Why are Jews Commanded to Get Drunk on Purim?
The Book of Esther hints at why the rabbis have not only allowed, but encouraged pious Jews to drink heavily
On Purim, Jews are obligated to drink themselves into joyful oblivion. How strange when the Bible clearly teaches that “wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1).
And yet, the commandment to get drunk comes from the Shulchan Aruch, the most widely consulted and universally accepted Jewish code of law. As it is written, “A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he cannot differentiate between Cursed is Haman and Blessed is Mordechai.” That’s a lot of drinking.
What to make of this strange commandment? Jewish sages understood that throughout Megillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther, in almost every chapter we find someone – the Persian King Ahasuerus, Mordechai, Haman, Esther – enjoying a feast with plenty of drink. The entire story unfolds during these elaborate feasts for both friend and foe, and clearly the food and drink contribute to making sure everyone is pliable and mellow enough to accept the startling upheavals that changed history. Purim is also called the "Upside-Down Holiday" because everything gets turned around. The Megillah concludes with instructions for all Jewish people throughout their generation to celebrate Purim as yemei mishteh v’simchah, “Days of drinking and rejoicing” (Esther 9:22).
For this reason, the rabbis allow masquerading in costumes, merrymaking, gambling (like the good “fortune” in the Purim story) and drinking beyond the point of intoxication. The upside-down aspect of Purim is intended to provide relief from the burdens of everyday life. It provides a time for Jews to deviate from the norms, forget about their troubles momentarily, and have a good old time.
How should we understand the ruling to become so intoxicated that you cannot tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai? Perhaps the intention is to try and forget, for a day or two at least, all the evil in the world? The Purim commandment is to rejoice with pure joy, forget about Haman and his descendants. It reminds me of Jesus’ saying, “Don’t worry about tomorrow, there is enough trouble today.” Our need to always think rationally can prevent the simple, unbridled celebrations of joy that are so crucial for a healthy soul. Allowing uninhibited expressions of happiness and thankfulness that go beyond our minds are necessary to keep us sane in a chaotic world, and even prepare us for the challenges to come.
The rabbis have a lovely maxim that encourages us not only to rejoice during the days of Purim, but to start the celebrations at the beginning of the Purim month of Adar. Mashe neknas Adar, marbim b’simcha, “When Adar enters, joy increases.” The funny thing is (pun intended) that 2019 is a leap year in the Hebrew calendar, so the Purim month of Adar comes around twice this year. Double the fun, right? Well, things got so out of control that a group of rabbis had to make a ruling on Wednesday calling on the public not to over-drink on Purim. The rabbis write that “from experience, many times drinking leads to murder, such as in cases where a person drives after drinking. This is known to cause many tragedies.” The rabbis also quote doctors who say that excess drinking, especially among young people who are allowed to drink on Purim, causes damage to the body and brain. The letter ends with a call on the public “not to become drunk at family celebrations,” though I can’t imagine why anyone would need a drink at home with the typical large and loud Jewish family!