Purim: A Day Beyond Full Rabbinic Control 

Excessive drinking on Purim is recommended by the amora Rabbah, in a rare Aramaic ruling that is followed by a strange account of a drunk Rabbah slaughtering his colleague, R. Zeira, at a Purim feast. What are we to make of this shocking law and story, and what do can they teach us about the unique, carnivalesque quality of Purim?



My Yeshiva Experience with עד דלא ידע

As a teenage yeshiva student in Israel, I spent two Purims (and Shushan Purims in Jerusalem, just to be sure we fulfilled the mitzvah) drinking to excess and holding friends up while they vomited into garbage cans or on the floor of Egged buses. A number of my friends had to be carried back to yeshiva at the end of the holiday; we were fortunate that no one was hospitalized.

In the throes of our drunken stupor we sang the great Purim drinking song: “מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע—one is obligated to drink on Purim until one doesn’t know.” We violated various limericks and mixed beer with wine and wine with scotch. Bottles of Hebron wine were available for four shekel—less than a converted dollar for our frugal wallets.

The lyric of our drinking song, taken from the Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 7b was meaningful to me and my friends, who had relocated across the world to study Talmud full time; here was a normative statement from our religious literature which we were spending upwards of ten hours a day studying, and it authorized our present behavior of drinking to excess. Our group of aspiring scholars always included at least a couple of guys who would loudly emphasize the opening syllable  מ of מחייב (which is frequently omitted in popular singing) as a way of emphasizing our familiarity with this text. This song, and its recommendation to drink until confusion, was ours.

During my second year in yeshiva I joined an afternoon learning program which investigated the trajectory that takes ideas from the Talmud to the legal codes and their commentaries; the program was called Gemara L’Halakhah. We happened to be studying tractate Megillah in this program just before the holiday of Purim and it was then that I encountered the drinking text explicitly in the Talmud for the first time.

The Source of the Obligation to Drink to Stupor on Purim

 The song derives from a statement in Aramaic, attributed in the Talmud to the third generation Amora, Rabbah.

בבלי מגילה ז: אמר רבה [1] מיחייב איניש לאיבסומי[2] בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי.
b. Megillah 7b Rabbah said, one is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until one does not know [the difference] between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordekhai.’

As a statement of legal obligation the text appears, at first glance, to be fairly standard. But both its form and its content suggest that there is something strange afoot.

The Talmud is composed of a combination of Hebrew and Aramaic. This combination is not random, and different forms of speech within the Talmud receive standard linguistic and syntactic treatments.  Legal precepts, even those produced by amoraim, are virtually always articulated in Middle Hebrew, the Hebrew of the rabbis in which the Mishnah is composed. Rabbah’s statement, however, is written in Aramaic, the less formal language—the lived language of the Talmud’s rabbis, suggesting this is not the usual halachic statement.

A second strange component of this legal text is the threshold for drinking—until one does not know between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordecai.” The threshold makes it seem as though there is inherent value in confusing the Megillah’s hero and its villain. Why would this be?

Finally, it is worth noting that the very premise of a law obligating drinking is bizarre. While one is required to drink four cups of wine at the Passover Seder, the goal there is the freedom that such drinking communicates rather than inebriation. Drinking to inebriation is, generally, an excessive take on normal social drinking; it is generally considered a base activity that hardly receives religious legitimation. It is not the kind of activity one expects to be as legally mandated as reciting the Shema prayer.

The Strange Story that Follows the Strange Law

Before a Talmud reader has a chance to process the strangeness of the legal statement, something even stranger happens in the text. A story is immediately told about two rabbis, Rabbah and R. Zeira, who dine with each other on Purim. They get so drunk that Rabbah takes a knife and slaughters his dinner companion, R. Zeira, whom he eventually resuscitates. The next year, Rabbah invites R. Zeira to dine again together on Purim but R. Zeira declines, saying “Miracles don’t happen every time.”

רבה[3] ורבי זירא עביד סעודת פורים בהדי הדדי
Rabbah and Rav Zeira made the Purim feast with one another.
{איבסום [4]} קם רבה שחטיה לרבי זירא
[After Rabbah had gotten drunk] Rabbah went and slaughtered Rav Zeira.
{למחר} [5] בעי רחמי ואחייה
[The next day] Rabbah asked forgiveness on Rav Zeira and brought him back to life.
לשנה אמר ליה ניתי מר ונעביד סעודת פורים{בהדי הדדי}[6]
A year later, [Rabbah] said to [Rav Zeira], “let the master come and let us do Purim [together].”
אמר ליה לא בכל שעתא ושעתא מתרחיש ניסא
[Rav Zeira] said to [Rabbah], “miracles do not happen every time.”

In its context, this tale is especially perplexing.  Coming on the heels of an explicit mandate to drink to excess, the story implies that it is dangerous to drink too much. But to complicate the story further—rather than offering an unambiguous rejection of the law, it concludes with a funny punchline.[7]

The Medieval Interpreters

Many legal interpreters of the Talmud take the opportunity to read the comic story as undermining Rabbah’s obligatory mandate. Thus, Rabbenu Efrayim of Qal’at Hammad (Algeria), a student of R. Isaac Alfasi (Rif; who, incidentally cites the obligating text without the story) says that the story of Rabbah and Rav Zeira turns the law from a mandate to drink to a prohibition to drink—the dire consequences of Rabbah’s action necessitate a reconsideration of his legal recommendation.

