April 14, 2024
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April 14, 2024
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For the Sake of Heaven: Halakhic Perspectives Regarding Alcohol on Purim and Cannabis Use

I. Use of Alcohol In Halakha

Macroscopically, the halakhic system contains multiple perspectives on both the spiritual opportunities and liabilities associated with alcohol.

On the one hand, alcohol is positively associated with the mitzvah of rejoicing on festivals1, required on Pesach as an expression of liberty2 and affirmatively noted for its potential in bringing relief to the bereaved3.

On the other hand, the biblical instances of the utter debasement associated with the drunkenness of Noach and Lot, led the great tanna Rabbi Meir to aver that nothing brings woe and suffering to man other than wine4. Drunkenness, and even lesser consumption of alcohol, is incompatible with cardinal halakhic activities, including prayer5, service in Mikdash6 and issuing halakhic rulings.

A case in point are dialectical attitudes towards the institution of the nazir, who forswears wine products entirely. While R. Elazar Ha-Kapar, whose view is cited by Rashi in his commentary on the Torah7, assumes that the sin offering of the nazir is affiliated with abstention from wine, Ramban8 strongly and consistently argues that the only sinful aspect of nezirut is its cessation.

It should be emphasized that in no context is drunkenness, as opposed to disciplined and limited use of alcohol, sanctioned in halakha. The apparent mandate to become fully inebriated on Purim thus drew great attention and has been the subject of intensive controversy.

II. Drinking on Purim

The Talmud (Megillah 7b) cites a rabbinic statement in the name of Rava mandating becoming inebriated on Purim to the point where one is incapable of distinguishing between “blessed is Mordechai” and “cursed is Haman.” Rashi restricts the drinking in question to wine, as do many subsequent authorities, including Rambam and Abudraham9.

This Talmudic mandate is immediately followed by an incident in which the great talmudic sage Rabbah kills10 Reb Zeira as a result of drunkenness, after which he pleads for Divine mercy. Reb Zeira is subsequently resuscitated. The following year, Reb Zeira rejected an invitation to celebrate Purim together with Rabbah, noting that it would be unwise to rely upon a miracle occurring again.

The position of Rav Isaac Alfasi11 and Rav Isaac b. Abba Mari12, which accepts the statement of Rava, “one is obliged to become drunk of Purim, to the point where one cannot distinguish between Mordechai and Haman,” in its simplest form, is indeed adopted by the Tur13, and recorded in the Shulchan Aruch14.

However, the Beit Yosef15 cites three of the dissenting views amongst the Rishonim; Rav Aharon ben Yaakov HaKohen, the Tosafists, and Rabbeinu Ephraim, a leading disciple of Rav Isaac Alfasi. These positions each counsel a different approach to the concept of drinking on Purim, respectively, to drink more than one is used to but certainly to avoid the sin of becoming drunk16, to drink until one is tipsy17 or a rejection of the concept of drinking altogether, based on the incident involving Rabbah and Reb Zeira. The final view is cited by Rav Zerachiah HaLevi, Rabbenu Nissim ben Reuven and Meiri as well.

The language of Rav Aharon ben Yaakov HaKohen is of particular note: “One should not become drunk, for drunkenness is categorically prohibited, and there is no greater sin, for it causes immorality and bloodshed, and other sins as well. Rather, one should drink slightly more than one is used to consuming.”

Rav Moshe Isserles adopts a hybrid of this position as well as that of Rambam18, recommending drinking a bit more than one is used to drinking, and then going to sleep. Critically, Rav Moshe Isserles adds the concluding expression, “one who does more and one who does less are equal, so long as their intent is for the sake of Heaven.” This phrase will be considered below.

Whether or not Rambam mandated going to sleep as a way of approximating being unaware of the distinction between Mordechai and Haman is a matter of dispute amongst later authorities19. What appears beyond doubt is that Rambam, who uniquely required meat as a fulfillment of the halakhic meal on Purim, modeled his celebration of Purim on his requirements for Yom Tov more generally. As such, Rambam’s jeremiad against drunkenness on holidays20 as entirely incongruous with Divine service is certainly worth evoking in the context of Purim as well.

