Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Chiyyuv, or Issur, of Getting Drunk on Purim

The gemara relates an obligation of getting drunk on Purim, seemingly to excess. Yet throughout generations, some Rishonim, Acharonim, and modern day rabbis understand the gemara in a way such that the level of drunkenness is much less. For example, see Rambam, Rav Yosef Karo (in Beis Yosef), Mishnah Berurah, and Aruch HaShulchan. In terms of contemporary rabbis, see for example Rav Shmuel Kaminetsky, Rabbi Avraham Twersky, and Rabbi Yakov Horowitz. As background to this post, please read the linked-to Aruch Hashulchan, which gives a rather good survey of the sources and positions. This post will not be compregensive in that way.

All these rabbonim stand on their own, and don't need my haskamos. But I do have some of my own insights to add on the topic. Independently of what they write, I believe that halachically, most people should not get totally soused on Purim, and that this comes from a careful (though different) reading of sources.

1) The gemara (Megillah 7b) relates:
אמר רבא מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי
רבה ורבי זירא עבדו סעודת פורים בהדי הדדי
איבסום קם רבה שחטיה לרבי זירא למחר בעי רחמי ואחייה
לשנה אמר ליה ניתי מר ונעביד סעודת פורים בהדי הדדי
אמר ליה לא בכל שעתא ושעתא מתרחיש ניסא
"Rava said: A person is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until he does not know the difference between 'Cursed Be Haman' and 'Blessed Be Mordechai.'
Rabba and Rabbi Zera made their Purim feast with one another. They became drunk; Rabba arose and slaughtered Rabbi Zera. The next day, he asked for mercy for him, and caused him to live. The next year, he {=Rabba} said to him, 'Let Master come and we shall make a Purim feast with one another.' He {=Rabbi Zera} said to him: Not at every hour does a miracle come.'"

This story might well give us an indication of just how drunk one may, or must, become on Purim. And Rabbi Kaminetsky's interpretation of livsumei as to take a mere "sniff" is not in line with the meaning of the term as used by Chazal. It is a clever reinterpretation, in order to achieve a specific end, but I don't believe for a moment that that is the meaning of the gemara itself. Perhaps a more credible reinterpretation would be to point out that in the immediately preceding context of the gemara, אי נמי רווחא לבסימא שכיח, the word does not refer to becoming intoxicated but to spiced sweet food. But I will leave that reinterpretation, and how it might work, to the side for now.

2) Rif simply cites the gemara lehalacha, without elaboration. However, Rambam, hilchot Megillah,second perek, writes:

טז  [טו] כֵּיצַד חוֹבַת סְעוֹדָה זוֹ--שֶׁיֹּאכַל בָּשָׂר וִיתַקַּן סְעוֹדָה נָאָה, כְּפִי אֲשֶׁר תִּמְצָא יָדוֹ; וְשׁוֹתֶה יַיִן, עַד שֶׁיִּשְׁתַּכַּר וְיֵרָדֵם בְּשִׁכְרוּת.

Drinking as de-lo yada suddenly became drinking until he becomes intoxicated and dozes off in his drunkenness. Why the apparent shift? Aruch Hashulchan asks this.

My father, Rabbi Dr. Z. Waxman, explains that this is no shift at all. Rambam is interpreting the gemara in Megillah, as a pun! In Aramaic, פוריא means both "bed" and "Purim." Thus, Rava is saying to drink until one falls asleep.

The standard explanation (mentioned by Aruch hashulchun) is that since he is asleep, he does not really know the difference between Arur Haman and Baruch Mordechai. (And this is like the Rama.) And this works out, but how does Rambam really know that this is the meaning? And as Aruch Hashulchan asks:
But this is not entirely understandable. According to this, why did the Shas use this unique language "until he does not..."? Let it say "he must drink until he dozes off?"
Therefore, Aruch Hashulchan suggests that Rambam actually rejects the position of Rava lehalacha, and that Rambam maintains the gemara rejects it because of the incident with Rabba and Rabbi Zera. Just as Ran cites Rabbenu Ephraim, maintaining this position.

