The Purim Spirit

With the popular words of ad d’lo yada resounding throughout Purim, we are all attuned to Chazal’s mandate of drinking on Purim until one can no longer discern the difference between “arur Haman” (cursed is Haman) and “baruch Mordechai” (blessed is Mordechai). Unfortunately, in their fervor to attain the epitome of simchah, there are those who lose sight of the innate holiness of the day and disregard the safety of family, themselves and others.

Although many seem to believe that there is a literal obligation to get drunk, there are authorities who qualify the nature of this mitzvah. The Rema (Harav Moshe Isserles) cites the opinion that a person should only drink a little more than usual and then lie down to sleep. While he is asleep, he will definitely be incognizant of the difference between arur Haman and baruch Mordechai. The Pri Chadash says that it is sufficient for one to drink only a little more than usual in order to fulfill his obligation to drink on Purim. In fact, the Shelah Hakadosh writes that objections should be raised against drunkenness because otherwise it suggests that it is permissible to be “porek ol” (cast off ol malchus Shamayim) on Purim.

The Yad Ephraim writes concerning the mitzvah of “ad d’lo yada,” that the word “ad” implies a limit, e.g., until that point and no more. The essence of the obligation to drink on Purim is to give thanks to Hashem for the miracle of Purim with a gladdened heart, as it says (Tehillim 104:15): “Wine gladdens the heart.” Therefore, a person should not become intoxicated to the point of confusion, where he is no longer able to distinguish the greatness of the miracle. If one has exceeded this limitation on drinking, then the entire intention of the obligation has become void.

I once attended a chasunah where a renowned badchan was entertaining the wedding party. In one sketch he very aptly portrayed a shikkur, and the crowd roared with laughter. However, I noticed that an individual sitting next to me was not laughing at all. In fact, he seemed ill-at-ease. As I turned my head, he said to me, “I only wish I could find this funny.” Then, to my utter consternation, I saw tears roll down his face. Indeed, drunkenness is not a laughing matter.

Unsupervised young people can hardly be expected to take responsibility for their drinking. Caught up in the spirit of the day, no one is seriously keeping track of what he’s imbibed. A drink at Shloimy’s, a glass of wine at Yossi’s, a gleizel bronfen in the driveway and something at the rebbi’s house all fade into oblivion as everyone joyfully hops in and out of the car and rushes to the next stop.

Since there are many factors that determine whether one is able to “hold” his liquor or not — such as one’s weight, age, how much one has eaten, how quickly one drank and what one is drinking, to name but a few — it is not unusual to see even adults exceeding their limits, bringing embarrassment to themselves and their families, and marring the simchah of the day.

There are a number of points to keep in mind when considering imbibing that drink on Purim.

Alcohol is a dangerous substance and drinking is not an innocuous activity.

The legal drink limit for operating a motor vehicle is .08%. At .05%, the risk of being involved in a road crash is double that of one who had not been drinking at all. It is essential to note that individual reactions to alcohol vary greatly, and the BAC (Blood Alcohol Concentration) is affected by many factors including the amount of alcohol one drank and in how much time, weight and body size, gender, level of fitness, whether one is a regular drinker and mood. Carbonated alcoholic drinks such as champagne, sparkling wines and spirits mixed with soft drinks (such as cola and soda) can cause one’s BAC to rise more quickly than other alcoholic drinks.

Among the adverse consequences of excessive drinking are the following:

Damage to liver function.

Irregular heartbeat, which can lead to its stoppage, chas v’shalom.

Lowering of body temperature, causing hypothermia. If a person passes out in the cold, he can die.

One of the most common causes of death from alcohol, especially among teens, is by choking on vomit. Having blacked out from the alcohol overdose, they unconsciously breathe in their vomit, depriving their brain of oxygen.

People are taking risks with alcohol if they drink and drive, mix alcohol with over-the-counter or prescription drugs, or have a medical condition that is exacerbated by drinking.