The force of Rambam’s language here is notable: “When a person eats or drinks and rejoices on the Festival he must not drink excessively nor become overly involved in mirth and levity and say that he who is excessive in these areas has increased the mitzvah of rejoicing. For, drunkenness and excessive levity are not joy but boorishness and foolishness and we have not been commanded as such, but rather, in joy which is a service to the Creator … it is impossible to serve the Almighty from excessive levity, frivolity or drunkenness.”

Later authorities expressed equal skepticism regarding drunkenness, including Rav Eliyahu Shapiro, Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein21, Rav Avraham Danzig22 and Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan23.

In particular, these later authorities, building off of Rav Moshe Isserles’ exhortation to act for the sake of Heaven, note that whosoever is concerned that their observance of other mitzvot of Purim may suffer, in substance or in intent, should eschew any excessive drinking.

Analysis of the historical evolution of the halakha of drinking on Purim reveals a clear shift away from an emphasis on becoming thoroughly inebriated, ad d’lo yada, at the Purim seuda. The notion that it is the halakhically consensus to become drunk to the point of incoherence on Purim is indisputably erroneous.

III. Establishing a Communal Norm

Moving beyond the relatively narrow halakhic perspective regarding the topic at hand, it seems that some broader, communal reflections are in order.

If one conceptualizes Purim as a day of national unity—lech kenos et kol ha-Yehudim—one is uniquely inclined to adopt a communitarian perspective in this regard, one which takes into account the needs of all members of the community.

This sensibility is sharpened by Rambam’s emphasis on the most beautiful and greatest expression of joy as being associated with gladdening the hearts of the downtrodden24. As such, it would seem highly appropriate for our community to take greater stock of the challenges faced by those struggling with addiction, as well as their families.

This author is of the view that a communal norm in line with the tradition of Rabbenu Ephraim, taken in light of the life and death struggle of these individuals, who so often feel invisible and marginalized, and for whom moderate intake is certainly out of the question, is not only an acceptable option, but may constitute a middat chasidut, a pious practice, if adopted, in line with Rav Moshe Isserles’ exhortation, as a conscious reduction “for the sake of Heaven.”

If indeed it is the case “that the eyes of the poor lift for the reading of the Megillah,25” perhaps the same may be said of those who are in desperate need of the hopeful message of “v’nahafoch hu,” the capacity for complete reversal of circumstances, as they find themselves currently ensnared in the deep and dark vortex of addiction.

Furthermore, the needs of our children and adolescents, for whom alcohol and substance abuse presents a unique danger, strongly militates in favor of establishing a communal culture which rejects abject drunkenness on Purim. The dangers of a “mixed message” are particularly acute in the case of this demographic, and providing a permission structure for drunkenness, even in a limited fashion, may prove to be a significant detriment to them. Opting for an observance of Purim in line with the approach of Rabbenu Ephraim, in the interest of their well-being, may equally be construed as a reduction for the sake of Heaven.

Finally, the concern for activities that are inconsistent with the dignified and noble bearing expected of shomrei Torah u’mitzvot, which, in the public square, may constitute a significant chillul Hashem, must be taken into account when formulating a communal norm.

If a substantial number of the latter decisors were deeply concerned about the potential impact on the rest of the mitzvot one performs on Purim, such as hand washing, prayer, bentsching, and the like, how much more so regarding activities that would reflect poorly on Torah more generally, bring shame to those inebriated, and, God forbid, to others as well, who may be on the receiving end of an embarrassing or otherwise hurtful comment, not soon to be forgotten after Purim.

Such activities, while always unfortunate and objectionable, are uniquely troublesome on a day associated by our Sages with kabbalat ha-Torah, a renewed and holistic commitment to Torah, kimu v’kiblu26. One wonders whether the sublime joy of a day associated with a renewed devotion to all of Torah, and, concomitantly, to knesset Yisrael, does not deserve more than is often granted it when excessive alcohol is involved.

For those who insist on becoming fully inebriated, one further wonders, in light of the admonition of so many later authorities, how one can be so sure that one’s observance of other, more foundational aspects of the day will not suffer? Can one truly be assured that one’s behavior will surpass that of Rabbah himself, whose greatness was manifestly beyond reproach, but who was unable to avoid the pitfalls associated with what Rabbi Meir believed to be the source of all human agony?