I don't find this very convincing. Rather, I would answer Aruch Hashulchan's question by noting that Rava's statement is idiomatic, colorful, makes playful use of Purim themes, and sounds like leshon guzma, exaggerated speech. And as various poskim note, to make it literal would mean drunkenness up to that of Lot, and he would be degraded to a disgusting state of vomit and excrement, which is difficult to believe is the recommended shiur. I believe Rambam understood the gemara to be a colorful guzma, and since, obviously, one would not really drink ad delo yada, he substituted an actual measurement of becoming rather drunk. Furthermore, I think that Rambam's reading of the gemara is extremely plausible.

3) But I have an even better reason for people not to become exceedingly drunk on Purim, and perhaps to refrain from drinking at all. Ran cites Rabbenu Ephraim that that because of the incident of Rabba and Rabbi Zera, Rava's statement of the shiur for drinking is not established lehalacha. (And Aruch Hashulchan suggested that this was Rambam's position as well.) While I see the potential of interpreting the flow of the gemara in this manner -- the first year, they conducted themselves in this way stated (later) by Rava; because of the death and miraculous resurrection, they decided not to do so the second year -- I am not persuaded that this is the gemara's intent. This could be merely interesting aggadeta, of historical interest; and could be the actions Rabba was prone to take, not the actions the general populace would be likely to take. And Rava

However, these particular Amoraim did act, in each case, in accordance with halacha. Rava's shiur is indeed established lehalacha. And they drank up to, or perhaps exceeding, that measure. However, this rabbinic law (perhaps as an aspect of the type of mishteh one is to have on Purim) comes into conflict with sakanas nefashos. And protecting your life and health is a Biblical command! And we know וחי בהם. So while in general, one should drink to that level, Rabba and Rabbi Zera decided that they should not have their meal together that year. Perhaps they even became drunk to that level, but by themselves.

Both Rava's shiur, and this idea of not killing yourself to fulfill it, are halacha. And so if reality changes such that drinking on Purim leads to risk to life or health, one should not do it! (Update: Looking now at Rabbi Jachter's article, he seems to hint at a similar idea, towards the end.)

And indeed, reality changed. People drive on Purim; and people stumble into streets, where there are cars. That represents danger to your own life and to the lives of others. People either have weaker constitutions than they did in days of old, or don't drink as much and so cannot tolerate it, or the wine is different, or people are idiots and drink too much, or people are idiots and drink vodka and whiskey. The end result is that often enough people end up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning, or worse.

Now, in theory, this shouldn't effect me. I know how to drink to moderation, and I would make myself tipsy by drinking three quarters of a bottle of white Zinfandel. Only those who take it to the extreme should be told that it is forbidden for them to drink to excess, or because they do not know how to set limits, be told not to drink at all. But on the other hand, perhaps one cannot make exceptions. Every person, even the idiots, will say "Surely I am not intended." And then would drink, and put themselves or others at harm. Thus, perhaps a blanket statement of prohibition should be issued nowadays.

4) There is another point, and that is nishtaneh hateva. We find this, on occasion, used to explain why we do not conduct ourselves in accordance with halacha established in the gemara. Perhaps nowadays, our constitution is so degraded (because of yeridas hadoros) that we cannot handle it. Or we don't drink enough in general, to build up tolerance. For Chazal, wine and not water accompanied each meal.

Or else the nature of wine changed. This is something Balashon writes, summarizing research as to the nature of Chazal's wine.
We've skipped over an important question: Why was there a need to mix their wine at all? We see from Talmudic sources that wine was mixed with water, generally three parts water to one part wine (see Shabbat 77a, Niddah 19a). Since today we never mix wine with water, a common explanation is that the wine of that time was much stronger than the wine today.

However, as a doctor friend of mine pointed out to me, there's a problem with that explanation. Before the discovery and spread of distillation, no wine could ever reach a higher alcohol content than 14%. (In research for this post, I learned that brandy is wine that has been distilled, and can reach 36-60% alcohol content, and port is wine that has been fortified by adding brandy - and has approximately 20% alcohol.) Diluting such a wine by 75% leaves a very low alcohol content. It's not likely that they were so sensitive to alcohol that they need such a weak wine. So what's the answer?
I would ask: With an alcohol content of 14%, divided by 1/4, is it really likely that they could become so drunk as to not distinguish between Arur Haman and Baruch Mordechai? He continues:
The book The Road to Eleusis also discusses the issue of the Greeks diluting their wine, and comes up with the same question about the alcohol content. And the authors find something fascinating:

