From Parshat Terumah Vol.10 No.22
Date of issue: 8 Adar 5761 -- March 3, 2001

From Parshat Vayikra Vol.9 No.22
Date of issue: 11 Adar II 5760 -- March 18, 2000

Editor's Note: Due to the importance of the issue discussed in the following article, it has been printed in several issues. 

Purim and Pikuach Nefesh
by Rabbi Howard Jachter

Our observance of the famous Talmudic rule, Michayev Inish Libesumei Bepuraya Ad Delo Yada Bein Arur Haman Ubaruch Mordechai, that one should imbibe alcoholic beverages on Purim (Megila 7b), has not always led to optimal results. Hatzolah (a Jewish volunteer ambulance service) has run educational campaigns imploring us “not to get carried away on Purim,” both figuratively and literally. We will explore the Gemara, Rishonim, and Acharonim with an aim to demonstrate that this Halacha need not be a cause of serious problems.

The Chafetz Chaim (Biur Halacha 695:2 s.v. Chayav and Ad) presents an appropriate introduction to this issue. How can Chazal obligate us to drink on Purim if we find incidents in Tanach (e.g. Noach, Lot, Nadav and Avihu) that demonstrate the great dangers inherent in imbibing alcoholic beverages. He answers (citing the Eliyahu Rabbah) that the miracle of Purim came about to a great extent due to parties where alcohol played a central role. Thus, we consume alcohol on Purim in order to remember the great miracle brought about by alcohol. Biur Halacha also cites an important comment of the Meiri on this issue. He writes:
Nevertheless, we are not obligated to become inebriated and degrade ourselves due to our joy. We are not obligated to engage in a “Simcha” of frivolity and foolishness. Rather it should lead to a “Simcha of enjoyment,” which should lead to love of God and thankfulness for the miracles He has performed for us.

The Gemara, as we mentioned, presents the rule that we should indulge in alcoholic beverages on Purim. The Gemara then proceeds to relate a famous incident. Rabbah and Rav Zeira made a Seudat Purim (Purim feast) together. As a result of their inebriation, Rabbah arose and “slaughtered” Rav Zeira. Subsequently, Rabbah prayed on behalf of Rav Zeira and the latter was revived. The following year, Rabbah invited Rav Zeira for the Seudat Purim, and Rav Zeira declined the offer saying, “Miracles do not occur all the time.” A number of observations can be made regarding this passage.

First, the Maharsha (ad. loc. s.v. Kam) comments that Rabbah did not literally slaughter Rav Zeira. Rather, he coaxed him into drinking so much alcohol that it brought Rav Zeira close to death. (Interestingly, the Maharsha seems to adopt the approach to Agaddita presented by the Rambam in his introduction to the last chapter of Sanhedrin. The Rambam asserts strongly that Agaddita should be taken very seriously, though not always literally.)

Moreover, this passage appears to link drinking on Purim with Seudat Purim. Apparently it is not an “independent obligation” but rather part of the Mitzva of Seudat Purim. It is possible to say that the drinking at the Purim feast serves to characterize the meal as a Purim feast. Indeed, the Rambam (Hilchot Megila 2:15), Tur, and Shulchan Aruch (695) all present the rule of drinking on Purim within the context of the laws of Seudat Purim. Accordingly, it would seem that there is no Halachic accomplishment of drinking on Purim unless it is done in the context of Seudat Purim. Furthermore, our Gemara comments that if one has eaten his Seudat Purim at night, he has not fulfilled his obligation of Seudat Purim. Accordingly, argued Rav Aharon Lichtenstein (in a Shiur delivered at Yeshivat Har Etzion), little is accomplished from a Halachic perspective if one drinks alcoholic beverages on Purim night.

Rishonim: Three approaches to the Rabbah-Rav Zeira incident
The most important ramification of the Rabbah-Rav Zeira incident is a possible rejection of or limitation to the Rabbinic decree regarding drinking on Purim. There are two extreme approaches to this issue. The Ba’al Hamaor and Rabbeinu Ephraim cited by the Rif both believe that the Gemara presents the Rabbah-Rav Zeira incident to demonstrate that this Halacha has been rescinded by the Gemara and that it is improper to drink on Purim. On the other hand, the Rif and the Rosh cite the rule of Michayev Inish Libesumei without any reservations whatsoever. Apparently, they believe that the Gemara presents the Rabbah-Rav Zeira incident merely as a cautionary note, but it does not impact on the Halacha itself.

The Rambam (Hilchot Megila 2:15) presents a middle approach. The Rambam codifies the rule that one should drink wine (see Rashi to Megila 7b who also seems to assert that one fulfills this rule only by drinking wine) until he is inebriated and sleeps as a result of the alcohol he consumed. The Aruch Hashulchan (695:3) explains that the Rambam believes that the Rabbah-Rav Zeira incident modifies this Halacha, as the Rambam does not say one should drink until he cannot distinguish between Arur Haman and Baruch Mordechai. Rather, one should drink only to the extent that it should cause him to sleep. Indeed, when a person is asleep he cannot distinguish between Arur Haman and Baruch Mordechai.

Shulchan Aruch and Commentaries
The Tur and Shulchan Aruch follow the approach of the Rif and Rosh and simply present the Gemara’s rule that one should drink on Purim until he cannot distinguish between Arur Haman and Baruch Mordechai. However, the Bach rules in accordance with the moderate view that the Rabbah-Rav Zeira incident modifies the Halacha to limit drinking only until one becomes drowsy. The Rama presents the Kol Bo’s view (which is a version of the Rambam’s) that one should merely drink a bit more than he is accustomed to drink and subsequently become drowsy and unable to distinguish between Arur Haman and Baruch Mordechai. The Rama concludes with the celebrated Talmudic teaching, Echad Hamarbeh Ve'echad Hamamit Uilvad Shekivan Libo Lishma, one can do more or less as long as his intentions are focused on serving God (see, for example, Berachot 17a and Menachot 110a).

Late Codifiers
The Biur Halacha (692:2 s.v. Af) cites the Chayei Adam, who limits this Halacha in a modified version of Rabbeinu Ephraim and the Baal Hamaor: “If one believes that drinking on Purim will interfere with his performing any Mitzva, such as reciting Birkat Hamazon, Mincha, or Maariv, or if he will behave in a boorish manner, it is preferable that he not drink (or become inebriated) as long as his motives are proper.” It is obvious that one who is driving after Seudat Purim must refrain from drinking. In addition, both the Mishna Berura (695:5) and Aruch Hashulchan (695:5) rule that it is proper to follow the moderate view that one should merely drink a bit more than he is accustomed to. If we follow this rule and avoid drinking and driving, incidents similar to the Rabbah-Rav Zeira story can be avoided.

The Mishna Berura, Aruch Hashulchan, and Hatzolah ambulance service all teach us “Don’t get carried away this Purim.”

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