Few drinks in history, if any, have enjoyed the celebrity status accorded to wine. Throughout the ages, wine has been seen as a sign of comfort and leisure, both on a world scale and within the context of halacha. Indeed, Eruvin 65a states that anyone whose house does not have wine overflowing like water is not considered to be blessed. Furthermore, wine appears throughout Tanach, from the first story (one opinion holds that Adam and Chava ate grapes from the Tree of Knowledge) to one of the last (the story of Esther is chronologically one of the last), as well as throughout Jewish law. While it is not our purpose now to write a comprehensive dissertation on wine and consumption of alcohol in general, the first part of our Chabura this week will survey the approaches towards wine that are found throughout classical sources.

Without opening anything more than a Tanach, we can already see both a positive and a negative side to wine. Wine plays a major role in many sacrifices and the fruit of the vine is repeated listed as one of the main forms of produce grown by farmers (see Shemot 22:12, for example). One who plants a vineyard is exempt from military service for at least a year. Both Shir HaShirim and Yeshayahu use images of a vineyard to refer to the Jewish people (although, granted, Yeshayahu’s context is ultimately a negative one, the focus here is the choice of the vineyard to represent to chosen people). Tehillim 104:15 tells us that "wine makes man’s heart happy."

On the other hand, there are numerous accounts in Tanach that present a less-than-positive picture of wine and its effects. Noach planted a vine immediately after leaving the ark, only to get drunk and lie bare in his tent. Lot's daughters gave their father wine to drink so that he would not be aware of the fact that they lay with him. Aharon's sons, Nadav and Avihu, are said to have been drunk when they offered their "strange fire" in the Mishkan. Medrash Tanchuma, speaking with regard to Noach, points out several things regarding wine. First, it notes that while Noach was originally referred to as a righteous individual, he is labeled a "man of the earth," a much more menial term, once he plants his vineyard. Second, it observes the progressive state of a person who drinks. After one cup he becomes docile like a sheep; after two cups he becomes like a lion, boasting about his accomplishments; by the third cup he becomes silly like a monkey; by the time he drinks a fourth, he wallows in filth like a pig. Even further, Medrash HaGadol compares drunkenness to idolatry (based on I Samuel 1:14-16).

Sanhedrin 70a has a considerable amount to say about wine. Rav Chanan states that wine was created for two purposes alone: for comforting mourners (by helping them remove their minds from their grief) and for giving the wicked their reward in this world so that they may receive their full punishment in the world to come. Rav Kahana notes that the word "tirosh," referring to wine, is written "tirash" (without the vav). He learns the dual nature of wine from this - if a person knows how to control his drinking, he will become "rosh" - a leader, while if he does not know how to do so, he will become "rash" - poor and destitute. Similarly, Derech Eretz Zuta (quoted by Sanhedrin 38a) states that among the four things by which a talmid chacham (scholar) can be recognized is "koso," i.e. his drinking habits. As Nachalat Yaakov points out, a person can be identified as a talmid chacham if he can control himself when drinking so as to remain clear-headed.

Eruvin 65a presents us with a most interesting statement. It is written there that one who remains lucid while drinking wine is considered to have the knowledge of the seventy elders of the Sanhedrin. Why? Since the numerical values of "yayin" (wine) and "sod" (secret) are both equal to seventy, when wine enters a person, secrets come out. As Rashi explains, if one drinks wine and yet does not reveal any secrets he is compared to the Sanhedrin. Tosafot (Sanhedrin 38a) sharpen this point, stating that despite the effects of the wine, such a person's internal character is such that the secrets that he holds are able to withstand the effects of the alcohol. The Tzitz Eliezer has an even more interesting take on this line. He refers to a statement in Yoma 71a which says that a person nowadays who wants to pour wine on the altar can accomplish that feat by "filling the throats of talmidei chachamim." What does that line mean? According to the Tzitz Eliezer, it refers to the fact that when wine enters, secrets are let out, and if a person gives wine to a talmid chacham, he will ultimately release the secrets that he holds, namely his Torah-knowledge, and thus the table at which they are eating will become comparable to an altar (see Avot 3:3).

Finally, we come to the view of the Mishna in Avot and that of Rambam. Avot 3:10 states that wine drunk in the morning removes a man from this world. Why is this so? Rashi states simply that such drinking will easily bring a person to drunkenness. Rabbeinu Yonah claims further that, as a result of a person's drunken state, he will not be able to take advantage of his time to learn Torah. Rambam takes a very direct approach towards drinking to excess. In Hilchot De'ot 5:3 he states that any person who gets drunk is a sinner and disgusting and will lose his wisdom.


Given our overview of wine and drinking in general, we move now to the specific idea of getting drunk on Purim. The gemara in Megilla 7b states that Rava claims that a person is obligated to get drunk on Purim until he no longer knows the difference (ad d’lo yada) between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordechai." This statement is immediately followed by the story where Rabba and Rav Zeira ate together on Purim one year. Rabba got drunk and slaughtered Rav Zeira, only to pray for him to come back to life. The next year, Rav Zeira declined Rabba's offer to once again join him, stating that a miracle does not happen every year. How are we to understand this statement of Rava? What is the point of the story? What does "ad d’lo yada" mean?


First, we must ask why there is even a commandment at all to drink on Purim. The Shibbolei HaLeket learns this commandment from the words "a day of feasting and happiness" (Esther 9:18). The Bi'ur Halacha quotes the Chayei Adam who notes that this commandment stems from the fact that the entire miracle of Purim came about as a result of wine (i.e. the numerous parties in the Book of Esther). The Yad Ephraim points out that the real mitzva is to be steeped in happiness, and we have already seen the verse in Tehillim that attributes the power of making man happy to wine. Rambam states that the real mitzva is within the context of the Purim meal, and not that a person is commanded to go on random "booze binges" (my phrasing) during the course of the holiday.

