Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Rambam on Drinking on Purim

A former student, Matt, has a learning blog and is also someone I find to be a clear-headed thinker and quite capable of making the difficult easier to understand. I asked him to respond to a comment on the drinking on Purim posting. His answer to me follows as my posting. And if you'd like to see his take on other matters of learning, please go to

ProfK asked me the following question: What would the Rambam say about the type of drinking that goes on these days during Purim?

Let’s take a look at the words of the Rambam himself in his halachic magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah. Note that the question was asked about the position of the Rambam,; I will answer according to the position of the Rambam and only according to the position of the Rambam.

The Obligation to Get Drunk on Purim
The Rambam states the obligation to get drunk on Purim within the framework of the mitzvah to rejoice on Purim:
Laws of Purim 2:14-15The mitzvah of the 14th [of Adar] for villages and non-walled cities (and the 15th for walled cities) is to make these days into days of festivity and rejoicing, and sending gifts to friends and donations to the poor . . . If one makes a meal on the night of Purim, he has not fulfilled his obligation of having a Purim meal. What is the obligation of this [Purim] meal? To eat meat, to prepare a nice meal according to one's means, and to drink wine until one becomes drunk and falls asleep from drunkenness. The first thing to note is that according to the Rambam, the obligation to get drunk on Purim is part and parcel of the obligation of the Purim meal. There is no halachic justification – and certainly no mitzvah – of getting drunk outside of the context of the halachic Purim meal.

Moreover, since the Rambam clearly maintains that the mitzvah of the Purim meal cannot be fulfilled at night, and since the obligation to get drunk is nothing more than part of the obligation of having a Purim meal, it follows that there is no halachic justification for getting drunk on the night of Purim – contrary to the practice of many Jews today. We may also note that, according to the Rambam, the obligation of getting drunk at the Purim meal can only be fulfilled by drinking wine – not beer, scotch, vodka, tequila, or hard liquor of any sort. Those who become intoxicated with other types of alcohol would not fulfill their obligation according to the Rambam.
The Measure of Drunkenness
Perhaps the most important practical question to ask is: What does the Rambam mean by “drunk”? How drunk is “drunk”? The term that the Rambam uses is “shikur.” The Rambam's definition of "shikur" can be found in the Laws of Prayer, in which he discusses two levels of drunkenness: Laws of Prayer 4:17 A drunk person (“shikur”) should not pray because he lacks the requisite frame of mind (“kavana”), and if he prays, his prayer is an abomination, and he must pray again after he awakens from his drunkenness. An inebriated person (“shasui”) also should not pray, but if he prays, his prayer is considered a prayer. Who is considered “shikur” and who is considered “shasui”? A “shikur” is someone who is unable to speak before a king, whereas a “shasui” is someone who is able to speak before a king without embarrassing himself. According to the Rambam, it doesn't take much alcohol to reach the level of “shikur.” As soon as person reaches the state of drunkenness in which his inhibitions are lowered to the point where he might say something foolish, and would therefore be embarrassed to speak before a king, he has passed the threshold of “shasui” into the realm of “shikur.”

Beyond Drunkenness
At this point, one might object, saying that the Rambam doesn’t merely say that a person is obligated to become intoxicated to the level of a “shikur,” but that he must become so drunk that he loses consciousness. Some might go so far as to claim that according to the Rambam, one must become drunk to the point where he passes out.

A careful reading of the Rambam reveals that such an interpretation is merely wishful thinking. The Rambam states that one is obligated “to drink wine until one becomes drunk and falls asleep from drunkenness (ad she’yishtaker ve’yeradeim mi’shikrus).” The Rambam uses the term “yeRaDeiM,” which means “to fall into a deep sleep” (“taRDeiMah”). The meaning is clear from the Rambam’s use of the term in many other contexts, such as: “If one read the Shema while dosing off – namely, he is neither fully awake (“eir”) nor deep in sleep (“niRDaM b’sheinah”) – he has fulfilled his obligation, provided that he was awake for the first verse” (Laws of the Reading of the Shema 2:12).

If the Rambam meant that a person should become drunk until he passes out, he would have formulated the halacha differently. How do we know? Because the Rambam has a specific term for “drunkenness to the point of unconsciousness” – namely, “the drunkenness of Lote” (“shikruso shel Lote”), as the Rambam writes in the Laws of Marriage 4:18: “A betrothal (“kiddushin”) performed by a man who is drunk (“shikur”) is effective, even if he is very drunk; but if he reached the state of the drunkenness of Lote, then his betrothal is ineffective.” We know that “drunkenness of Lote” refers to drunkenness to the point unconsciousness from the Torah itself, “So they plied their father with wine on that night; and the older one came and lay with her father, and he was not aware of her lying down and of her getting up” (Genesis 19:33).
Had the Rambam meant that one is obligated to drink until he passes out, he would have said that the obligation is “to drink wine until one reaches the drunkenness of Lote and passes out.” (Incidentally, Laws of Nazir 1:12 implies that it would be impossible to have a mitzvah which required one to reach the drunkenness of Lote, since a person in such a state is not a bar mitzvos.)

