Drinking in Moderation: On Purim and Beyond

by Rabbi Yaakov Hoffman

The attempts of Jewish leaders to rein in alcohol abuse, on Purim and in general, have not been met with much success. The conclusion is inescapable: It is time to consider an entirely new strategy.

Regarding Purim specifically, many Jewish organizations have tried to curtail drinking by issuing halachic pronouncements to the effect that there is no need to get drunk on Purim. But everyone knows that the Talmud and poskim do contain opinions that apparently mandate drunkenness. A one-sided presentation of the issue thus strikes people as intellectually dishonest, and they are apt to dismiss such rulings as agenda-driven polemics.

To cite another example of a halachic ruling lacking rigor as well as efficacy: When I was in high school, a certain Jewish group published a pamphlet admonishing underage persons not to drink any alcohol on Purim. Now, it is possible to advance cogent arguments against alcohol on Purim, especially for minors or recovering alcoholics. Instead, however, the pamphlet put forth the idea that one should fulfill the mitzvah of drinking on Purim by consuming grape juice. Advancing the absurd notion that drinking grape juice constitutes any kind of halachic fulfillment on Purim only serves to convince readers of the pamphlet that it should not be taken seriously. Halachic discourse about this topic must be subject to the same standards as any other sugya if it is to have any chance of being heeded.

Jewish leaders also use the Purim season as an opportunity to educate the community about the dangers of alcohol poisoning and drunk driving. Apparently, they assume that informing people about the terrible consequences of drinking to excess will get them to drink less. But such a heavy-handed, negative approach rarely works. A more effective way to combat alcohol abuse would be to inculcate positive attitudes and behaviors regarding alcohol consumption.

In the United States, one can drive a car, vote, and serve in the army before one can legally purchase alcohol. There is a general perception of alcohol as an illicit drug that must be tightly controlled. Contrast this with the situation that traditionally exists in a number of European countries, notably Italy, where children grow up with wine being a normal beverage at family meals. Despite higher per capita alcohol consumption, there is less alcoholism.[1]

Perhaps, then, the key to reducing alcohol abuse lies in being less restrictive about its consumption. Instead of focusing on keeping alcohol out of the hands of anyone under 21, society should model responsible behavior. Families should consume wine and beer in moderation (hard liquor only sparingly) at mealtime under the watchful eyes (but not the raised eyebrows) of the others at the table.

Children who are raised in homes with no sweets tend to raid the candy jar when visiting friends. Evidence suggests that if it becomes normal (and legal) for teenagers to have a glass or two of wine with meals in a family setting, they will have much less desire to go crazy with alcohol. I am fortunate enough to know this firsthand. I credit my safe and positive drinking habits to my parents’ raising me with a relaxed and unrestrictive approach to alcohol.

Those who grow up with wine as a standard feature of meals will naturally drink on Purim during the se‘udah only. Such a practice is also halachically sound—the Talmud juxtaposes its discussion of drinking on Purim to its analysis of the Purim se‘udah (Megillah 7b), implying that any mitzvah to drink is part and parcel of the meal. The Rambam rules this way explicitly, stating that consumption of wine is merely an aspect of the festive repast (Hilchot Megillah 2:15). Indeed, part of the reason drinking on Purim is out of hand is that the drinking does not take place in the correct setting. Roaming the streets at all hours swigging from a bottle of vodka lends itself to going overboard (it should also be noted that many authorities maintain that one fulfills the mitzvah of drinking on Purim with wine only).

But even if drinking is limited to the se‘udah, it is obviously still possible to become overly inebriated. Such conduct is, at first blush, sanctioned by the Talmud: “Says Rava: One must become intoxicated on Purim to the extent that one cannot distinguish [ad de-la yada] between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai’” (Megillah 7a).

A comprehensive review of the extensive literature analyzing this line is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that many authorities do not take it literally. Rabbeinu Efraim, famously, does take the line at face value but maintains that it is not accepted as normative halacha. He bases his assertion on the fact that the Talmud follows Rava’s statement with a story demonstrating how drinking to excess on Purim can have terrible consequences. Many poskim embrace the view of Rabbeinu Efraim.

But can Rabbeinu Efraim be cited in support of a dry Purim? He certainly does not mean that one should consume no alcohol—after all, the Megillah itself calls Purim yom mishteh ve-simchah. The Rema, channeling Rabbeinu Efraim’s opinion, states that one need only drink “a bit more than usual” (Orach Chayim 695:2). We must recognize, however, that the special spiritual mood of Purim is enhanced when one’s soul is uplifted by alcohol. Is there any halachic view that presents a moderate approach between minimal alcohol consumption and total drunkenness?