People are risking others’ lives if they drink alcohol while caring for children.

If you want to get a glimpse of the effects of excess drinking on Purim, just speak to any member of Hatzalah concerning the calls they receive on Purim, not including the many “less dramatic” incidents that are unreported.

I recently received a very disconcerting call from someone who had read my book on addictions, The Addicted Soul, which includes a chapter on drinking. The young person on the phone was a recovering alcoholic and he needed to share with me the various challenges he faced particularly on Purim. He confessed that he was frankly frightened and wished he could escape somewhere to celebrate Purim alone, in order not to be exposed to the excessive liquor and wine that flows freely at many people’s homes.

He related a little bit of how his sheltered, innocent life had come to a shrieking halt after partaking of a few l’chaims too many. Although I did not know him personally, I detected elements of a ben Torah on the other end of the line who had been brought to his knees by a maaseh satan.

When I hung up the phone, I thought to myself — what a himmel geshrei! It was not just this young man, a recovering alcoholic, facing this nisayon. So many of us — the bachur who is not even bar mitzvah age, the high school junior, the seminary girl, the adult — are likewise vulnerable.

Perhaps some clarification is needed as to the nature of our Torah obligations. Our Shabbos table, and the Kiddush table at shul or a simchah, should not offer a plethora of alcoholic beverages, which cannot possibly add to the spiritual environment of the special and holy days of the year.

I was recently requested to say a drashah at a simchah. When I came in, one of the guests pointed out to me the expensive and select array of liquors and wine available, and wryly suggested that the cost of the alcoholic beverages surely totaled more than all the food that was served at that simchah.

When one is intoxicated, his performance of all the special mitzvos associated with Purim — krias Megillah, matanos la’evyonim, mishloach manos, seudas Purim, as well as Birkas Hamazon, Minchah and Maariv — are performed in oblivion, at some point surely resulting in hazkaras shem Shamayim l’vatalah.

The great tzaddik Harav Sholom of Belz, zy”a, stated: A shikkur is more despicable than a baal aveirah, because under the influence everything appears fine. He may transgress many aveiros but he won’t recall them, and won’t do teshuvah for them. In contrast, the baal aveirah, the sinner, who is aware of his deeds, could definitely do teshuvah.

During an interview in a public forum I was asked whether it wasn’t the responsibility of the schools — the rebbeim, the teachers, and the hanhalah — to ensure that their students do not get drunk on Purim.

I replied that the primary influence upon our children is in the home. The Maharal points out that the Hebrew words for father and mother both begin with alef (av and eim) and the Hebrew words for son and daughter (ben and bas) begin with the letter beis. Parents are the primary source of education. Children are a direct link to their parents and follow their lead. Our young people observe and absorb the priorities of their parents. They notice what and whom they are machshiv (view as important), and whether their enjoyment resides in repeating a Kedushas Levi at the Shabbos table or extolling the qualities of a $300 bottle of Scotch. The first letters that are etched on a child’s neshamah, as it were, are written at home.

It is totally unrealistic for parents to tack the responsibility for the success of their children solely on the school administration. Parents have to know their children; they have to interest themselves in their children’s concerns, dilemmas and distress; and they have to be able to relate to their struggles.

The father’s reproach, referred to in “Shema beni mussar avicha” (Mishlei 1:8), does not only mean criticizing the child who bentched too quickly, was late for minyan, or forgot to wash her hands. The mussar avicha also concerns educating the children to safeguard both their physical as well as spiritual welfare.

May the Ribbono shel Olam grant us siyatta diShmaya in carrying out His Will with simchah, watch over us and our families and grant us abundant nachas from them.

A freilichen Purim.


Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser, a prominent speaker and writer, and Rav of Khal Bnei Yitzchak in Brooklyn, is a renowned authority on the topic of addictions and their treatment. He has authored numerous books, including The Addicted Soul.