“והשתיה כדת”: Considering Rabbi Meir’s Reading [Megillah 12a]

Recently, someone pointed out to me a curious drinking text related to Purim (Megillah 12a):

והשתיה כדת – מאי כדת
אמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי מאיר כדת של תורה מה דת של תורה אכילה מרובה משתיה אף סעודתו של אותו רשע אכילה מרובה משתיה

“And the drinking was according to law” (Esther 1.8) – What is “according to law”?
Rabbi Yohanan[1] said from Rabbi Meir’s name: “According to the Torah’s law: just as the Torah’s law describes eating exceeding drinking, so was the meal of that wicked one – the eating exceeded the drinking.”

משתה בתנ"ך
משתה בתנ”ך

Before getting into the statement that is being indirectly quoted from Rabbi Meir, it is worth considering these two words from the book of Esther: שתיה (drinking) and דת (law). This appearance of שתיה serves as a hapax legomenon – the only time this phrase is used in the entirety of תנ”ך. However, משתה (a drinking-event)[2] occurs 46 times in תנ”ך, nearly half of which (20) appear in the book of Esther alone: there is a disproportionate amount of drinking in this book than any other in תנ”ך (see accompanying pie graph to the right).

דת בתנ"ך
דת בתנ”ך

As to the word דת (law), this phrase appears in only three books of תנ”ך, with most of these appearances occurring in the book of Esther (see accompanying pie graph to the left). Of the 20 occurrences of the term דת in the book of Esther, nearly half of them (9) are in the construct, yielding a law of something, but what about unqualified laws, such as in Esther 1.8? While the default understanding would seem to be the law of the king or the party, for instance, the statement from Rabbi Meir’s name seems to suggest that it was similar to the Law – rather than translating כדת as “according to the law”, this statement understands it as “similar to the Law”.

The problem arises, however: what does the Torah say about drinking?

What is suggested from Rabbi Meir’s name is that eating exceeds drinking. But two questions arise therefrom: Whence is he deriving this notion? and Is his statement descriptive or prescriptive?

One possibility is that Rabbi Meir derives this notion from offerings made in the Temple, with there being quantitatively more foods than beverages,[3] although it’s not entirely clear.[4] Nevertheless, even if we go along with this understanding, is what the Torah demands of our sacrifices merely descriptive and not inherently meant to be prescriptive for how Jews should live their lives, according to this statement? It’s also unclear.[5]

A further question arises from this statement: what is this statement’s moral valence regarding the drinking party described here? Is it to suggest that drinking parties should feature drinking – it’s in their name(!), whereas that wicked king didn’t supply enough wine, limiting the amount to be consumed at a drinking party. This seems to take “that wicked king” to task: he has wealth and fortune, yet he skimps out on wine at a drinking party – the main feature of the event is lacking. Is Rabbi Meir suggesting that he lacked integrity by limiting the wine at this party? It would seem so.

In sum, it’s unclear whence this statement from Rabbi Meir’s name seems to suggest about the Torah’s eating to exceed drinking, but it may be likely that he perceives that drinking party as described in the book of Esther to have been stingily provided for by the king, seemingly in a disapproving manner of the king’s actions.

 

[1] While the various textual witnesses (print and manuscript versions) mostly have either רב חנן or רבי חנינא or some variation thereof, it seems more likely that Rabbi Yohanan is the one indirectly quoting Rabbi Meir, since he frequently does so in the Babylonian Talmud, and it may have been a copyist’s error to drop the beginning of his name from having been recorded. For further discussion, see here.
[2] Cf. Joshua Joel Spoelstra, “The function of the ‘משתה יין’ in the Book of Esther”, Old Testament Essays, vol. 27, no. 1 (2014), 287-288.
[3] רש”י על מגילה יב., ד”ה כדת של תורה
[4] See ביאור הגר”א על אסתר א:ח
[5] There is one other place in the Babylonian Talmud in which the phrase “eating exceeds drinking” occurs, which, according to some readings, might suggest a prescriptive orientation towards one’s balance of drinking and eating. See here.

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