Comments on: Drinking on Purim (or not)? Read This First – Jewish Journal

Posted By on February 16, 2021

As someone who is Jewish, has family members in addiction recovery and now works for a treatment center for alcoholism and addiction, I wanted to learn more about Purim and the commandment to drink. How serious is this commandment, and what does it mean for the recovery community and their loved ones?

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to learn from Rabbi Dr. Chaim Meyer Tureff, the founder and director of STARS in Los Angeles, which helps individuals struggling with addictive behaviors. He is also the school rabbi for Pressman Academy and a spiritual guide on the Sobermans Estate team, where I work.

Purim is one of the they tried to kill us; we won; lets eat holidays. We learn the Purim story from the Megillah, also known as the Book of Esther, recorded around the fifth century BCE. In short, King Achashverosh of the Persian Empire had a secondhand man, Haman, who initiated a decree to eliminate the Jewish people. Meanwhile, Queen Esthers religious identity was hidden throughout her marriage to Achashverosh, but she realized that courageously revealing her Jewish faith just may save her people. When she told the king she was Jewish and that Hamans plan would result in the demise of herself and her people, the king sentenced Haman to death. Although the king could not annul Hamans original decree, he let Esther and her cousin Mordechai write a new decree of their choice, allowing the Jewish people to fight back and defend themselves.

In remembrance of this salvation, we feast and celebrate different activities specifically from the Megillah. Mordechai charged the Jewish people to observe the 14th and 15th of Adar every year as days of feasting and merrymaking, of sending gifts to one another and the poor (Esther 9:22). The word (feast) can also be translated as drink, drinking, banquet or board. Based on this, in the Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 7b, Rava said: A person is obligated to become intoxicated with wine on Purim until he is so intoxicated that he does not know how to distinguish between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai.

This obligation excludes individuals with the disease of addiction, which was recently proven to be 12.7% of American adults. For those who avoid drinking because it can progress their disease or simply because they dont enjoy it this obligation may negatively distract from the core of the holiday, which is, according to Tureff, unity, salvation, connection and giving back, which is why we give gifts to the poor and give gifts to friends and acquaintances; its about showing gratitude.

He continued, The Rambam codified laws for everything. In the Mishneh Torah, hes got a whole section on Purim and Chanukah. He says any holiday that youre celebrating where you are not giving back, that is not a real celebration. If youre only thinking about the food or the fun you will have, rather than what you can give back to others, youre not really celebrating correctly.

How significant is the obligation to drink, anyway? It is debated whether or not drinking is a minhag or a halacha. A minhag is a communal practice or a custom. Minhagim are different than Halacha, which is Jewish law grounded in Torah or later rabbinic rulings. However, all agree that if drinking will make you sick or cause danger, you should not do it.

I would say drinking falls into a strong category, and its codified that we drink, but its not if you dont drink, youre breaking a mitzvah. For example, not eating pork is a commandment; drinking doesnt fall into that category at all. Neither is it one of the four mitzvot that are specific for Purim, Tureff said.

When I go to Purim meals, I dont drink; some people do. Some people will just drink more than they normally do. If theyre not drinkers, they might have a drink; if they normally have a drink, say at a Shabbat meal, theyll have two; some get drunk. Ive been to places where people drink quite a bit. They dont get in a car and drive or anything like that, but they definitely drink a lot. Depending on where youre at, some people encourage you to drink, and some people dont.

Jewish teachings provide contrasting opinions on alcohol consumption. On one hand, there is a Yiddish saying that Jews dont get drunk. Yet another concept is a farbrengen. I remember in Yeshiva they would have farbrengen, which is a Chabad gathering where you learn deep mystical things, and many of the people would do shots of vodka. The idea is sometimes, when we have physical constraints, we dont allow ourselves to hit a certain element spiritually because sometimes spiritual elements are [harder to connect with]. You have to be in a certain frame of mind. Drinking was a way to open up your portal or open up your soul, said Tureff.

