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    Purim drinking – the case against a custom

    I can’t say I like Hamantaschen, but there is no command to eat them so I don’t feel bad about my heresy.

    It might be different with alcoholic excesses since Rava said in the Talmud, “One is obliged to become to drunk on Purim that doesn’t know the difference between ‘Blessed be Mordechai’ and ‘Cursed be Haman'” (Meg. 7b).

    If Rava is to be taken literally then I suspect I have never observed the mitzvah and must be deemed a transgressor.

    So let me exonerate myself immediately and say that I doubt whether the words of the sage really constitute a command of drunkenness.

    I know that the Shulchan Aruch quotes Rava (Orach Chayyim 695:2) but the Rema (Moses Isserles) offers a qualification. Isserles says, “Some say that it is not required to become so drunk but he should drink more than usual. He will then fall asleep and then he will no longer be able to distinguish between ‘Blessed be Mordechai’ and ‘Cursed be Haman'”.

    There is a view that there was a song that people sang at the time of Rava, with each verse ending, “Blessed be Mordechai” or “Cursed be Haman”, and if accompanied by a modicum of drink one would be unable to choose the right chorus for each verse.

    Whether one follows the intoxication interpretation of Rava’s words or the Isserles qualification, drunkenness was still highly unusual amongst Jews with Purim as the rare exception.

    But the question is what Rava’s verb, liv’sumei, really means. Does it denote drinking or simply being merry?

    There is a case for the second view. It recognises that the Torah has a severe attitude towards intoxication and that halachic writings warn that drunken people are sometimes guilty of sins as serious as immorality and bloodshed.

    According to the non-intoxication view, all that we have to do, and it’s still a big “all”, is to let our hair down, behave with some levity, and let the day provide some light relief.

    That makes Purim a day of revelry that celebrates a fact of history, that Hamans always end up falling.

    The Kol Bo adds that a little wine should be enough to put us in a good mood and to be generous to the poor and needy. No festival can be enjoyable unless we bring joy to others.

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