Two years ago, a popular blog wrote, claiming to be following the rema, “There is no mitzva to get drunk on purim“. This is the actual halacha in the Shulchan Aruch:
חייב אינש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי.
הגה: ויש אומרים דאין צריך להשתכר כל כך אלא שישתה יותר מלימודו (כל בו) ויישן ומתוך שיישן אינו יודע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי (מהרי”ל). ואחד המרבה ואחד הממעיט ובלבד שיכוין לבו לשמים… ויש אומרים דאם הזיק אחד את חבירו מכח שמחת פורים פטור מלשלם (תרומת הדשן סימן ק”י).Shulchan Aruch [Directly quoting the gemara]: One is obligated to [get drunk] on purim until he doesn’t know the difference between “curse Haman” and “bless Mordechai“.
Rema – Some say you don’t need to get so drunk, rather drink more than usual and sleep and then since you’re sleeping you won’t know the difference between “arur haman” and “baruch mordechai“. Whether [one drinks] a lot, or a little, as long as long as he is “mekavein libo l’Shamayim“.. And some say if one damages [property of his] friend from the koach simchas purim he is patur.
So the rema actually says is there’s a mitzva either way as long as you have the proper intentions. He quotes a “yesh omrim” at the beginning as a kula to rely on if you don’t want to get so drunk. A yesh omrim at the end says you’re pattur from damage you cause on purim, likely from being drunk!
The gemara and rishonim are clear on the matter, there is a mitzva to get drink on Purim. How much does one have to drink? This question has caused a lot of confusion. A literal reading of the gemara implies an extreme of drunkenness, one probably impossible to achieve. The rema, quoting the meharil, suggests that one can just drink a bit extra and then go take a nap and while sleeping he won’t know the difference between “curse haman” and “bless mordechai“. This pshat seems somewhat dochek. The gemara did not need to use such an expression to say you should take a nap, it could have said that much more clearly. And what does your nap have to do with drinking or simcha? A comment on the above-mentioned post suggested that instead you drink a little and then run around a table until you’re dizzy. That seems like another possible interpretation.
Some say the rema’s explanation fits with the Rambam:
כיצד חובת סעודה זו שיאכל בשר ויתקן סעודה נאה כפי אשר תמצא ידו, ושותה יין עד שישתכר וירדם בשכרות.
“..and drink wine until he’s drunk and falls asleep from his drunkenness.”
Yet the Rambam emphasizes that the sleep is from your drunkenness, which is not what the rema said, and would not happen with just “יותר מלימודו”.
Some point out the gematria of “baruch mordechai” equals the gematria of arur haman. “ad d’lo yada” means you are too drunk to figure that out.Its an interesting gematria, but if they’re equivalent, only a drunk person would think they’re different! It should say “ad shelo yada sh’ein bein arrrur haman l’baruch mordechai“! It also seems slightly unlikely that the gemara meant a gematria. So what is p’shat?
Answer: I think its likely that “ad d’lo yada” was not meant to be taken literally. It doesn’t mean you don’t know the difference, that’s practically impossible. It just means you should get quite drunk, “ad d’lo yada” is a good expression for that.
It could be that is how the Rambam understood it also. The Rambam wanted to give a more exact definition for “quite drunk”. A person who gets properly drunk eventually falls asleep from his drunkenness.
Anyways, being that there’s clearly a mitzva to drink on purim, why do so many people have issues with it? One of the main reasons is they think that drinking is an inherent evil that should always be avoided. This does not seem to be the approach of chazal. For one, drinking was much more common then and people would not always stay 100% sober. It was likely considered a good thing to get somewhat drunk on shabbos and yomim tovim. The gemara in Rosh Hashana discusses the torch-wavings that were done to notify people of the New Month. Yet on motzai shabbos, as explained by rashi, people might think the reason no torches were waved was because everyone was still too drunk from shabbos. There are other places where rashi mentions this also. It was clearly accepted to get drunk on shabbos. (See also the rashi in chumash which criticizes those who don’t drink.)
I admit that maybe not everyone should get drunk, and that its important to not go too far. But it is very good when Jews gets drunk and say over Torah and Tishbachos. Chazal emphasize this:
ביום השביעי כטוב לב המלך ביין, אטו עד השתא לא טב לביה בחמרא? אמר רבא: יום השביעי שבת היה, שישראל אוכלין ושותין, מתחילין בדברי תורה ובדברי תשבחות. אבל אומות העולם שאוכלין ושותין – אין מתחילין אלא בדברי תיפלות… ן ..
Wine has potential for good and bad. Chazal mention this idea in many places (see Sanhedrin 70a). When drunken at the correct time and place an person, it can be an important mitzva. On purim there’s a mitzva to have a seuda, and part of it involves drinking and getting drunk.
Some say anyone under 21 cannot drink because its illegal, and “dina dmalcusa dina”. Dina d’malchusa doesn’t necessarily apply to all matters, and especially not when up against halacha. But anyways, the law makes exceptions for religious reasons, and as we’ve seen, there are religious reasons to drink on purim! Also, does anyone really think that this law is widely followed?
A more serious issue people raise is the potential health risks. This is definitely a problem that needs to be addressed. I just don’t think calling for an outright ban on drinking is the correct approach. People will still drink anyways, and those who listen will be missing the mitzva. Instead, there should be strong calls for people to make sure they don’t go too far. For example they should just purchase the amount of wine that is safe to drink, and not drink anything else. A balanced approach to drinking will prevent health risks.
Drinking on purim is rare opportunity for a mitzva. In other places and times and nations, people get drunk throughout the year. I don’t see what the big problem is with getting drunk once a year.