Drinking & Praying? How Do the Rabbis Approach Drunken Prayer?

With Purim upon us this week and the attendant drinking that occurs, it’s fitting to wonder about the appropriateness of praying while intoxicated (or its inappropriateness). So: what do the Talmudic rabbis have to say about it?

Tannaitic Exemption
One clear tannaitic text that discusses this issue finds that one should not pray while drunk (bEruvin 65a):

מיתיבי שיכור
מקחו מקח וממכרו ממכר
עבר עבירה שיש בה מיתה ממיתין אותו מלקות מלקין אותו
כללו של דבר הרי הוא כפיקח לכל דבריו אלא שפטור מן התפלה

One who is drunk: his purchase is a purchase and his sale is a sale.
If he transgressed a transgression for which he should be put to death – they kill him; for one that he should be lashed – they lash him.
Here is the general principle: he is like a normally-functioning person in all matters except that he is exempt from prayer.

The tannaitic principle exempting a drunk person from prayer seems to be on account of not being able to properly direct one’s mental intentions and thoughts vis-à-vis what is required (cf. mBerakhot ch. 3 for other examples of people exempt from prayer). This is further amplified with a further level of drunkenness (bEruvin 65a):

אמר רבי חנינא לא שנו אלא שלא הגיע לשכרותו של לוט אבל הגיע לשכרותו של לוט פטור מכולם

Rabbi Hanina said: “They taught this only when one has not reached Lot’s intoxication, but one who has reached Lot’s intoxication, they are exempt from all of them.”

What Rabbi Hanina says is that there are two different levels of drunkenness: a milder drunkenness and one where one really doesn’t know what is going on. Nevertheless, for both of these levels of drunkenness, one is exempt from prayer.

Amoraic Limitations
However, while one may be exempt from prayer while drunk, can one pray while intoxicated? This is taken up in both the Talmud Yerushalmi (Terumot 1.4) and the Talmud Bavli (Eruvin 64a), with a shared parallel text, that only slightly diverges (but I will present both of them here for the sake of completeness, with the Talmud Yerushalmi’s version presented first):

אבא בר רב הונא אמר
שתוי אל יתפלל ואם התפלל תפילתו תחנונים
שיכור אל יתפלל ואם התפלל תפילתו גידופין

Abba son of Rav Huna said, “One who has been drinking should not pray; and if he prayed, his prayer is supplications.
One who is drunk should not pray; and if he prayed, his prayer is blasphemies.”

אמר רבה בר רב הונא
שתוי אל יתפלל ואם התפלל תפלתו תפלה
שיכור אל יתפלל ואם התפלל תפלתו תועבה

Rabbah son of Rav Huna said: “One who has been drinking should not pray; and if he prayed, his prayer is a prayer.
One who is drunk should not pray; and if he prayed, his prayer is an abomination.”

Here, the son of Rav Huna (whether Abba or Rabbah) states that one should not pray when they have been drinking, whether or not they are drunk. However, the distinction he introduces is that the prayer counts, so to speak, if one has been drinking, but has not achieved a state of drunkenness; whereas the prayer of one who has reached drunkenness is blasphemous/abominable. In other words, one who is drunk not only shouldn’t be praying, but those prayers are religiously offensive. Thus, he is saying is not only that one’s mental intentions are not only unable to be directed properly, but also that the drunken prayerful product is disgusting.

Amoraic Qualifications
So, how are these two states to be distinguished? Both Talmuds seek to answer this question. Here is the presentation in the Talmud Bavli (bEruvin 64a):

היכי דמי שתוי והיכי דמי שיכור כי הא דרבי אבא בר שומני ורב מנשיא בר ירמיה מגיפתי הוו קא מפטרי מהדדי אמעברא דנהר יופטי אמרו כל חד מינן לימא מילתא דלא שמיע לחבריה דאמר מרי בר רב הונא לא יפטר אדם מחבירו אלא מתוך דבר הלכה שמתוך כך זוכרו
פתח חד ואמר היכי דמי שתוי והיכי דמי שיכור שתוי כל שיכול לדבר לפני המלך שיכור כל שאינו יכול לדבר לפני המלך
פתח אידך ואמר המחזיק בנכסי הגר מה יעשה ויתקיימו בידו יקח בהן ספר תורה

What is considered “having drunk” and what is considered “drunk”?
It’s like that of Rabbi Abba, son of Shoomani, and Rav Menashya, son of Yeermeeyah from Gifti, who were departing from each other at the ford of the Yofti River, they said: “Let each one of us say something that his fellow has not heard, for Mari, son of Rav Huna, said: ‘A person must take leave of his fellow only in the midst of a matter of halakha so as to remember him’.”
One opened and said: “What is the consideration of one who has drunk and what is the consideration of one who is drunk?
One who has drunk is able to speak before the king.
One who is drunk is unable to speak before the king.”
The other opened and said: “One who took possession of a convert’s stuff, what should he do so that it remain in his hands? He should buy a Torah scroll with them.

The distinction for these rabbis is the ability to arrange one’s words before the king or not. If one either slurs one’s words or loses track while drunk would qualify one for the category of drunk.

The consideration in the Talmud Yerushalmi, however, is based on a physical measurement of wine consumed (yTerumot 1.4):

איזו שתוי כל ששתה רביעית
שיכור ששתה יותר
תמן אמרי כל שאינו יכול לדבר לפני המלך

Who is one who “has been drinking”? Any who has drunk a quarter-log (about 1.5 eggs-worth of volume).
Who is one who “is drunk”? Any who has drunk more than that.
There they say: “All who are unable to speak before the king.”

Here, we see that anyone who has consumed any amount up through 1.5 eggs-worth of volume [of wine (presumably wine, since it was stated in the land of Israel, where wine was plentiful (as opposed to the Talmud Bavli, where beer was prevalent))] is considered merely someone who has been drinking, while anyone who has consumed more than that is considered to be drunk. This standard is shockingly a low-barrier to be considered for drunkenness(!). The Talmud Yerushalmi is also aware of the standard found in the Bavli – the ability to speak before the king.

Consideration of the Amoraic Qualifications
While the standard articulated in the Talmud Yerushalmi is shockingly low, there is a tannaitic precedent for it (see tKeritot 1.12), even though this would severely reduce one’s ability to pray, having drunk, even a couple of drinks. On the other hand, the ability to speak before the king is a refreshingly subjective and important gauge of mental ability regarding intending one’s words for prayer.

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