It’s OK Not to Drink on Purim – and the Rest of Us Should Be Respectful of That

Purim is well-known as a holiday that is fun for kids – costumes, treats, funny plays, and being encouraged to make noise in synagogue. Purim observances for adults include giving matanot l'evyonim (gifts to the poor) and mishloach manot (giving gifts of food to friends) and eating seudat mitzvah, a festive meal. The other major feature of the holiday? Drinking alcohol.

The first three customs come directly from the M’gillah (Book of Esther), but where does that last custom come from?

In the midst of a Talmudic account about how to properly observe the rituals of the Purim meal, the sage Rava says we should drink on Purim until we cannot differentiate between the phrases “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai” (Megillah 7b). While no other rabbis comment on this directly within the text of the Talmud itself, many people since have taken up with it.

The Kol Bo, a medieval collection of Jewish law, suggests that it simply means drinking more than we usually do. The Maharil, a 14th-century rabbi, says it means we should drink until we fall asleep, because sleeping people can’t differentiate. Moses Isserles, better known as the 16th-century Ashkenazic commentator the Ramah, says it doesn’t matter whether we drink more or less, as long as our hearts’ intention are holy.

Some people note these later observations and drink in a responsible manner during Purim, while others take it as an excuse to drink to excess – which can sometimes create an environment that pressures people to drink more than they feel comfortable. None of that, however, is encouraged – or even permitted – by Judaism. Judaism explicitly prohibits the deliberate endangering of oneself in pursuit of performing a mitzvah (except in order to save a life) – and that’s even more true in the case of customs.

Those who want to observe Purim by drinking should make sure to do so in a safe environment, around trustworthy people who will step in if their judgement seems impaired. If you’re planning to drink heavily on Purim, be sure to eat beforehand, drink lots of water, and make advance plans to get home that don’t involve you driving. In short, drink responsibly, even when celebrating Purim.

What’s forbidden, however, is pressuring other people to drink. This falls under the general principle of respecting our fellow human beings – which includes respecting their boundaries.

What, exactly, can we do to respect those boundaries? On Purim, especially, keep in mind that many people cannot or do not want to drink at all, and they may not feel comfortable saying so. Purim and the parties that surround it can also be a source of serious anxiety for recovering alcoholics. If someone declines a drink or seems hesitant, accept their refusal immediately, and never assume they just need some convincing in order to indulge themselves.

On Purim, a holiday in which the villain (Haman) encouraged persecution of a minority group (the Jews) by pointing out their different customs, it’s incumbent upon us to respect individual choices, including about whether to consume alcohol (and if so, how much, provided they don’t endanger anyone).

Going back to the Talmud, given all of these other Jewish principles at play, it’s somewhat surprising that none of the other rabbis challenge Rava in his assertion about drinking – specifically, how much drinking he encourages – but the text may refute him in subtler terms. The Talmud immediately follows Rava’s declaration with an anecdote suggesting that such drunkenness is not actually a good idea: When Rabba and Rabbi Zeira make a Purim feast together they become drunk, and in his stupor, Rabba slaughters Rabbi Zeira. The next day, overcome with remorse, Rabba comes suppliant before God, who returns Rabbi Zeira to life – but when Rabba invites Rabbi Zeira to celebrate Purim with him the next year, Rabbi Zeira demurs, saying, “Miracles don’t happen that often.”

Happy Purim – and if you drink, please do so safely.

Read more on this topic in Juliette Hirt's essay "Drunk on Purim: What are We Teaching Our Kids?" and Caroline Dorn’s essay, "On Purim, Let's Get Vulnerable - Whether or Not We Get Drunk"

Kelly Hershberg lives in Chicago and in her spare time enjoys studying Tanach and Talmud.