Purim Drinking Dangers

I'm told that it's a mitzvah to become intoxicated on Purim. This puzzles me, because to my understanding, it is not considered a good thing to become intoxicated, period.

One of the characteristics of the at-risk youth is their use of drugs, including alcohol. In my experience, getting drunk doesn't reveal secrets. It makes people act stupid and irresponsible, doing things they would never do if they were sober. Also, I know a lot about the horrible health effects of abusing alcohol, because I work at a research center that focuses on addiction and substance abuse.

Also, I am an alcoholic, which means that if I drink, very bad things happen. I have not had a drink in 22 years, and I have no intention of starting now. Surely there must be instances where a person is excused from the obligation to drink. I don't see how Judaism could ever promote the idea of getting drunk. It just doesn't seem right.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Putting aside for a moment all the spiritual and philosophical reasons for getting drunk on Purim, this remains an issue of common sense. Of course, teenagers should be warned of the dangers of acute alcohol ingestion. Of course, nobody should drink and drive. Of course, nobody should become so drunk to the point of negligence in performing mitzvot. And of course, a recovering alcoholic should not partake of alcohol on Purim.

Indeed, Jewish law explicitly says that if one's drinking will affect him negatively, then he should NOT drink (see Biur Halacha 695 s.v. "ad d'lo yada").

Getting drunk on Purim is actually one of the most difficult mitzvot to do correctly. A person should only drink if it will lead to positive spiritual results - e.g. under the loosening affect of the alcohol, greater awareness will surface of the love for God and Torah found deep in the heart. (Perhaps if we were on a higher spiritual level, we wouldn't need to get drunk!)

Yet the Talmud still speaks of an obligation on Purim of "not knowing the difference between Blessed is Mordechai and Cursed is Haman." How then should a person who doesn't drink excessively get the point of “not knowing”? Simple: get drowsy enough to fall sleep! (Rama - O.C. 695:2)

All this applies to individuals. But the question remains - does drinking on Purim adversely affect the collective social health of the Jewish community?

The aversion to alcoholism is engrained into Jewish consciousness from a number of Biblical and Talmudic sources. There are the rebuking words of prophets - Isaiah 28:1, Hosea 3:1 with Rashi, and Amos 6:6, and the Zohar says that "The wicked stray after wine" (Midrash Ne'alam Parshat Vayera).

It is well known that the rate of alcoholism among Jews has historically been very low. Numerous medical, psychological and sociological studies have confirmed this. The connection between Judaism and sobriety is so evident, that the following conversation is reported by Lawrence Kelemen in "Permission to Receive":

When Dr. Mark Keller, editor of the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol, commented that "practically all Jews do drink, and yet all the world knows that Jews hardly ever become alcoholics," his colleague, Dr. Howard Haggard, director of Yale's Laboratory of Applied Physiology, jokingly proposed converting alcoholics to the Jewish religion in order to immerse them in a culture with healthy attitudes toward drinking!

Perhaps we could suggest that it is precisely because of the use of alcohol in traditional ceremonies (Kiddush, Bris, Purim, etc.), that Jews experience such low rates of alcoholism. This ceremonial usage may actually act like an inoculation - i.e. injecting a safe amount that keeps the disease away.

Of course, as we said earlier, all this needs to be monitored with good common sense. Yet in my personal experience - having been in the company of Torah scholars who were totally drunk on Purim - they acted with extreme gentleness and joy. Amid the Jewish songs and beautiful words of Torah, every year the event is, for me, very special.

So whether you're drinking tea or Jack Daniels - here's wishing you a happy Purim!

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