Getting Drunk Is Not Kosher
Today, we are well aware of the dangers of excessive drinking, alcohol addiction, and binging. There are strict laws regarding distribution of alcohol to minors and driving under the influence of alcohol. Yet at least once a year, On Purim, observant Jews behave as if there is no tomorrow and no responsibility, drinking beyond intoxication and with no age limits. There are those who extend the practice of intoxication to Simhat Torah, and the Lubavitcher Hassidim used to similarly drink when meeting with the Rebbe, on what is called farbrengen. As a matter of fact, the Rebbe was concerned about that and issued an edict allowing his followers only four drinks per farbrengen. The disciples, however, circumvented the Rebbe’s edict, and produced bottles of “neinziger,” a 90-96% alcohol, of which one drink equaled a bottle of Vodka.
I believe that it is obvious that if one cannot rejoice with the Torah and Jewish holidays without alcohol, there is a serious flaw with his understanding or practice of Judaism, yet as happens every year, this coming Purim, many observant Jews will drink non-Kosher wine, or maybe I should say, many observant Jews will non-kosherly drink wine. There is no way to justify, in the name of Jewish law or practice, excessive drinking, and it is not enough to assign a driver for the after-Seudah drive home.
Let me tell you some personal stories. I grew up in the core of Haredi Jerusalem, among Sephardic Hakhamim and Hassidic Jews, followers of the Rebbe of Belz and the Rebbe of Ger, who both lived in my neighborhood. On Purim, you could see seven-year old boys smoking and teenagers holding drinks. When I was in Yeshiva, I have experienced it myself at the Seudah at my rabbi’s house, as the rabbis and fellow students encouraged me to keep drinking. I look back at that scene with horror, but back then it felt good. I felt giddy and funny, the center of attention, and as a friend told me the next day, when I woke up in my bed in dorm, I spoke for hours, threw up at the rabbi’s house during prayers, and passed out. I decided to never fall again in that trap, but it happened one more time. Years later, when I was married with children, we were invited to a Seudah with a friend who was a seasoned drinker (he passed away at a young age of liver complications). He dragged me into some kind of a drinking match, and by the evening I behaved in a way that endangered my life. The next day I promised my distraught wife, who had to take care of two babies and a third, grown-up one, that this will never happen again, and thank God I have kept my word and I rarely drink at all.
But the story which should really worry of all us is that of a classmate of my son in Yeshiva Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn. That teenager was drinking on Purim night at the Yeshiva (even though the “mitzvah” to drink is only during the day), in a party attended and supported by the rabbis and the staff, when he decided to slit his wrists. Luckily, Hatzolah of Flatbush is located just around the corner from the Yeshiva and the boy was saved, but this could have ended terribly.
This is exactly the kind of danger which irresponsible drinking can breed and which no one can accurately anticipate. This is also the reason many rabbis, whose voice was ignored, warned against excessive drinking on Purim. Those rabbis mentioned to their followers that the same statement in Talmud: “one must get drunk on Purim until he cannot distinguish between Haman and Mordechai”, was followed by the story of one rabbi who slaughtered his colleague during a Purim Seudah. The story overrides the statement, they wrote, and therefore any teacher, parent, rabbi, or educator, who promotes drinking on Purim is committing the grave sin of ignoring reality and dodging responsibility.
What Do The Rabbis Have To Say?
When this article was first published, I have received many emails expressing gratitude for addressing the problem of alcoholism in the name of religion. Some of the readers wrote in greater detail:
“Very appropriate and very nice. If only all rabbis would heed your words. Our son… once got very drunk at the Purim festivities at Yeshiva University at the behest of his friends. He was so disgusted the next day that he never touched another drop of wine or alcohol for the rest of his life…”
“Hear! Hear! I am very grateful to you for spreading the message for sobriety. I just celebrated one year in AA and I thank God every day for giving me the faith and the strength to become a better person. I am also encouraged to see at meetings so many Community people of all ages in recovery and improving their lives and relationships. The… organization in our community has saved innumerable lives apart from mine…”
“Amen! And in another horror story of the excessive drinking in “Kiddush clubs” on Shabbat, in a “tradition” passed from father to son, I know of a young man who is permanently and profoundly disabled due to drunken behavior “Lichvod Shabbat” and other stories with similar dynamics…”
What is unsettling in all these responses is the indication that rabbis and community leaders are not doing enough to acknowledge and stop this terrible practice. As I mentioned yesterday, it is not enough to assign a driver and to have Hatzolah crews on call. The rabbis must raise the same furor as they do when a package is mistakenly marked as kosher, or when the boundaries between the genders are breached.
