This article is a blast from the AJT Purim past, something written in March 2008 after the first Limmud Atlanta gathering at Oglethorpe University.
By Michael Jacobs
The most exciting class I attended at the first Limmud was also the smallest and the most timely: eight to 10 people studying the relevant texts and commentaries with Rabbi Aaron Alexander to discuss whether we are commanded to get insanely drunk on Purim.
The sources of that tradition are sparse. The Megillah says that to celebrate their victory, the Jews observed days of feasting and merrymaking and sent gifts to one another and to the poor, and those actions became an obligation.
The Babylonian Talmud picks up on that obligation with an interesting tractate (thanks to Rabbi Alexander for the translation):
Rava said: One is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until one does not know the difference between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai.”
Rabbah and Rabbi Zera had the Purim feast together. They became intoxicated. Rabbah arose and slew Rabbi Zera. The next day, Rabbah prayed for mercy and revived him. The next year, he asked him: “Let Master come and we will have the Purim feast together.” Rabbi Zera answered him: “Not every time does a miracle occur!”
So does the passage mean that we must get plastered, because even two great sages did so? Or does it remove the obligation to get drunk because Rabbi Zera, having been slain amid Purim drunkenness, avoided a repeat the next year?
For that matter, what does the obligation to not know the difference between Haman and Mordechai mean? It could mean blindingly drunk. Or it could mean that you drink enough to fall asleep so you can’t see anyone and thus can’t tell the difference. Or it could mean that you drink just enough to be happy, so that you don’t care about the difference between good and evil.
Among the complications is the need to fulfill all four Purim obligations. In addition to feasting and merrymaking, we’re to hear the Megillah, give gifts and give to the poor. It’s hard to do any of those when we’re passed out drunk.
So what did our little gathering of would-be sages decide? We didn’t. It’s Judaism; it’s crucial for each of us to take the journey for ourselves and find what we believe is the right interpretation. But I think we all left that classroom thinking it would be hard to come to a wise conclusion if we overindulged in wine along the way.