It’s Adar! The month of Purim brings with it silly hat days, costume preparations and plenty of organizations trying to sell you mishloach manot packages. But the most reliable harbinger of the season will surely soon appear in these pages: articles by rabbis and others explaining the true meaning of Purim.
Let’s review the basics. Surely it can’t be a mitzvah to get drunk on Purim. Of course, there is a mitzvah of simcha on Purim. But, as we all have learned, real simcha cannot be achieved through eating and drinking to excess. Real simcha is learning Torah and taking care of the poor. So, this Purim, let’s put the bottle aside, take out a Gemara, give a little tzedaka and experience true simcha.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Learning Torah is an important part of Purim. That is why we read the megilla twice and are instructed to pay close attention and hear every word. Taking care of the needy amongst us is also a critical part of the holiday. Every person is obligated to give money to at least two poor people to liven up their holiday. These two mitzvot, kriyat hamegilla and matanot la’evyonim, are what keep us grounded, and are also likely the first two mitzvot you do on Purim.
However, there are two other miztvot. Mishloach manot instructs us to give two portions of food to someone else. Not necessarily a poor person; that was taken care of with matanot la’evyonim. Mishloach manot encourages general camaraderie between friends. And the final mitzvah is the Purim seuda, which includes the obligation to be joyful, to eat, drink and be merry.
But surely true simcha means Torah and mitzvot, not engaging in base and hedonistic pleasures? The Gemara (Pesahim 109a) asks how the mitzvah of “vesamachta bechagecha” (rejoice on your holidays) can be fulfilled. What is the answer? Through wine! In fact, the Gemara says, “ein simcha ela b’yayin,” there can be no joy without wine, and it cites Tehillim (104:15) which states, “yayin yisamach levav enosh,” wine brings joy to the people’s hearts.
We are commanded to drink wine many times, but there is always a shiur, or prescribed size. On Shabbat and Yom Tov we drink one cup, and at the Seder we drink four. But on Purim, we drink until we cannot distinguish good from bad, however much wine that may require. We break free of structured and often laminated measurements and guidelines, and are free to really just enjoy the day.
This leads to the second common objection. Surely it can’t be a mitzvah to get drunk! It’s dangerous! It’s irresponsible! Really? Mitzvot are never dangerous or irresponsible? How about a mitzvah not to eat or drink for 25 hours? People end up fainting or in the hospital every Yom Kippur, but no one seems to question how fasting can really be a mitzvah.
I fasted my first Yom Kippur at thirteen years and two weeks old. After the fast, I vomited. I’ve heard this isn’t so uncommon, especially for younger fasters. But I never read any articles decrying the practice of having teenagers fast. That’s how it is. Better luck next year. Shver tzu zein a yid. But God forbid, you see someone vomiting after Purim? It’s the 1920s and prohibition over again. Shuls will go dry. Kiddush clubs will be banned. Women will be storming the doghouse with hatchets.
Now, I’m certainly not advocating drinking to excess. Everyone needs to know their limits, and parents need to be especially vigilant about keeping their kids safe. In addition, just like with fasting, someone who has a medical need to refrain from any mitzvah should certainly do so.
But aside from the specific issues with alcohol, I believe there is a larger issue at play when everyone rushes to minimize the Purim celebration. There is a long tradition, mostly of Ashkenazic origin, and particularly in Lithuanian circles, of embracing a form of Judaism that glorifies suffering and believes that the more you limit yourself, the better you are serving God. Getting sick from drinking seems downright immoral, but getting sick from not drinking is a kapara (an atonement for sin). An excess of enjoyment is sinful, but an excess of suffering is piety.
The reason this is more prevalent in Ashkenazi communities is because the idea of glorifying suffering comes from Christianity. But we’re not Christians; our religion isn’t based on suffering and has no problem with enjoying the world that God gave us.
We should not have a problem fully embracing the real true meaning of our holidays. Sure, let’s cry with all our hearts and souls on Tisha B’Av. Let’s approach the Yamim Noraim with seriousness of purpose. But let’s also enjoy the Shalosh Regalim the way they were meant to, by eating and drinking and being satisfied.
And now, we find ourselves in the only month about which the Shulchan Aruch states that the joy of the holiday is so great that we start experiencing it two weeks early: “Mishenichnas Adar Marbim b’Simcha,” when the month of Adar begins, our joy increases. This year, let’s really mean it, and fully experience Simchat Purim the way it was meant to be enjoyed, without guilt or regret. This year, let’s be machmir on simchat Purim!
By Ben Sandler