(Not) Drinking on Purim: A Test Case on the Role of Narrative and History in Psak (Halachic Methodology 20)

My last shiur was both a pre-Purim shiur and a test case in two methodological issues in psak.  It is available here.  We discussed the issue of drinking on Purim.

Without rehashing the entire sugya, as any basic summary will provide the range of positions, I want to make two points.

First, this sugya is a great example of the role that narrative in the Gemara can have in psak (an issue also touched on in a recent shiur by Rabbi J. J. Schachter available.)  As is well known, after the ruling of Rava in the Gemara that מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי, the Gemara then tells the story of when Rava/Rabbah killed R. Zeira in his drunkenness and subsequently resurrected him.  The next year, when he invited R. Zeira to his meal, he was turned down.  R. Zeira declared that “not every year a miracle occurs.” A three way dispute then follows in poskim what the role of this story is on the psak.  Rabbenu Efraim is cited by many Rishonim as ruling that this story shows that we reject the obligation to get drunk on Purim as it can lead to horrible things.  The Eshkol in the questionable Aurbach edition, as well as the Pri Chadash note that one can derive the opposite – if the halacha was indeed rejected, then R. Zeira would not have had reason to fear the following year.  The fact that he did fear meant they were going to get drunk again.  Of course, one could simply respond that Rava never changed his halachic position but R. Zeira indicates that the consensus view opposed him.  [Note that while the Pri Chadash believes that the story supports the position that one should get drunk, because of the terrible things that happen when people get drunk, he rules in accordance with R. Efraim anyways.]  The third possibility is that the story modifies the original ruling – that one should drink but not get that drunk.  All three positions are discussed in the Yad Efraim.


The second issue I touched on was the role of understanding history when making Halachic decisions.  It is well known that there are many positions with sound very forced in the Gemara.  Some Rishonim explain that the Gemara means one should get drunk enough to not be able to figure out the Gematria of Arur Haman and Baruch Mordechai (which are the same) in his head, which is obviously not that drunk.  Others assert that there was a poem whose refrain alternated between Arur Haman and Baruch Mordechai and one must drink enough to confuse the stanzas.  At first glance, one would wonder what exegetically drove these positions.  However, if one looks at the positions historically, a possible explanation emerges.  It turns out that anywhere from seven to nine positions that reject or modify the obligation to drink emerge from the Provencal Rishonim over the course of two hundred years (depending on the authorship of the Aurbach Eshkol and the relationship between the Orchot Chaim and the Kolbo).  The exact positions are found in my source sheet.  It seems to me that the minhag (or at least minhag haposkim) in Provence was not to get drunk on Purim.  Thus, each Rishon knew the conclusion before he started – if not a single posek dissented, it must be that this is the Halacha.  When you are working backwards and know your conclusion, the threshold of plausibly for a specific exegetical move is lower.  Minhag, especially minhag haposkim is a very powerful factor in psak (see here).  This is significant lemaaseh as Mishna Berurah endorse following the Meiri lehalacha who limits the obligation to get drunk (to just drinking).  Meiri, however, seems not to be a minority position, but rather reflective of an entire tradition within the Rishonim.

This position seems, like other positions of Provence, to have made its way to Italy, and is found in Shibolei HaLeket.

In late Spain, one also finds a consensus of Poskim.  Five members of the Beit Midrash of the Rashba – Ran, Ohel Moed, Avudraham, Tzror HaChaim, and Nimukei Yosef all rule in different ways not to get drunk.  The Nimukei Yosef even suggests a new understanding – that it means one should tell jokes and be frivolous to the point he does not discern the different between Haman and Mordechai.

In stark contrast to this is early France, where we know from a poem, Leil Shikurim Hu Zeh HaLayla, found in Machzor Vitry, that the minhag was to get totally smashed, seemingly even at night.

While none of these historical facts determine the Halacha directly, it is important to understand not just what positions exist, but what communities and authorities practiced.  This should have an important role when we make our own decision.

My personal opinion accords with that of Mori VeRabi Rabbi Mordechai Willig that one should strongly oppose getting drunk.  I think that the historical record shows that this was also the majority position of authorities in many if not most areas throughout the period of the Rishonim and that, I think, is something worth considering.



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