Dear Rabbi Simon,
Do we really have to drink so much on Purim that we cannot distinguish between Mordechai and Haman? I don’t think I have ever gotten that drunk. (Or if I have, I don’t remember it 🙃.)
The Talmud (Meg. 7b) declares, “one is obligated to drink [wine or other intoxicating beverages] until he cannot distinguish between Blessed-is-Mordechai and Cursed-is-Haman.” Many commentators, including the Code of Jewish Law itself (SA OH 695), take this instruction at face value. Indeed, throughout the ages there have been innumerable Jews – rabbis, scholars and saints among them – who have done exactly that.
Nevertheless, many authorities maintain that there is no such obligation, offering a range of different interpretations. Among them:
- The Talmud itself renounces the simplistic statement above (in view of a remarkable story related there). This is the view of R. Menachem Meiri (13th c. Provence)
- The level of inebriation described is a maximum not to be exceeded, not a minimum to be achieved.
- One should merely drink a small amount of wine, or more wine than he is accustomed to, and thereby fall asleep. When sleeping, he can surely not distinguish between Mordechai and Haman (Rama, 16th c. Krakow and others, followed by Mishneh Berurah).
- The reference is to the numerical value (gematria) of the two Hebrew phrases mentioned above. Remarkably, these are identical (502). If you cannot calculate, mentally, the arithmetic of those Hebrew words, you are sufficiently intoxicated. (This is a low bar!) This interpretation is found in the halakhic commentary Magen Avraham (17th c. Poland).
- Philosophical approach: Drink until you cannot make up your mind if the greater miracle is the downfall of the wicked, or the elevation and survival of the righteous. Again, this thought-provoking question requires mental acuity to contemplate.
According to all views, however, drunkenness is not obligatory. It may or may not be praiseworthy, depending on one’s motivation in drinking in the first place and, perhaps even more important, the behaviour and consequences which ensue as a result. In fact, in recent years the problem of alcohol abuse and addiction within the Orthodox Jewish community, particularly among young people, has prompted some rabbis (and therapists) to discourage drinking on Purim altogether. See here, by the late rabbi and psychiatrist Abraham Twerski zt”l: https://www.ou.org/holidays/purim/message-rabbi-abraham-j-twerski-m-d/
While I am personally reluctant to go that far (what’s next, no-carb Pesach? Low-cholesterol Hanukkah? Citrus-free Sukkot?), “responsible drinking” is a must.
Happy Purim and drink up!
Rabbi Rashi Simon