This custom of diluting wine deserves our attention since the Greeks did not know the art of distillation and hence the alcoholic content of their wines could not have exceeded about fourteen percent, at which concentration the alcohol from natural fermentation becomes fatal to the fungus that produced it, thereby terminating the process. Simple evaporation without distillation could not increase the alcoholic content since alcohol, which has a lower boiling point than water, will merely escape to the air, leaving the final product weaker instead of more concentrated. Alcohol in fact was never isolated as the toxin in wine and there is no word for it in ancient Greek. Hence the dilution of wine, usually with at least three parts of water, could be expected to produce a drink of slight inebriating properties.

That, however, was not the case. The word for drunkenness in Greek designates a state of raving madness. We hear of some wines so strong that they could be diluted with twenty parts of water and that required at least eight parts water to be drunk safely, for, according to report, the drinking of certain wines straight actually caused permanent brain damage and in some cases even death. Just three small cups of diluted wine were enough in fact to bring the drinker to the threshold of madness. Obviously the alcohol could not have been the cause of these extreme reactions. We can also document the fact that different wines were capable of inducing different physical symptoms, ranging from slumber to insomnia and hallucinations.

The solution to this apparent contradiction is simply that ancient wine, like the wine of most early peoples, did not contain alcohol as its sole inebriant but was ordinarily a variable infusion of herbal toxins in a vinous liquid. Unguents, spices, and herbs, all with recognized psychotropic properties, could be added to the wine at the ceremony of its dilution with water. A description of such a ceremony occurs in Homer’s Odyssey, where Helen prepares a special wine by adding the euphoric nepenthes to the wine that she serves her husband and his guest. The fact is that the Greeks had devised a spectrum of ingredients for their drinks, each with its own properties.
(One of the authors, Carl A. P. Ruck, discusses the issue in more detail in this book - pages 92-97).

So it wasn't the alcohol that made the wine strong - it was the spices! And in fact, we see that "spices" were added to wine in a number of Hebrew sources. We see that almost all the mentions of mesek can be explained to be adding spices or other drugs to the wine (see for example Daat Mikra on Yishayahu 19:14, and Shadal on Yishayahu 5:22, who writes, "they would add spices סמים to wine in order to make it more intoxicating"). In Maccabees III 5:45it says that the elephants were driven to madness before battle by giving them "wine mixed with frankincense". Kaddari mentions Mark 15:23 , where we see that myrrh was added to the wine as an anaesthetic (we've previously discussed how in Jewish sources wine was provided before an execution.) And there are similar sources in the Talmud as well (Maaser Sheni 2:1). Note that the Aramaic word for intoxication was besumei בסומי- from besamim בשמים, "spices"!
If so, we indeed see that nishtaneh hateva! Chazal's wine is not our wine. With our wine, we rely solely on alcohol as the intoxicant. And so, if we take ad delo yada absolutely literally, we would drink ourselves sick. We could get alcohol poisoning! Meanwhile, Chazal could drink until ad delo yada without consuming nearly so much alcohol, and so did not risk alcohol poisoning. (Rishonim and Acharonim grappling with this disconnect would then suggest all sorts of reinterpretations, such as gematria associations and the like, but could not comprehend how one could drink to such an extent without vomiting.) Since we do not have Chazal's wine, we should not attempt to drink ad delo yada. It is dangerous.

Perhaps we should try to recreate Chazal's wine, and add other intoxicants and hallucinogens. Alas, besides not knowing which specific ones they were, we would likely ran afoul of American narcotic law.

PS: Balashon mentioned Shadal on Yeshaya 5:22, so I'd like to provide that commentary as well. The pasuk:

כב  הוֹי, גִּבּוֹרִים לִשְׁתּוֹת יָיִן; וְאַנְשֵׁי-חַיִל, לִמְסֹךְ שֵׁכָר.22 Woe unto them that are mighty to drink wine, and men of strength to mingle strong drink;

See Shadal here.

Note: Consult your local Orthodox rabbi for a definitive pesak. This was only intended as an exploration of the issues, and a consideration of the gemara and realia.


Zappable said...

