcohol poisoning. Alcohol is one of those things about which you can’t really know how much is “too much” until it might be too late.

    “Regulations” are important on Purim because there are two sides at work here — both the drinker and those who provide the drinkers with alcohol. Yes, responsible adults sometimes need to be reminded or even required to be responsible.

  14. Reb Yid says:

    Interesting enough, Rav Avi Weiss–the subject of much vitriol on this blog–has been in the forefront of cracking down on these abuses. His shul, HIR, is alcohol-free on these types of holidays and signs are clearly posted to that effect.

  15. Chochom b'mah nishtanah says:

    Rev Yid,

    I doubt Avi Weiss did this לשמה. I notice that you say that it is אסור in his shul specifically when there is a מצוה to imbibe. It is probably in a similar vein as to why Yeshayhu Leibowitz did not celebrate פורים.

  16. ELebowicz says:

    “Question to ask is WHY have things gotten out of control?”

    I wonder if the answer is that the more things get out of control, the more controls people try to impose, subsequently provoking increased out-of-control behavior (whether publicly or kept on the down-low). When Prohibition was enacted in the late 1920’s, alcohol sales on the black market and by the Mafia increased, as did crime, resulting in the revocation of Prohibition. Rabbi Gordimer has terrific, well thought out suggestions. Would that there was a way to actually carry those suggestions out.

  17. Ori Pomerantz says:

    DF: I myself have a more libertarian way of thinking. By heavy anecdotal evidence, as well as by voting patterns, I venture to say most orthodox Jews have a similar libertarian view of life.

    Ori: Are they? Or are they just wishing for a less heavy-handed government because they don’t need it, having whatever regulation their communities need provided by the religion? Being an Orthodox Jew means living under a relatively strict code of law.

  18. DF says:

    Nachum – the absence of the police or state apparatus doesn’t make it any less of a regulatory mindset; it just means no effective means of enforcement. Which perforce means someone suggesting such regulations will eventually dream up some sort of method of enforcement.

    SA – No one disputes that adults have to be responsible, not just in drinking but in every walk of life. Perhaps you need someone standing over you and drafting rules for you to follow to know how to be responsible; I don’t.

  19. DF says:

    Ori – I don’t necessarily disagree with you. The roots of Orthodox libertarianism are complicated. Some would say it is because we don’t see a foundation for so many of today’s regulations in the Torah, and thus the regulatory mindset can be seen as foreign to the values of the Torah. Somewhat more negatively, some would say orthodox Jews are preoccupied with own selves, and are thus against regulations because it is no business of our own. Still others would say it is because, similar to what you wrote, we already have enough regulations of our own and don’t need any others.

    Many more theories could be mentioned. I don’t believe I am the first to notice the seeming incongruence between the ostensibly regulated life of the Orthodox Jew, and his attitude towards regulations in broader society. However one views it, I hold it as an unassailable fact that orthodox Jews are overwhelmingly libertarian. Consequently, though they are well-intentioned [Like every law or regulation ever devised] I don’t appreciate suggestions from R. Gordimer or anyone else, presuming to tell me how I can drink and when I can drink. If other people cannot control themselves save by following a rigid set of laws, that is a character flaw in them that needs correcting. It is not an excuse for an exercise in rulemaking.

  20. DB says:

    Why serve/drink beer?

  21. Dr. E says:

    Rabbi Gordimer

    With all due respect, your solution is technical and Halachic (which I favor by the way).

    The issue of drinking is not limited to excesses on Purim. The genie is out of the bottle and Purim is merely a symptom of the broader phenomenon. Purim is out of control, not just drinking at night, but with the “tradition” of smoking and drinking hard liquor as well.

    There is excessive alcohol consumption in Yeshivos on Shabbos in homes, Shalom Zachars, and kiddushes. In fact, some Yeshivos (in America and especially in Israel) have even earned reputations of “drinking Yeshivos”, attracting those who seek out such an experience. Parents are either naive or otherwise in denial of its pervasiveness. In some cases, they should have seen it coming based on the drinking of single malt scotch and the like that they themselves do each week.

    Ksil has some good points. The Yeshivos are so concerned with smartphones. So, they insist on kosher phones. The bochurim get their outlet from Internet cafes. The kosher phones merely protect the external image of the Yeshiva. They don’t change the essence of the bochur.

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