First, we will deal with whether or not a person actually has to get drunk. The Korban Netanel claims that the word "ad" means "ad v'lo ad bichlal," meaning that a person must drink up until the point of not being able to distinguish between Haman and Mordechai, but he may not actually cross over that line. To do so would be to reach the point of Lot's drunkenness, a state obviously frowned upon in halacha. However, the Korban Netanel does point out that one does have to make his heart merry with wine. Meiri's comment on this statement explains this line of the Korban Netanel very well. He notes that we are not commanded to get drunk and to thus denigrate ourselves, as we are not commanded in any form of joy that stems from foolishness. Rather, we are commanded to reach a level of happiness that will bring us closer to Hashem.

The Meiri goes even further, however. He quotes Rabbeinu Ephraim (also quoted by Ran), who claims that the flow in the text of the gemara is not accidental. He states that the story of Rabba and Rav Zeira is written in the gemara so as to negate the statement of Rava that we are obligated to drink. The story shows the potentially disastrous results of drunkenness, and thus implicitly comes out against it. However, the Pri Chadash offers an opposite reading. He notices the fact that Rav Zeira refused to eat with Rabba the following year. If the original story revealed the true dangers of intoxication and was meant to tell us to stop this practice, then what was Rav Zeira worried about? Thus, the Pri Chadash concludes that they must have continued the practice of drinking heavily on Purim, and the story is not placed in the gemara as a negation of Rava's law. The Yad Ephraim goes so far as to say that the story is written in the gemara specifically to teach us that the law is like Rava.

The halachic sources generally agree on basic level with regard to this law. Both the Tur and the Shulchan Aruch quote Rava's words, although the precise meaning of the words is a topic of debate among the commentaries. The Beit Yoseif cites the Orchot Chaim who says that drunkenness is absolutely forbidden, as it can lead to licentious behavior, however one should still drink at least a bit more than he is used to. The Bach offers a similar view, stating that the story of Rabba and Rav Zeira negates the obligation to get drunk with regard to reaching the level of Lot's drunkenness, but a person still must drink more than he is used to, and may even reach the level of drunkenness whereby he would not be able to speak before a king (a relatively low level of intoxication), as long as he is able to keep his wits about him. Ramo offers one of the more important statements on this issue, already alluded to in several sources. He cites the Maharil who concurs with the opinion that one must drink more than usual. He then states "whether a person drinks a lot or a little, he must at all times direct his intentions towards heaven." Several later sources echo this concept. The Sha'arei Teshuva states that a person who is not able to hold his alcohol should not drink as it may lead him to perform forbidden acts. The Bi'ur Halacha notes that a person who knows that he will be unable to make blessings or to pray later in the day should not drink and should have in mind that his refraining from drinking is for a higher purpose.

The second aspect of this law concerns the precise meaning of "ad d'lo yada." Given the general consensus that a person must drink to some extent, how does he fulfill the requirement of drinking until he can no longer distinguish between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordechai"? What do these terms mean? Numerous opinions exist in this regard. Tosafot cite the Yerushalmi, which notes that this statement refers not only to Haman and Mordechai, but also to Esther and Vashti as well as to the enemies of the Jews and the Jews themselves. Rosh notes that this is a reference to Shoshanat Yaakov, the liturgy recited after the reading of the Megilla, which focuses on the "good guys" and the "bad guys." The Maharsha claims that one must drink until he can no longer discern the difference between the level of Mordechai, who benefited in both this world and the world-to-come, and that of Haman, who lost his share in both worlds. Rambam offers a view that is consistent with his view of drinking in general. He states that a person must drink to the point where he becomes tired and falls asleep. Once asleep, he will be unable to distinguish between Haman and Mordechai, and thus he will fulfill Rava's law to the fullest. The Darchei Moshe cites the Mahari Weil who sides with Rambam (as does the Mishna Berura), then presents his own view, namely that one should drink to the point where he is unable to recite a certain poem that was traditionally said at the Purim meal. The stanzas in this poem ended with either "cursed be Haman" or "blessed be Mordechai," and one had to be very clear-headed to accurately complete the entire poem. The Magen Avraham states that once must drink to the point where he is unable to calculate the numerical values of "arrur Haman" and "baruch Mordechai," which are equal to each other. Finally, the Aruch HaShulchan cites the Ateret Zekeinim, which claims that a person should drink to the point where he does not know which miracle was greater - the fall of Haman or the rise of Mordechai.

All told, despite the myriad opinions that exist on this issue, virtually everyone agrees on one main point: there is no permission granted to drink on Purim to the point where a person will come to sin or create some other desecration of Hashem's name. While drinking is certainly considered to be a major component of the happiness of Purim, it is to be remembered that that is exactly the point - it is part of the happiness of Purim, and thus it should be seen as a tool that will lead one to praise Hashem for the miracles that He performed in Persia over 2,000 years ago. Failure to realize this negates the very essence of the commandment. Furthermore, one should at all times be aware of the results of his drinking. As Rabi Shimon tells us in Avot 2:9 - "Who is wise? He who has the foresight to see what will result (from his actions)." If a person has reason to believe, and certainly if he knows, that his drinking will result in the failure to do mitzvot or perhaps even worse, then he is admonished to refrain from drink, and to ensure that all of his intentions remain for the sake of heaven.

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