Bottles of Lunardelli Wine with labels depicting Nazi leader Adolf Hitler are di
Bottles of Lunardelli Wine with labels depicting Nazi leader Adolf Hitler are diGiuseppe Cacace/Getty Images

“Rava said: “One is obligated to become intoxicated with wine on Purim, until one does not know the difference between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai’.”

Once, Rabba and Rabbi Zeira had a Purim feast together and became intoxicated. Rabba arose and slaughtered (Shechateih) Rabbi Zeira! The next day, Rabba prayed for mercy and revived him. The following year, Rabba extended an invitation to Rabbi Zeira: “Let master come and we will have the Purim feast together.”

He replied: “Not every time does a miracle occur.” (Tractate Megilla 7b)

Why would our Sages instruct us to get drunk, when the Torah and Prophets clearly object to the associated lack of control?

Have we understood the above Gemara correctly?

What is the significance of being unable to distinguish ‘cursed is Haman’ from ‘blessed is Mordechai’? How could Rabba make such a blunder?

Is the story meant to be taken literally? What is the Gemara’s intended conclusion?

We can begin to understand this perplexing story by delving into the Rabbinic comments relating to this Gemara. Many of the pivotal Purim miracles, such as Vashti’s and Haman’s downfall and Esther’s rise to power were associated with wine. Hence, we should celebrate by drinking wine [1]. However, Chayei Adam teaches that while we are obligated to drink more wine than usual so as to recall these miracles, we must certainly avoid becoming drunk [2].

Others offered pragmatic suggestions on how to fulfil the halacha of drinking wine on Purim. Maharil points out that one fulfils his obligation by drinking more than usual and then having a nap, because when one is asleep he cannot distinguish between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai’.

Be’er Heitev explains that one should actually drink until he is unable to calculate the fascinating Gimatriya (numerical value) that Arur Haman (cursed is Haman) is the same [3] as Baruch Mordechai (blessed is Mordechai)! Whereas Maharsha teaches that one should drink until he cannot decipher which was the greater miracle, Haman’s downfall (Arur Haman) or Mordechai’s elevation (Baruch Mordechai). This highlights the importance of discussing Torah thoughts while fulfilling one’s obligation to drink, which could aid in controlling the intake of wine.

With regard to the Gemara’s anecdote, and trying to contend with its problematic message, Meiri concludes that after Rabba killed Rabbi Zeir a the Sages forbade getting drunk on Purim. Rabbi Avraham (son of Rambam), however, quotes this passage as a classic example of the Gemara’s occasional use of hyperbole in cases where it is absolutely clear that the literal meaning is not intended. He elucidates that actually Rabba dealt Rabbi Zeira a blow that wounded him grievously. Due to the seriousness of the wound (and possibly because it was located in Rabbi Zeira’s neck), the Gemara describes it as Shechitah – a term which usually connotes the fatal slitting of the throat. Maharsha agrees that Rabba did not really kill Rabbi Zeira, rather he made Rabbi Zeira deathly ill by coercing him to imbibe too much and then prayed for his recovery. Finally, if we consider the simple meaning of the Gemara, it may well be that use of the word “Shechateih” alludes to the fact that drunkenness can lead to anyone (no matter how great) losing control, and stooping to the level of an animal (concerning whom the term “Shechitah” is normally employed).[4]

1. Biur Halachah 695:2, Esther 1, 2:17-18 & 7:1-10

2. Korban Netanel notes that the obligation to drink is only “until one does not know …” but not so that one actually does not know (Ad VeLo Ad BiCHlal).

3. 1 + 200 + 6 + 200 + 5 + 40 + 50 = 502 = 2 + 200 + 6 + 20 + 40 + 200 + 4 + 20 + 10

4 .Heard from Simon Jackson (my brother and Torah MiTZion’s legal adviser)

Howard Jackson is a member of the board of Torah MiTzion. For comments: [email protected]

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