“Is it a mitzvah to get drunk on Purim?”

For many, the upcoming holiday of Purim has become a sort of Jewish Mardi Gras. Countless Jews celebrate in costume by drinking copious amounts of alcohol and attending raucous bashes. Many are aware that these wild celebrations have their roots in the notion that it is a mitzvah (obligation) to get drunk on the holiday. But where does this conception come from? And what might be the idea behind religiously sanctioned drinking?

In the Babylonian Talmud we find the following statement: Rava said, “One is obligated to drink on Purim until one doesn’t know the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai.’” (Haman is the villain in the Book of Esther who seeks to annihilate the Jews of Persia, and Mordechai is one of the Jewish heroes who prevents his people’s demise.)

This statement is rather strange. First, the measure of inebriation seems vague. Second, one would have to get pretty plastered to not know the difference between blessing Mordechai and cursing Haman. Is Rava really saying that we should drink to such a state of intoxication?  Isn’t that dangerous?

The ambiguity of this seeming commandment suggests that perhaps we shouldn’t take it literally and, in fact, the codes of Jewish law significantly blunt the force of Rava’s statement. For instance, Rabbi Mosher Isserles (16th century, Poland) writes that by simply falling asleep, one will be unable to tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai” and thus fulfill Rava’s mandate.

Beyond the technical question of how much alcohol one should consume lies what is perhaps a more important question: Why might inebriation be religiously mandated altogether?

One idea comes from Mordechei Yosef Leiner, the 19th century Chassidic Rebbe of Izhbitz. Leiner writes that there are two types of knowledge; the first is when something is “recognizable to [the] eye,” which is more superficial, and the second, deeper form of knowledge takes place in the heart. When Rava said we should drink enough so that we don’t know the difference between blessing Mordechai and cursing Haman, he was referring only to the first form of knowledge—on a superficial level, one should reach a state where one doesn’t know this difference, but in the heart, one should continue to understand who is the villain and who the hero.

According to this interpretation, drinking alcohol might be a way for us to access our inner, deeper form of knowledge that is often occluded by our more superficial understanding of others and the world. This is a very different approach than viewing Purim as a form of kosher debauchery. Purim is not about overcoming inhibitions in order to feel unconstrained in pursuit of our desires. Rather, it is about seeing the world from a fresh angle and unlocking a deeper kind of knowledge. Thus the religious value in drinking on Purim is more a matter of intention than of degree of inebriation. As Rabbi Isserles continues in his code: “Drinking more or drinking less are equally good, provided one intends one’s heart to heaven.”

Of course it should be noted that those who cannot or choose not to drink on Purim are under no obligation to do so, and we should all be mindful to create spaces where people feel invited to remain sober.

created at: 2014-03-11Dani Passow is the Orthodox rabbi at Harvard Hillel, which serves both students and the broader community, and is a Harvard University chaplain.

Harvard’s pluralistic Hillel program offers a vast array of events and resources that engage students and community members together. Check out their full calendar here.

Explore JewishBoston.com’s Purim page! We’ve got party listings, recipes and resources galore.