Wild Drinking
Still, one might object, saying, “Perhaps the Rambam is only talking about the minimal requirement of getting drunk on Purim. Perhaps the more person drinks, the better is his mitzvah, since he is in a greater state of joy.”

The Rambam’s answer to this objection is an emphatic: “No.” In fact, he unequivocally condemns this line of reasoning in the Laws of Yom Tov: Laws of Yom Tov 6:19 When a person eats and drinks and rejoices on the festival, he should not be drawn after wine or jesting or frivolity, claiming that the more he engages in such behavior, the better is his mitzvah. For excessive drunkenness, jesting, and frivolity are not considered rejoicing ("simchah") but are considered wildness and stupidity (“holelus v'sichlus”). We were not commanded to engage in wildness and stupidity, but in the type of rejoicing which contains in it worship of the Creator of everything (“simchah she'yeish bah avodas Yotzeir ha'kol”), as it is stated, “Because you did not worship Hashem, your God, with joy and a good heart” (28:47) – from here we learn that worship of Hashem should be joyful, but it is impossible to worship Hashem in a state of jesting, frivolity, or drunkenness.

As mentioned above in the Laws of Prayer, if a person attempts to worship Hashem through prayer while drunk, his prayer is not only invalid, but it is considered an abomination. The Rambam would clearly oppose the type of drinking that goes on today. Purim is a holiday of simchah, and the Rambam is emphatic that drunken stupor is antithetical to the Torah's concept of simchah. The reason for this is that according to the Rambam, our only connection to Hashem is through our intellects, and in a state devoid of intellect (i.e. drunken stupor), it is impossible to worship Hashem. Incidentally, the Rambam would oppose the prevalent practice of getting drunk on Simchas Torah, which is explicitly prohibited in the halacha cited above. At least on Purim there is a mitzvah to get drunk - albeit within the parameters specified by halacha - but on a Yom Tov such as Simchas Torah there are absolutely no grounds for drunkenness, and a person who becomes intoxicated would be in violation of the mitzvah of rejoicing on Yom Tov.

Guarding One’s Life
Needless to say, if a person knows that he will not be able to limit his drinking to the halachic requirements, and there is a good chance that he will become excessively drunk and will endanger others and himself, it would be better for him to refrain from drinking altogether. The Rambam writes:
Laws of a Murderer and Guarding One’s Life 11:4
Regarding any stumbling block that poses a mortal danger – it is a Biblically mandated positive mitzvah to remove it and to guard ourselves from it and to be exceedingly cautious, as it is stated, “Beware for yourself, and guard your life” (Devarim 4:9). If one failed to remove such obstacles, not only has he violated the positive mitzvah, but he has transgressed the prohibition of, “You shall not place blood in your house” (ibid. 22:8).”

If failing to remove lethal hazards from one’s home constitutes a violation of these two Biblical commandments, all the more so if a person renders himself into a lethal hazard. As the Rambam writes, “regarding the mitzvos it was stated, ‘That man should do them and live by them’ (Vayikra 18:5) – and not that he should die by them” (Laws of the Foundations of Torah 5:1).

In conclusion, we see that according to the Rambam, the mitzvah of getting drunk on Purim consists of nothing more than drinking enough wine at the meal to put one to sleep. The Rambam certainly does not maintain that a person is obligated to get “crazy drunk” (or “crunk,” as they say these days). In fact, the Rambam maintains that getting trashed on Purim constitutes a failure to fulfill one’s obligation, is a major sin in its own right, and can pose a danger to one’s own life and the lives of others.


Anonymous said...

I guess we could call this the difference between a bit tipsy and all out drunk. Matt, does he mention anywhere if the halacha should be different when Purim is followed a few hours later by Shabbos?

Matt said...


I couldn't find any source in which the Rambam discusses Purim which falls out on Erev Shabbos. Presumably, he would say that one should have the Purim meal as early as halachically possible.

Anonymous said...

You sound like a whole lot of fun to party with.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious Matt. Did you learn this out on your own because you had an interest to know it or does your yeshiva actually make a point of learning this with its talmidim especially before Purim?

Matt said...

The talmidim of the yeshiva learn it on their own.

(And I have been told that I am quite entertaining on Purim. Apparently, last Purim, I spontaneously broke out into an impromptu rhyming poem in iambic pentameter. Go figure!)

Anonymous said...

I would also add that the Rambam specifically does not use the phrase "ad lo yada" which implies (as the Aruch Hashulchan I cited on the earlier thread says explicitly) that the Ranbam does not think that statement in the gemara is normative.

Matt said...


I was always under the impression that "ad d'lo yada" is the basis for the Rambam's shiur of drunkenness - namely, until one falls asleep, and is therefore unable to tell the difference between arur Haman and baruch Mordechai. I don't know why the Rambam doesn't use the Gemara's language, but I also don't know where the source of the Rambam's halacha would be, if not from the Gemara's statement.