Given the tension today between those who drink to dangerous levels on the one hand and those pushing for a dry Purim on the other, I believe that the posek who most speaks to us is the Bach (Orach Chayim 695). The Bach explains that the Talmud rejects Rava’s statement only to the extent that it advocates losing control of one’s faculties on Purim. It is clear, writes the Bach, that even Rabbeinu Efraim agrees that one must become quite tipsy on Purim but still remain in complete control of one’s behavior.[2] This ruling seems balanced and sensible, but requires self-control regarding alcohol consumption that can only be cultivated with a proper attitude toward drinking in general.

To sum up: Formulating an approach to drinking on Purim requires balancing halachic integrity, spirituality, and personal and public safety. In my view, the best course of action is to drink on Purim during the se‘udah only, and to become tipsy but not drunk. The ability to execute this plan successfully is predicated on a healthy and reasonable approach to alcohol consumption throughout the year.

Rabbi Yaakov Hoffman leads Washington Heights Congregation (“The Bridge Shul”). He has semicha Yoreh Yoreh and Yadin Yadin from RIETS and is a practicing Sofer. He can be reached at [email protected]

  1. See here, here, here, and here. When the traditional method of alcohol consumption breaks down, the situation changes for the worse: see here and here.
  2. It is also possible to arrive at this conclusion if one assumes that Rava’s statement does reflect normative halacha but is not meant literally.

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23 Responses

  1. Raymond says:

    At least according to my understanding, the high point of human history from a Jewish perspective was when G-d gave the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai as witnessed by our entire Jewish people. This means that G-d’s Ultimate Gift to us was a book. A very special book, but a book nevertheless. Some centuries later, when the Romans were busy destroying Jewish control over our Jewish land of Israel, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai essentially surrendered to the Romans on behalf of the Jewish people, asking only that Jewish sovereignty over its yeshivot continue, which are places where Jews engage in intense Torah study, for he realized that Torah study is our only hope for Jewish survival. And somewhere along the line, the Arab world correctly called our Jewish people, “The People of the Book,” the Book, of course, referring to our Torah, although in a wider sense, it can include the academic scholasticism in general that has been such a hallmark to our Jewish people. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book The Earth is our Lord’s, so beautifully and poetically relates how in even the worst ghetto conditions in Europe, Jews always sustained a great love of learning, especially the Torah, and that it was this great love that sustained the Jewish people over the centuries, despite the tremendous odds against such survival. For those of you who have not yet had the pleasure to read that short but inspiring book, I highly recommend it.

    Now, for us Jews to have such emphasis on book learning, particularly our Torah, we have to deserve it. The intense mental effort in mastering our Torah, Talmud, Mishna Torah and so on requires the greatest possible working order for our brains. Consuming alcohol has the very opposite effect of that. I have to inject on a personal level here that the one time many years ago when I tried to get drunk on Purim, that the effect it had on me was of such a personally noticeable and significant diminishment of my mental abilities, that it was more than enough to discourage me from ever trying such a foolish stunt again. It also made me wonder why exactly anybody would be drawn to engaging in such behavior.

    Now, there are Rabbis and other Torah scholars out there, who, even when drunk, continue to spout out words of Torah. For such people who have such a capacity, drinking on Purim is probably okay and perhaps even mandated. However, for the rest of us mere mortals, I think it is not only not a good idea to drink to excess on Purim, but strikes me as going completely against the spirit of what it means to be the People of the Book. It may even be a form of a desecration of G-d’s Name, since how does it took to the nations of the world to see members of G-d’s Chosen People in a state of drunken stupor? And so as far as I am concerned, the ability to engage in Torah learning transcends alcohol consumption any day of the year, even on such an admittedly fun holiday as Purim.

  2. nt says:

    It’s also important to have a safe place to be. That is why responsible yeshivos and high schools have parties for the bochurim, so they can drink in a restricted environment with adults present.

    • Nachum says:

      My own yeshiva (YU) didn’t allow alcohol on campus, period, even on Purim. It worked.

      • nt says:

        Do people have their seudah on campus? I would assume they were just outsourcing the drinking to the community. If I’m wrong let me know.

    • nt says:

      Also in my experience, the kids who drank at the shabbos table and are familiar with alcohol are fine on Purim. It’s the kids who were never taugt how to drink alcohol who end up throwing up and being miserable. I tell teenagers that drinking alcohol is a skill that is learned, not a physical talent. Being tough or cool has nothing to do with itl

  3. DF says:

    Best article I’ve seen on this topic.

  4. Yaakov L. says:

    Good article and I enjoy a mechudashtikeh view on an old topic. That being said, whether intentionally or not, the author promoted chuckling in this reader when he mentioned how young adults should drink a glass of wine at meals like we are at (a kosher version of) Olive Garden 🙂

  5. dr. bill says:

    Duch zoch mir, that the adoption of the shiurim popularized by the Chazon Ish, which previously were observed only a few members of the Rabbinic elite, are perhaps partially to blame. If 1 zayit = 3-6 zaytim, then slightly high means shikur vi ah grosse, grober goy. ve’ha’maivin yavin. 🙂 I suggest to machmir on the quality, not the quantity

    • Mycroft says:

      RYBS once made a comment in the new larger shiurim that the CI advocated and you mean to say that Grandfather was not Yotzeh Matza on Pesach night. Obviously Rav Chaim did not follow the shiurim later popularized by the CI and to say one needs that amount means that Rac Chaim wasn’t mekayem the mitzvah.