Jewish teachings also recognize the risks and consequences of taking alcohol consumption too far. Eighteenth-century codifier R. Abraham ben Yehiel Michal Danzig said it is better not to get drunk on Purim if one knows it will lead to the likeliness of them acting in a lightheaded way or neglecting other mitzvot, such as praying and hand washing. In fact, Megillah 7b states, The Gemara relates that Rabba and Rabbi Zeira prepared a Purim feast with each other, and they became intoxicated to the point that Rabba arose and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira. The next day, when he became sober and realized what he had done, Rabba asked God for mercy and revived him. The next year, Rabba said to Rabbi Zeira: Let the Master come and let us prepare the Purim feast with each other. He said to him: Miracles do not happen each and every hour, and I do not want to undergo that experience again.

Jewish teachings recognize the risks and consequences of taking alcohol consumption too far.

As Jeffrey Spitzer said, a car can be like Rabbas sword, and one cannot count on a miracle. Tureff volunteered as an EMT for Hatzalah, a Jewish volunteer emergency ambulance organization, and remembers materials sent out for Purim reminding people, especially young people, to drink responsibly. Youre supposed to be having this good time and happiness, and then it gets marred by alcohol poisoning or somebody having a drunk driving accident, passing out or worse.

Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski (zl), world-renowned addiction expert, doctor and author, said, Experience shows that particularly young people who drink to excess on Purim are likely to engage in shameful and dangerous behaviors. Hatzalah cannot keep up with the calls to take these young men to hospital emergency rooms! Can anyone conceive that this is a mitzvah?

If you are one of the many people choosing not to drink whether based on recovery or personal preference on Purim, you can still celebrate the holiday with full meaning and joy. Here are a few of Tureffs tips to celebrating a sober Purim:

There are a number of shuls in Los Angeles that do not allow alcohol on the premise for Purim and Simchat Torah, another drinking holiday, and value being a model for the communitys young people. There are other synagogues you go to, and when you walk in, you can smell the alcohol, Tureff said. For those not drinking, the latter wouldnt be the one you necessarily should go to. You can hear the Megillah and be part of the festivities, and not put yourself in a situation fraught with danger.

Tureff noted, It can be tough, when you see other people, as recovering addicts, sometimes doing things, things that are legal, and all kinds of people are doing it, you might think why cant I do that? Why put yourself in that situation? You can focus on the wrong thing about the holiday. The holiday doesnt need to be about drinking at all. Like a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, the party is great, but its not the essence of the event.

You can find a synagogue where the spiritual practice lines up with your own spiritual practice, where the essence is about the strength of Purim and not necessarily about how many shots you can do or how drunk you can get, said Tureff.

It depends on where somebody is at in their recovery, but I would always encourage a sober Purim. Theres no reason not to have a sober Purim. There are specific mitzvot for Purim, including giving gifts to the poor, sending gifts to friends or acquaintances, eating the Seudah (Purim feast) and hearing the Megillah reading. These are the four commandments of Purim. Drinking is not included in this category. [Drinking] is like a side dish. Without that side dish, it doesnt mean I cant enjoy the meal, said Tureff.

If youre invited somewhere to a meal, I think its a fair thing to ask [about the alcohol]. Maybe its a Los Angeles thing, but people have no problem when theyre invited to a meal to say if they are vegetarian or gluten-free. Nobodys embarrassed to say that at all, so whats wrong with saying, Thank you so much for inviting me to Purim; Im so excited. I just want to know is there going to be drinking and, if so, what does that look like? Thats advocating for yourself, said Tureff.

I wish you a meaningful, joyful and safe Purim; Chag Sameach!

Hannah Prager is the Community Relations Specialist for Sobermans Estate, and a volunteer for Moishe House. Sobermans Estate is a treatment center for men with alcoholism, substance use disorders and co-occurring issues, and provides kosher food accommodations and rabbinical support. To learn more or for personalized resources, call the Admissions Director at 480-595-2222 or visit

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