Only He who scrutinizes the hearts and innards of all people, bochen kelayot va’lev, can truly know.

Postscript- Recreational Use of Cannabis

Recent legislative developments in the State of New Jersey require clarification regarding halakhic attitudes not only to consumption of alcohol on Purim but recreational use of cannabis based products year round. Decriminalization is a complex public policy question naturally out of the scope of this presentation, but it cannot be, and must not be, conflated with the question of halakhic propriety.

At the most basic level, we should be cognizant of a responsa R. Moshe Feinstein zt”l authored half a century ago27, in which he categorically prohibits recreational marijuana use28 for no fewer than six reasons: its ill health effects, its impact on clarity of thought, the potential for addiction, a violation of Ramban’s mandate of kedoshim tihiyu, the likelihood that it will lead to other sinful conduct and, in the case of children, contravening the will of their parents.

In this  brief teshuva, Rav Moshe’s language is entirely unequivocal: “סוף דבר שהוא פשוט וברור שהוא מאיסורים חמורים וצריך להשתדל בכל היכולת להעביר טומאה זו מכל בני ישראל”, “in the final analysis it is simple and clear that it is a grave violation and one must make every effort to remove this source of impurity from the entire Jewish people…”

It is Rav Moshe’s citation of Ramban’s meta-principle of kedoshim tihiyu which I believe requires the greatest emphasis in our generation. Time and again in his commentary on the Torah, Ramban articulates an understanding of the halakhic system which conceptualizes halakhic requirements as a ‘spiritual floor.’ and not the lofty heights to which we aspire. Hence, in his celebrated formulation, one could, in a technical sense, avoid violating any formal prohibitions—as it concerns any engagement with the carnal world—and still live a wholly unredeemed and boorish existence, “naval b’reshut ha-Torah29.”

Ramban30 goes so far as to suggest that the capital punishment meted out to the ben sorer u’moreh, who has not consumed anything that is necessarily prohibited, but lives a spiritually desiccated life, driven by hedonism and pursuit of carnal pleasure, is rooted in a violation of kedoshim tihiyu.

In my experience, deep confusion pervades even the Torah community when it comes to cannabis usage. The relevant question is not merely the issue of an issur cheftza, that is to say, whether the substance contains non-kosher ingredients. There is a separate and distinct question of an issur gavra, concerning the personal behavior involved in consuming mind altering substances of any kind. And, Rav Moshe’s position on this score is perfectly clear, and as the posek ha-dor wrote, it is incumbent upon all of us, at the communal plane, to remove “this impurity” from the Jewish community.

Simply put, it is entirely inconsistent with the mentality of the halakhic system that one would seek spirituality through mind altering narcotics. Once in his long and extraordinary life, Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky31 zt”l became inebriated on Purim, in an attempt to fulfill עד דלא ידע. The experience of losing his legendary mental acuity was so alarming and viscerally disconcerting to this giant that he never did so again, and concluded that the Talmudic mandate could not have been meant for our generation in any literal sense.

Al ha-rishonim anu mitzta’arim, v’ata ba l’hosif32: Elements of our community already struggle with a culture of glorification of alcohol that would have been unrecognizable to previous generations whose primary associations with drunkenness were marauding bands of antisemites33, and now is at risk for recreational cannabis usage becoming socially acceptable in the Torah world.

The halachic worldview is rooted in the axiom that life derives all of its meaning from rendering humble, faithful service to our Creator. This experience, equal parts immersive and transcendent, demands every iota of our physical, mental, emotional and indeed, cognitive capacity. In as much as our love and reverence of Him is fully contingent on our understanding of Him, as Rambam asserted34, mind alternating substances are a spiritual dead end, and worse.

With endless compassion and love for those struggling to extract themselves from any form of addiction, and an iron resolve to protect our children and community at large from these pathologies, let us all move forward in His service, equal parts love and awe, with a clear headed mind to chart our course.

Rabbi Daniel Fridman is the rabbi of The Jewish Center of Teaneck.