      • dr. bill says:

        My second grandson’s brit was on Chol ha-Moed Pesach and I got into a conversation wrt shiurim with Rav Schechter. His FIL ztl, an excellent expositor, helped write Sharei Yosher by RSS ztl. He told Rav Schechter that in addition to RSS’s geonis, he was also a baal mophais – by his seder 5 people ate their kezayit from one matzah. That is what Rav Schechter told me.

    • nt says:

      Swing and a miss. There is no shiur for wine on Purim. Nobody is measuring ounces.

  6. lacosta says:

    if the actual chiyuv is during the seuda, and most people start seuda an hour or two before shkia , they need some pretty fast and intense drinking in order to fall asleep and then wake all in the before nightfall time frame. also, as all men are then asleep at table ,can they bentch when they awake?

    • Yaakov Hoffman says:

      It’s a good question but in this article I’m not working with the position that one needs to fall asleep. One should just start the seudah as early as possible and get tipsy before shkia.

    • dr. bill says:

      as noted, 1) sleep is not necessary and 2) the seudah can stretch well past nightfall. as well

  7. Steve Brizel says:

    I know of one set eminent RY and Gadol whose Purim Seudah is totally dry

    • Yaakov Hoffman says:

      In purely halachic terms there is no basis for a totally dry Purim. Either he holds he’s exempt from drinking because he dislikes alcohol, or he thinks that the issues with alcohol abuse today call for extreme measures. If the latter, I respectfully disagree as I explain in the article.

      • Nachum says:

        No basis? There are four mitzvot of Purim. I don’t see drinking as any one of them.

        I suppose it can be fit into the Seudah, but there things change. In the time of Achashverosh, a mishteh *was* drinking and nothing else, hence the name.

  8. Dr. E says:

    I have heard of the Rabbeinu Efraim cited as a logical Halachic maskana of the passage in the Gemara which is Aggadita.

    I would point out the Yad Efraim on the page of the Shulchan Aruch who provides a “shiur” for the notorious “chayyav inosh….” of being “ad v’lo ad b’chlal”. My Rebbe quoted that each year and added lomdus that if one drinks beyond that boundary, he is no longer obligated in mitzvos and therefore yatza s’charo b’hefseido.

    I would highly doubt that the aforementioned pamphlet offered any assertion that grape juice is absolutely Halachically equivalent to wine. It could have been proposed as an “eis la’asos”. At the risk of sounding like a kofer b’ikkar, even those opinions who said that the “chayyav inosh” is l’Halacha, one could say that was when transportation was on horses and donkeys, not multi-ton SUV’s.

    My take-away is that an all-dry Purim is OK. And given that on a random Tuesday afternoon, few would drink even one glass of wine with their lunch, doing so on Purim this year would in fact qualify as “yoseir mi’limmudo”.

  9. StevevBrizel says:

    One could argue that because of the risks of inappropriate conduct that wind up in emergency rooms and worse and the well documented increased alcohol abuse that is present in our communities that the Halacha of Ad Dlo Yadah can be viewed as one of more than a few Halachos that is on the books but of limited if any practical application to our generation

    • Yaakov Hoffman says:

      I agree that people should NOT get drunk on Purim. Besides being the psak of many Rishonim and Poskim, the problems caused by excessive drinking today certainly indicate that complete intoxication is not called for. However, I do not think that advocating a dry Purim for everyone is reasonable, or halachically or spiritually sound. That’s why I present my vision for a moderate approach.

  10. DF says:

    To clarify – the reason your article hits the spot is not so much because that people pick up on the intellectual dishonesty of a one-sided opinion, although that is certainly true. It has more to do with the overall free-spirit, anti-scold attitude of much of the orthodox world. The yeshivah world doesn’t like to be told what to do or think. That is true even when it comes from a Rosh Yeshivah, all the more so when it doesn’t. Some may not like such an attitude; others may find it healthy and refreshing. Regardless, this is the real root of why the finger-wagging on Purim doesn’t resonate. Anyone who doesn’t understand that, doesn’t really understand the political landscape, both in the Jewish sense and in the general sense.

  11. Steve Brizel says:

    If you start drinking like a Shikur at A Shalom Zachor progress to always drinking too much at a Kiddush or Shabbos and think that Shikrus on Pesach is Cherus and drink too much elsewhere then getting drunk on Purim is no small step Ask RZ Gluck of Amudim what he thinks of alcoholism in our communities

  12. Bob Miller says:

    While we’re on the subject, why is there often excessive drinking on Simchas Torah? Shouldn’t the Torah itself engender that day’s simcha? Not to mention that getting blasted can produce the opposite.

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