Purim, the College Student’s
A Dvar Torah by
Ah Purim, what an ideal holiday for a college student! Huzzah! You are almost required to act like a fool to the point of misbehaving during religious services; get completely ferschnickered, even to the point of not being able to tell the difference between the arch-villain and the hero of the Purim story. In the past I have described this holiday as “Simchat Torah without the restrictions.” Travel doesn’t have to be by foot, spending money doesn’t have to be curtailed, and music doesn’t have to be a cappella. Hooray!
But what is Purim? To paraphrase Borat Sagdiyev, one of Ali G’s popular characters, Haman wanted to “throw the Jew down the well so his country could be free” and yet we “grabbed the evil Persian vizier by his horns, then we have a big party.” Adar is the one time of year where we are not only permitted, but are expected to make complete fools of ourselves. Taanit 29a of the Talmud Bavli, or Babylonian Talmud, states: “Mishenichnas Adar Marbin Besimcha,” “whosoever welcomes the month of Adar increases in joy.” There is a generally accepted relaxing or uprooting of certain negative biblical mitzvot, or commandments, such as those imposed on cross-dressing (Dvarim 22:5 as lifted by Joseph Caro in the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 696:8). This is as radical as the lifting of the prohibition on gambling granted on Chanukah! Indeed, we are seemingly obligated to get utterly smashed on Purim.
I would never call Judaism a “dry” religion. That would be wholly untrue; we drink wine at most religious occasions and usually move along to consuming hard alcohol. However, we are always reminded to drink in moderation. In the Torah, wine is Noah’s downfall, and the Talmud is rife with warnings against drunkenness.
Conversely, wine on Purim is different. There is no formulaic Kiddush over wine mandated for the holiday, and yet we are commanded to drink, and drink a lot! Megilah 7b, in a sugya, or unit, which I am sure many of you are at least semi-familiar with even if you have never studied Talmud, quotes Rava, a fourth-century scholar, who says, “One is obligated to sweeten himself on Purim until he cannot differentiate between ‘Cursed is Haman’ and ‘Blessed is Mordechai.’” Rashi, an 11th century French Torah and Talmud scholar, confirms that “to sweeten oneself” means “to get shikkered with wine” and Rambam, a 12th century Spanish scholar, codifies this into law.
However, the Talmud challenges Rava’s statement; leaving Rava’s position unchecked is akin to leaving an alcoholic alone before an open bar. Following Rava’s declaration, the Talmud recounts an intriguing legend. In this story, Rabbah invites Rabbi Zeira to a Purim Seudah, or festive meal, during which both get beyond drunk and Rabbah literally slaughters (the Aramaic used is shachtei, which is the same word used for ritual slaughter of cattle) his colleague. The next day, a distraught Rabbah realizes what he has done and prays for God to bring Rabbi Zeira back to life. A miracle occurs and Rabbi Zeira is resuscitated. The next year, Rabbah again invites Rabbi Zeira to his Purim Seudah, but a wary Rabbi Zeira refuses, not wanting a repeat of the previous year’s events with no guarantee of a second miracle of resurrection.
But doesn’t this contradict that which was just stated in terms of the permissibility to drink beyond the basic recognition of good and evil? Really, this story comes to clarify the extent of excessive drinking on Purim. The point of this Talmudic account seems to be to have fun but use discretion, stay away from butcher knives and chainsaws, and have a designated underclassperson who is underage and therefore will not drink to care for you in your excessive inebriation and to wake you up for the morning Megillah reading our at least for Kabbalat Shabbat.
Enjoy the concerts, the Purim shpiels, and the Megillah readings. Boo Mordechai and Yay Haman… strike that, reverse it! Purim is indubitably a great minor festival, a spiritual victory over physical threat, where we let spirits (wine and the like) be victorious over our physical minds and bodies.
In the Messianic Age, all of the festivals, the High Holidays, and even Chanukah will revert to their Temple-centric celebrations, but Purim, the one holiday whose main text, the Megillah, does not even contain the Name of God, will still be celebrated with the same four mitzvot as it has since Mordechai and Esther wrote the scroll two and a half millennia ago: reading the Megillah, having a feast, giving gifts to the poor, and sending mishloach manot, gifts of food, to your friends. And of course, lots of ever-flowing alcohol. To quote a great chacham and gadol, a wise and great person of our generation, Rabbeinu Homer ben Avraham, the Springfielder Rav, who toasts, “to alcohol, the cause of—and solution to—all of life’s problems!” A freilichin Purim and Dodgers in ‘05! L’chayim!