The role of the rabbi is to constantly assess information and find ways to help his congregants and the greater community. Standing idly by when we know that people are hurt by excessive drinking and reckless behavior is a sin. It is clearly stated in the Torah (Lev. 19:16):
“לא־תלך רכיל בעמיך לא תעמד על־דם רעך אני יהוה”
“Do not deal basely with your countrymen. Do not profit by the blood of your fellow: I am the LORD.”
We should also have in mind that many of these drinking parties are in direct violation of federal and state laws. Let me share with you a personal story. When I lived in Brooklyn in 2001, my son, who was thirteen at the time attended Mesivta Chaim Berlin. He called me, terrified, to pick him from the Purim party at the Mesivta after a drunk student slit his wrists (luckily, Hatzolah of Flatbush is across the street and the boy was saved). I had no idea that the Purim party at the Yeshiva included alcohol, but the hosts of rabbis and teachers knew very well! The drinking age in the United States is 21. If your children’s school or Yeshiva allows underage drinking, or if such behavior is allowed at your synagogue, then the headmaster, principle, or rabbi, is a social host who falls under this category:
A “social host” is anyone who knowingly, or should have known, there was an underage drinking party on property they own, lease or otherwise control.
What this means is that if you allow a minor to drink, you could be:
• Cited or arrested
• Fined $1,000 or more
• Sent to jail for up to six months
• Required to do up to 32 hours of community service
• Billed for law enforcement services
How are we comfortable entrusting our children’s education and our own spirituality to people who may be considered criminals by American law? In their defense, we must assume that they are unaware of the law. We know, however, that “ignorance of the law excuses no one.” This statement is well known to all rabbis, and they always use it to ensure their followers that God will hold them responsible for transgressing laws they are unaware of. So let us all make an effort, in the days remaining before Purim, to get our rabbis and teachers well informed, and to test their sense of responsibility.
Ask your rabbi and your school’s administration to issue an unequivocal statement against drinking on Purim. You might want to focus on excessive or underage drinking. In any case, let us get something done. If it could save one life, or save one person from injury or emotional trauma, it will be worth it.
If you encounter resistance on Halakhic grounds, here is a source you could quote:
ט”ז ]טורי זהב[, על אורח חיים סימן תרצה, סעיף קטן ב: ויש אומרים שאין צריך להשתכר כו’. והא דאמר רבא בגמרא, עד שלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי, נדחתה מימרא זו כיון שבגמרא מביא על זה דרבה שחטיה לרבי זירא, שמע מינה מסקנת הגמרא שאין לעשות כן. כן כתב בית יוסף בשם הר”ן בשם רבינו אפרים
Turay Zahav [TAZ], on Shulhan Arukh, Orah Haim, 695:2: Some say there is no need to get drunk. The Talmudic statement of Rava, that one must get drunk until he cannot distinguish between Haman and Mordechai has been overruled, since the Talmud immediately quotes the story about Rabbah, who slaughtered Rabbi Zeira while under the influence. This proves that the conclusion of the Talmud is that one is not allowed to get drunk. So wrote Rabbi Yosef Karo in his Bet Yosef, in the name of Rabbenu Nissim and Rabbenu Ephraim.
Correction, February 28, 9:12 a.m: An earlier version of this article stated that the Lubavitcher rebbe issued an edict allowing his followers only one drink per farbrengen. In fact, they were allowed four.
This story "Should You Get Drunk On Purim?" was written by Haim Ovadia.