Repealing Prohibition

There are no coincidences in this world. Only co-incidences.

Just three weeks before Purim, one of the last holdouts of Prohibition has uncorked the bottle. Alabama’s last totally dry county is going wet. In an election perhaps less dramatic than the presidential Super Tuesday primaries, residents in the Clay County cities of Ashland and Lineville voted Tuesday to legalize alcohol sales.

It’s not a total end to Prohibition. Alcohol sales will still be illegal outside the cities. But the vote means alcohol can now be sold legally in at least part of each of Alabama’s 67 counties.

Opponents argued against legalizing alcohol sales on moral and public-safety grounds. But supporters say allowing the sale of alcoholic beverages will help stimulate business in the rural, east Alabama county.

Prohibition became the law of the land in 1920 with the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes.”

Instead of leading to an era of clean living, however, outlawing intoxicating beverages became a bonanza for outlaws. And bootlegging became a major industry. Even for some who weren’t major alcohol consumers, the very act of forbidding it made it desirable: “Mayim genuvim yimtaku — Stolen waters are sweet” (Mishlei 9:17).

In a replay of the bad old days, bootleggers have operated in Clay County for years. Whether to eliminate bootlegging and all its concomitant evils, or whether to make some real revenue from taxes, Clay County has now joined the rest of the country.

At first glance, it would seem that going wet or dry isn’t relevant to us. With the exception of Purim, most Jewish drinking has always been Kiddush wine.

However, with Purim approaching, it is it is urgent to curb problem drinking for public safety. Hatzolah members know it better than anyone. Every year, they have to deal with the unhappy results of overdoing Purim happiness. Parents, mechanchim and Rabbanim need to be mindful of the need to prevent mindless calamities.

The Orchos Tzaddikim clearly condemns drunkenness:

“There is another kind of confusing joy which beclouds all of the mitzvos and causes fear of Hashem to depart from the hearts of men — that is of the drinkers and the revelers at houses of drink. The end of this joy is sorrow, for many ills result from the frivolity of drinking.”

But the warning of the Orchos Tzaddikim should not be taken as advocating total Prohibition. Later in the sefer, he quotes from Mishlei (31:6–7):

“Give strong drink to one who is in despair, and wine to the bitter of soul; let him drink and forget his poverty, and remember his toil no more.” Then he goes on to talk about the benefits of wine — which ‘gladdens the heart.’”

This is not a contradiction. The Orchos Tzaddikim spells out the difference:

“All this teaches us the benefits of wine when it is drunk in moderation in the manner of the wise — in which case the mind rules over the wine and not the wine over the mind — who drink at set times with friends and acquaintances and with the saintly and the righteous, and not with boors and empty-headed people. For wine will increase the wisdom of the deep. It is a tree of life for those who keep [the Law]…”

So the key is what the Rambam writes (Hilchos De’os 1:4), that with “all traits,” a person should follow the “middle path.” The right way is balance and moderation. Drunkenness is certainly something to be avoided. But all depends on who, what, where, when, why and how.

On Purim, one can reach the highest madreigos — in all senses of the word. But no mitzvah is a mitzvah if it done b’makom she’chav l’acherim — in a way that causes damage to others, or even to ourselves.

May our celebrations be l’chaim v’lo lamaves.