Drinking on Purim [Megillah 7b]

January 30, 2019 1 By Rabbi Drew

One of the more familiar aspects of Purim practices is getting drunk, with Purim being one of the most drinking-heavy days on the Jewish calendar. While neither the Mishnah nor Tosefta mentions any such practice (focussing mostly on reading of Megillat Esther and secondarily on providing financial assistance to the poor), a couple of texts are produced that form the foundational textual basis for this practice. Both of these texts are included within the pericope concerning sharing food with other people on Purim (Megillah 7a-7b).

Text #1: Rabbah’s & Rabbi Zeira’s Memorable Purim
The first text concerns an infamous Purim celebration between two third-generation amoraim in Sasanian Persia (Megillah 7b):

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

Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira were enjoying a festive Purim meal with each other and they got drunk.
Rabbah got up and slew Rabbi Zeira.
He prayed for mercy the following day and revived him.
Rabbah said to Rabbi Zeira the following year, “Hey, man, come and let’s enjoy another festive Purim meal with each other!”
Rabbi Zeira said to Rabbah, “Miracles don’t happen that frequently.”

Between these two leading rabbinic sages of the third amoraic generation, we experience this incredibly drunken scene on Purim in which they are greatly enjoying their meal and get so smashed that one of them violently slays his colleague. Whether or not he actually killed him and revived him the following day is beyond the scope of the present essay, but what is being imparted to the reader is an extreme state of drunkenness – so much so that he harms his friend. Of course, when approached the following year for a similar experience, it seems that Rabbi Zeira may be looking forward to a great eating and dining celebration for Purim, but is leery not so much for the potentially deadly situation in which he will be putting himself, but seemingly more concerned that he would not be revived again.

Text #2: Rava’s Obligational Statement
One of the leading rabbinic lights in the subsequent generation then articulates an apodictic formulation of drinking on Purim (Megillah 7b):

אמר רבא מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי

Rava said: “A person is obligated to get drunk on Purim up until not distinguishing between the cursedness of Haman and the blessedness of Mordekhai.”

This articulation in the early fourth century seems to be the first obligatory statement regarding drinking alcohol on Purim. And, as any reader can glean, it is no small amount of drinking he is advocating – he demands a level of drunkenness in which morality gets blurred in one’s mind. (As to why specifically these examples is beyond the scope of the present essay.) Whether Rava was present at that infamous Purim meal between Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira or he had heard of that story, it clearly seems to have influenced this statement of his. What is unclear is how it influenced him:

  • Was it seeing leading scholars in the previous generation getting very drunk and simply articulating a practical value from that incident?
  • Was it seeing them and realizing that such a practice is a unique enhancement and highest form of experiencing Purim?
  • Could it have been that seeing them participating in such endeavors made him realize that, with all of the frequent drinking taking place in Megillat Esther, how could one not drink?

And there still yet may be further possibilities of this influence.

Literary Arrangement
What is fascinating about these two texts from a different perspective is that the Talmudic editors arranged these stories in reverse chronological order (I thank Rabbi Josh Yuter for having made this observation). This literary arrangement creates intrigue: is the story that took place before the apodictic statement an illustration of the lengths to which one should go in one’s drinking on Purim, or is it an example of a Purim drinking party that goes too far?

In other words: one could see Rava’s statement as being a bit extreme – does one see the illustrative story (מעשה רב) as telling its audience, “You may think Rava is stating mere hyperbole and you shouldn’t really get drunk, but see this story – you actually should get very drunk”? On the other hand, maybe the editors arranged the illustrative story so as to temper Rava’s apodictic statement – “You may want to take Rava’s statement seriously, but you ought to be careful, since there are dangers inherent taking it to its logical conclusion.” This ambiguity leaves a wide open space for speculation and, unsurprisingly, subsequent commentators stake out a variety of opinion positions on the role of this story (perhaps to be dealt with in a future post).

An Additional Text: Considering The Timing

אמר רבא סעודת פורים שאכלה בלילה לא יצא ידי חובתו

Rava said: “If one ate a festive Purim meal at night, one has not fulfilled one’s obligation.”

While there seemed to have been no particular temporal precedent for enjoying one’s festive Purim repast, Rava’s articulation of the timing of one’s festive Purim meal privileges dining during the day. He is not, however, saying that it is wrong or otherwise inappropriate to enjoy a festive Purim meal at nighttime, simply that the main obligation is during the day.

If he obligated the festive meal to occur during the day and not the night, what does that do to his statement regarding the obligation of drinking on Purim? Could the drinking occur at night and dine during the day? Or is he saying the obligation to get drunk on Purim is specifically during the day? If so, then he is specifically advocating that it is an obligation to day-drink on Purim, and really drink.

What Accounts for the Lack of Specified Beverage?
Throughout Megillat Esther,  we encounter a lot of wine-drinking, so it would be logical to expect the Talmudic rabbis to articulate any obligatory drinking to be carried out with wine, right? The lack of specifying any particular beverages, in either the incident involving Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira or Rava’s obligational statement, seems awfully curious. Why isn’t wine specified?

My suspicion for this omission is that they were likely not drinking wine, since they were living in Sasanian Persia, in which beer was more commonly found (I aspire to cover this matter in a future essay), and wine was a lot less commonly found. They may not have wanted to obligate people to drink a particular beverage, owing to one’s particular drinking landscape/culture.

One of the most familiar practices of Purim – drinking – comes from the early fourth century amongst amoraic sages in Sasanian Persia. While no beverage – neither wine, beer, nor anything else – is specified upon which to get drunk, it would seem that Rava advocated day-drinking at one’s festive Purim meal as the obligatory way to optimally experience the festival.