Once we move past the pediatric celebrations of Purim, it seems like everyone thinks you’re supposed to get drunk on the festival.
Don’t get me wrong – I am definitely not a teetotaler. And I am not referring to the wine- or vodka- or beer-tasting events or gatherings that the Jewish community and/or synagogues host. I am referring to the all-out “get sloshed” free-flowing Purim celebrations, even for those of the legal drinking age.
Drinking and alcohol abuse is a big problem that demands our attention, especially within the Jewish community and Jewish communal programming, but with Purim approaching, the lack of context for this “getting drunk” tradition is most poignant.
Sometime around the fourth century, while studying at the great academy in Pumbedita (modern-day Fallujah, Iraq), the sage Rava taught that it was an obligation for a person livsumei on Purim until they cannot tell the difference between the phrase “Blessed be Mordekhai” and “Cursed be Haman.”
First, we’re not quite sure what the Aramaic word livsumei means. It is similar to the Hebrew words besamim (spices) and samim (drugs). My preference is to translate this as to “get spiced,” or better, get high or drunk (Rashi’s translation), or as some translations suggest, get mellow.
Second, Rava’s teaching is quoted in the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Megillah 7b) – and when people refer to the obligation of getting drunk on Purim, they cite this teaching without the surrounding context.
Immediately after this teaching in the Talmud, we learn of a bizarre party scene between Rabbah (a different rabbi even though his name is quite similar) and Rabbi Zera. As the story goes, Rabbah and Rabbi Zera got together for a Purim feast. They drank until they were drunk (ibasum) and, out of nowhere, Rabbah stood up, and slit Rabbi Zera’s throat—and then passed out.
The next day Rabbah noticed that Rabbi Zera was dead and prayed to bring him back to life. God responded and revived Rabbi Zera.
But that is not where the story ends. Rabbah had the nerve to invite Rabbi Zera to party with him again the next year. Rabbi Zera wittily replied: a miracle doesn’t happen every hour.
This is such a bizarre story and yet, when read in conjunction with Rava’s teaching, it is contextualized in a way that we often overlook.
I wish the underage Yeshiva student on the East Coast had realized this context when he drove drunk, right over his friend’s leg, shattering it, on the way out of the school’s celebration.
Such a context would have benefited the West Coast synagogue president who vomited on the bima while trying to escort her stumbling, inebriated rabbi to a chair.
The organizers of Hillel and Chabad gatherings at two Midwestern universities might have thought better, too. The first when a Hillel student ended up in a coma because she went into diabetic shock from her blood-alcohol level, dying before the holiday concluded. And the second when a Jewish fraternity brother, now officially categorized as a sexual predator, raped his date after the Chabad Purim bash.
And we all should know better than to create a situation when the 7-year-old has their first taste of scotch by consuming a full cup of “apple juice” from the unattended bottle sitting on the “Schnapps table.”
This is what happens when you follow Rava’s teaching: you get drunk and potentially end up killing your friend – or something as almost as tragic. And don’t think that God is going to bail you out – or, even if your friend survives, or if you do, that everything will remain okay.
Indeed, raise your glass to make a l‘chaim, but remember just that: it’s l’chaim v’lo l’mavet. For life, and not for death. Understanding the context is to celebrate life and the miracle of the Jewish people to rise above the situation and find joy in the outcome. It’s not to simply get drunk.