An interesting discussion of the issue. I think people take "ad d'lo yada" too literally which is why they have issues with it. Chazal were just saying you should get drunk, which is what people should do.

Balashon said...

Very nice post - and thanks for the link....

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Thanks, that's really interesting!

In relation to the Aramaic word for 'intoxicated' being related to בשמים, though, what do you do with Unḳelos's translation of וישכר in the Noaḥ story as ורוי? I had a high school teacher who claimed that therefore, לבסומי more likely means to 'celebrate' and not to 'drink to excess'.

joshwaxman said...


and an interesting point. i would disagree with your high school teacher, though, for the following reason. languages sometimes have multiple words for one concept. these are either complete synonyms or near synonyms. for example, Biblical Hebrew has gila, rina, ditza, and chedva. even if, like gra, they mean different things, they mean things which are pretty darn close.

Aramaic appears to have (at least) three words which mean "become intoxicated."

one is שכר, which is an Aramaic cognate of the Biblical Hebrew word. in kal form it means inundate, but in piel form it means become drunk.

one is רוי, which alternatively means inundate/saturate, and become drunk. there is a fairly apparent semantic connection between these two, which exists both for שכר and רוי.

one is בסומי which means boilded/ripe, from which comes sweet, pleasant, well-seasoned. it also means fermented/sour. from there, we have bisma/besima, which means fermenting wine or wine turned into vinegar.

i would add that especially for "interesting" cultural words, like becoming drunk, we would expect all sorts of idioms / euphemisms to arise.

so yes, Onkelos does translate that word that way. but i would answer that this does not then claim רוי as the *exclusive* translation of "drunk".

kol tuv,

Joe in Australia said...

If you refer to Jastrow, for the third meaning under the heading "בסם" he suggests that you compare the word "בלוזמא", having fun. This word comes from the word "בלסם", balsam. And what is balsam? Why, it is a resin, the exudate from a tree.

As it happens, our cousins the Greeks are famous for drinking wine laced with resin. Wikipedia says that the practice originated as a method of preserving wine but the Greeks kept doing it because they enjoyed the flavor. So to our ancestors having fun meant drinking wine, and not just any wine, but wine laced with balsam.

Now, why would our ancestors associate having fun with a preservative? I suggest that this is because resins, like many other preservatives, are somewhat toxic, and that many toxins are actually used for intoxication! I don't know what effects balsam has (or if our ancestors were careful to distinguish between different resins) but myrrh, a resin closely related to balsam, has an analgesic effect.

Read in this light, the story of Rabba and Rabbi Zera Zeyra takes on a different light, as does the custom of asking "סברי?" and the response "לחיים!" Perhaps they're both references to a dangerous intoxication that used to accompany flavored wine.

And why do we no longer use resin to flavor our wine? It might simply be that when we stopped storing wine in clay jugs we stopped using resin to seal them, and we lost the taste for it. In any event the practice was undoubtedly a dangerous one and we're lucky that we have no need for it.

Yerachmiel Lopin said...

Great post and comments. Thank you. I am only sorry I didn't get to it before Purim to further fortify my rationale for only 2 glasses of wine and 1 shot l'chaim.

moshe said...

I think the strength of wine has less to do with the actual alcohol content but everything to do with the specific combination of additional chemicals such as sugar, oxygen etc.
(You can find studies on this here and there, I don't recall any sources at this time.)
I know this firsthand from someone in our community who makes his own wine which is notorious for going to ones head. One seder it had several of the men literally lying on the floor after the 2nd or 3rd cup.

moshe said...

another detail: the wine I refer to in previous post is 12.5% by volume.
It is from either NY or CA grapes.

mevaqesh said...

THe Chida cited by R. Ovadiya in Chazon ovadiyah brings was mechaven to your father's explanation of purya meaning bed. I always thought this was a strech for why wouldnt Rambam understand it to be the Aramaic of Purim (as it means elsewhere) until I remembered a girsa I saw (perhaps in the Imrei Shefer of R. Yehudah Chalavah)of פורייה this can only mean "his bed" and not Purim, as purya is spelled with an aleph. If that was the Rambam's girsa (or the girsa of some predecessor whose pshat he adopted) then the Chida and your father have a more soilid arguement.


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