Purim: Inner Meaning and Respecting the Limits


“Rava said: One is required to become intoxicated on Purim until the point that he cannot differentiate between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordechai.'” (Gemara Megillah 7b) Why is inebriation halachically mandated? Do other forms of celebration not suffice to express our joy at the salvation precipitated by the nes (miracle) of Purim?

The story of Purim is unique in that each segment of the tale appears to be a coincidence which is unrelated to the balance of the narrative. God’s name does not appear in the text, and the miraculous nature of Purim is only detected by piecing together all of the events and realizing that the each occurrence was a purposeful piece in God’s puzzle for bringing the Jewish people near to Him and saving them. The miracle of Purim occurred via Hester Panim, which means that God interacted with the world in a hidden, imperceptible manner. (The custom to adorn masks and costumes [v. Remo in Shulchan Aruch O.Ch. 696:8] bears recognition of this, for we celebrate God’s salvation via Hester Panim, in which His interaction with the world is present but masked from open view.)

In the same vein may we understand the halachah of drinking on Purim. The Gemara in Sanhedrin explains that one’s hidden, inner essence emerges as a result of intoxication. Inebriation reminds us that one can appear to be a certain way on the outside, whereas that same person is totally different internally; through inebriation, a person’s true, hidden essence emerges. Thus, by merrying through the medium of drink, we celebrate and recognize once more God’s nes via Hester Panim, as we reflect God’s miraculous acts through his Hidden Presence.

This is precisely the relationship between Amalek and Purim.

The Mishnah Berurah (O.C. 685:1:1) explains in the name of rabbinic authorities that Parshas Zachor, which features the mitzvah to eradicate Amalek, is read on the Shabbos prior to Purim because of the exhortation to eliminate the memory of Amalek, the nation from which Haman stemmed – and to relate the mitzvah of obliterating the memory of Amalek to its execution on Purim during the days of Mordechai and Esther. What is the significance of this connection between Amalek and Purim?

Rashi (on Devarim 25:17) comments that Amalek represents mikreh – coincidence. That is, Amalek personifies denial of God’s existence and interaction with the universe, positing that all which occurs is due to mere coincidence and happenstance, rather than due to God’s will and planning.

However, the inner of message of Purim is the recognition that God controls all, even though we sometimes cannot perceive His hand in the course of events as they unfold. That which may seem to be natural coincidence is really God’s Hashgacha (Providence), and Purim demonstrates how this Hashgacha works in a world without open miracles, which are generally reserved only for periods in which the Beis Ha-Mikdash (Holy Temple) stands and God’s glory is dramatically manifest. Thus, although things would seem to be quite natural in the present state, God operates from behind the scenes in the mode of Hester Panim, still fully controlling all according to His master plan, with His hand “pulling the strings” of life, despite our inability to see it directly. Whereas Amalek argues that the course of life and history are arbitrary, Purim enthusiastically counters that all is part of God’s perfectly-planned scheme, affirming His continued interaction from behind the scenes. This is the connection between Amalek and Purim.

The Arizal stated that Yom Kippur is related to Purim (“Yom kePurim” – “A day like Purim”). On Yom Kippur, we return to God and are represented by the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, who enters the Kodesh Ha-Kodoshim (Holy of Holies) – the most inner sanctum of holiness, which is removed and off-limits from day-to-day life. We shed our material shell and identify ourselves as malachim (angels), relating to God via our inner essence, our neshamah (soul). This is the parallel of Yom Kippur and Purim, for the thrust of Purim and Yom Kippur necessitate our realization that our inner, spiritual, Godly selves be recognized and flourish beyond our exterior facade so as to draw near to God.

On an halachic note: The Gemara (Megillah 7b), the Rambam (Hilchos Megillah 2:15) and the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 695:2) indicate that drinking on Purim is an halachah of the Se’udas Purim, the Purim meal. Furthermore, the Remo in Shulchan Aruch (ibid.) writes that one’s drinking on Purim is supposed to be “l’shem Shamayim” – for the sake of Heaven (rather than as an act of pure indulgence). It is thus evident that those who drink large quantities at night after the Megillah is read as well as on Purim day before the se’udah and following it are acting quite inappropriately, as their drunkenness is not in the context of mitzvah performance and is a deviation from the intent of Chazal (the Sages).

While we are all familiar with the grave dangers of overuse of alcohol on Purim (see also), and such dangers must be our primary motivation to curb irresponsible drinking, do we ever think about how the overuse of alcohol utterly distorts and perverts the message of Purim? Rather than focusing on perceiving the Hidden Hand of God and appreciating the exuberance of salvation from mortal existential enemies, irresponsible alcohol consumption on Purim thoroughly impedes the message of Purim from resonating in the head and heart of the drinker.

The case is somewhat similar with regard to Mishlo’ach Manos, whose theme is the expression of friendship and brotherhood. Yet how much frustration and strife are caused by turning this mitzvah into an effort to outdo others, or to deliver Mishlo’ach Manos to every single possible acquaintance despite the cost, distance and logistics, stressing oneself and one’s family the entire day in a mad rush to “make all the rounds” without stop? Does this augment feelings of friendship and brotherhood? Is this the authentic fulfillment of this mitzvah?

While it is far easier for each person to establish his own protocols and parameters for the distribution of Mishlo’ach Manos, the issue of drinking on Purim requires a communal-wide effort.

Let us consider implementing the following steps:

  1. Serving alcohol (preferably just wine and beer) only at the seudah and not at any other times during Purim
  2. Removing all alcohol from the table at a designated time during the seudah, so that everyone can daven Maariv on time, with a minyan, and in a sober state
  3. Not serving alcohol to juveniles in the absence of their parents, and not serving them any more than a minimal, symbolic amount (such as a very partial cup of low-alcohol wine) – and only serving them when permitted by law, of course
  4. Totally banning the provision of alcohol to groups of yeshiva students who stop by to collect funds for their yeshiva, or for whatever other reason. Aside from serving these young men alcohol being a highly irresponsible practice in general, hosts must realize that these young men often plan to travel elsewhere during the day; enabling these young men to become intoxicated, knowing that they will then travel on, poses a very serious risk to life. In fact, such conduct is punishable under Social Host Liability statues and can incur fines and even imprisonment in most jurisdictions.

At Chanukah-time, my rebbe would occasionally comment about how our society defeats the message of Chanukah by canceling Torah learning in favor of excessive amounts of time for Chanukah celebrations. With Purim, the same sadly holds true, as the themes of the day can be distorted and perverted by practicing the mitzvos of Purim in a manner that is antithetical to their intent, and, in the case of drinking, utmost sakanas nefashos (danger to life) can be engendered.

Let’s commit ourselves to change this state of affairs, such that next Purim will be a day of Mishteh v’Simchah (Festivity and Joy) in a manner that reflects the authentic objectives of the holiday and that embodies Kiddush Shem Shamayim (Sanctification of God’s Name) and true concern for our brethren.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.