1 Pesachim 109a.

2 See Mishnah Pesachim 10:1.

3 Sanhedrin 70a.

4 Sanhedrin 70b.

5 Rambam Hilkhot Tefillah Chapter 4.  Rambam’s language regarding the prayer of someone who is drunk is noteworthy, as he refers to it as an abomination, apparently lacking the status of a cheftzah shel tefillah. See Chidushei R. Chaim HaLevi al Ha-Rambam Hilkhot Tefillah 4:1.  Ab initio, someone who is not drunk, but who has consumed a revi’it of alcohol may not pray.

6 See Rambam Hilkhot Bi’at Mikdash Chapter 1.

7 Rashi to BaMidbar 6:11 based on Nazir 19a.

8 Ad loc.  See also Ramban to VaYikra 19:1.  Ramban’s positive orientation to abstinence from wine is a consistent motif in his thought.

9 See Hilkhot Purim 26.

10 This is the literal interpretation.  It is possible that it is meant to connote injury, physical or emotional, despite the strain these interpretations impose on the continuation of the passage.

11 Rif Megillah 3b.

12 Sefer Ha-Ittur Hilkhot Megillah 111a.

13 See Tur Orach Chaim 695.

14 ibid.

15 ibid.

16 Orchot Chaim Hilkhot Purim 38.

17 Tosafot Megillah 7b, who assume that the reference to cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai is part of an extended poem. Along these lines, see Rosh Megillah 1:8, Chidushei Rashah to Megillah (ibid), Magen Avraham Orach Chaim 695, who argues that the reference is to the arithmetic sum of the letters in each phrase.

18 Hilkhot Megillah Chapter 2.

19 Clearly, R. Moshe Isserles interpreted Rambam as such (Orach Chaim 695).  See, however, R. Yechiel Michel Epstein in Aruch HaShulchan (ad loc.), who is skeptical of this view, and assumes Rambam fundamentally endorses the view of Rabbenu Ephraim.

20 See Hilkhot Yom Tom 6.

21 Aruch HaShulchan Orach Chaim 695.

22 Chaye Adam Orach Chaim 695.

23 Biur Halakha Orach Chaim 695:2.

24 Hilkhot Megillah Chapter 2.  It is important to recognize that Rambam does not limit his approach to the indigent, but rather, focuses on the orphan, widow, convert, and others in the community who are suffering.  This is fully consistent with Rambam’s approach in the heading to Hilkhot De’ot, in which Rambam references a prohibition of afflicting the downtrodden, umlallim, the very same word that appears in this context.  Contra Ramban, who argues for distinct prohibitions, Rambam’s grouping of widows and orphans together may suggest a more expansive definition of a category of downtrodden individuals- umlallim- deserving of unique sensitivity.

25 Megillah 4b.

26 See Shabbat 88a.

27 Iggerot Moshe Yoreh De’ah 3:35.

28 It should be noted that the marijuana whose use R. Moshe proscribed was far less potent than today’s version.

29 See commentary of Ramban to VaYikra 19:2, Devarim 6:13, for two examples, in addition to the aforementioned comments regarding nazir.

30 See comments to Devarim 21:18.

31 See R. Yonason Rosenblum’s biography of Rav Yaakov, p. 367.  I am deeply indebted to my rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Avraham Twersky, shlita, for suggesting nearly a quarter of a century ago that I read this biography, which I have reread dozens of times in the ensuing decades.  Rosenblum’s work is a true testament to Chazon Ish’s reflection that honestly written biographies of gedolei yisrael constitute the most effective sifrei mussar.

32 See Rashi to Shemot 18:2 based on Mekhilta d’Rebbe Yishmael.

33 My grandfather, Ruvin Fridman, z’l, would often tell me of the drunken Latvian antisemites whom he encountered before and during the war.  It was not intended as a frontal message regarding abuse of alcohol, but it was sufficient nevertheless.  I found this attitude towards excessive consumption of alcohol typical of the older Eastern European Jews, mostly survivos, amongst whom we were privileged to grow up.

34 See the final halakha in Hilkhot Teshuva, bridging Sefer Ha-Madda and Sefer Ahava.

By Rabbi Daniel Fridman

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