המאור הקטן מגילה ג: כתב ה”ר אפרים ז”ל מההוא עובדא דקם רבה שחטיה לר’ זירא לשנה א”ל תא נעביד כו’ אידחי ליה מימרא דרבה ולית הלכתא כוותיה ולאו שפיר דמי למעבד הכי
Hamaor Haqatan Megillah 3b Rabbenu Ephraim of blessed memory wrote “from that incident [in which] Rabbah went [and] slaughtered Rav Zeira, [and the] next year he said to him let the master come and let us do etc. the dictum of Rabbah was edged out, and the law does not follow [his dictum] and it is inappropriate to act accordingly.” (emphasis mine)

As appealing as this reading might be, it is problematic. After all, as Sefer Haeshkol points out, if drinking is now prohibited, Rav Zeira would have no reason to fear dining with Rabbah in year two![8]

ספר האשכול מהד’ אויערבך ב:עמ’ 27 והרב ר’ אפרים כ’ מדמייתי עלה עובדא קם רבה ושחטיה לר’ זירא ע”י דאבסום ולשנה הבאה כדאמר לי’ נעבד פורים בהדדי א”ל ר”ז לאו בכל שעתא מתרחיש ניסא, ממילא אדחי מימרא דרבה ולאו ש”ד למיעבד הכי. ולי הכותב נ’ דמכאן ראי’ דצריך לבסומי, דאי לא הול”ל נעבד סעודה בהדדי ולא נבסם
Sefer Haeshkol (Auerbach ed.) II:27 And Rabbenu Ephraim wrote from the fact that the story of Rabbah’s slaughtering R. Zeira owing to drunkenness and the next year as he said to him “Let’s do Purim together,” R. Zeira said to him “A miracle does not happen every time,” was cited on [the obligating statement] it can be inferred that the obligating statement of Rabbah is rejected and it is not appropriate to act in this way. And to me the writer it seems that from here is proof that one needs to become inebriated, for if not he should have said to him, “Let’s dine together and not become inebriated.” (emphasis mine)

Carnival, the Halakha/Aggadah Divide, and Purim

In previous research,[9] I employed the tension within these texts as a way of highlighting a more general problem of the Talmud’s legal stories:  they are often in tension with the Talmud’s normative legal statements. My thesis was that the dichotomy that most readers hold between halakhic (legal) and aggadic (non-legal) texts is imprecisely understood as a difference in the texts themselves when it is really a difference in how one reads such texts.

This may be seen by focusing on legal stories which sit on the dividing line between halakhah and aggadah. Such stories, like the Rabbah and R. Zeira tale, invite the reader to consider law in light of other aspects of society and culture and vice versa. One way of understanding how these talmudic texts work—which can also shed light on the Megillah and the holiday of Purim—is to consider these texts within a carnival framework.

Mikhail Bakhtin on the Carnivalesque

Purim is a carnival day, and carnivals like Purim, Halloween or Mardi Gras have overlapping masquerade practices and drinking habits. While the historical origins of such festival may often be reconstructed, the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin suggests that these holidays are best understood as necessary outlets for societal energy that is generally suppressed and repressed.

Drawing on research into many medieval local carnival days, Bakhtin noticed that these days often have an antinomian bent and that they frequently involve rituals or theatrical performances that deliberately de-crown the reigning power.[10] The carnival is the day on which the common folk express their displeasure with the power dynamic by, for example, producing a theatrical performance of the royal investiture of a pauper. In Bakhtin’s account, the hierarchical authorities often struggled to control the carnival day, but ultimately, on account of its effervescent energy, they were not able to contain or fully regulate it.

The Carnivalesque and the Megillah

Bible scholars have employed Bakhtin to understand the holiday of Purim and the Megillah.[11] The holiday of Purim, they argue, preceded the composition of the Megillah, which was created to make the holiday religiously meaningful for the Jewish community.[12]

The Megillah has many of the features of farce.[13] This is fairly obvious to critical readers when they read the elaborate set up of the ultimate confrontation with Haman. Less obvious to contemporary readers is the ridiculous and historically unprecedented beauty pageant with its elaborate and timely rituals of beautification. The Megillah also contains some of the very features of Bakhtin’s understanding of carnival rituals. The scene of Mordecai’s riding through Shushan on the royal horse is doubly inverted because it both elevates the lowly Jew to the royal steed but it does so in the place of the megalomaniacal ambitions of Haman. Megillat Esther transforms the holiday of Purim into a religious event, and as such, it dampens some of the carnival energy, by channeling it towards an authorized end.

The Law and Story about Drinking to Excess from the Prism of the Carnivalesque

One way of reading Rabbah’s statement of obligation is to say that he is following the Megillah’s lead, and making inebriation on Purim religiously meaningful. Unlike the other mitzvoth the rabbis derive regarding Purim, such as exchanging gifts to friends and distributing charity to the poor, drinking is not explicitly mandated in the Megillah. Perhaps for this reason Rabbah places his mandate in legal language in order to attempt to rabbinically authorize and make meaningful a popular drinking practice.

Elsewhere,  I contrasted the assertion of authority via the legal statement with the story’s refusal to allow life to be legally controlled and contained.[14] I built on this distinction to suggest a reading that privileged the story over the legal statement, and which understood this tale as a story-based – rather than a rule-based – expression of law. Here I would like to add to this by suggesting that we even read the legal statement in light of the carnivalesque.

Carnivalesque Inebriation

Another way of reading Rabbah’s statement takes advantage of his use of the popular language of Aramaic (rather than the formal language of Hebrew) to suggest that getting drunk on Purim is different from more typical examples of rabbinic obligation. Rabbah here is not prescribing a novel rabbinic norm, but is describing and coopting a cultural practice that already exists, which was generated by the carnivaleque energy of the day. This obligation is bottom up rather than top down.  The carnivalesque antinomian energy targets figures of authority and seeks to overthrow them, at least temporarily and ritually. Confusing Haman and Mordecai allows the celebrant to get in touch with the true spirit of the day.

Such a reading allows for a continued use of the carnival as context for interpreting Rabbah’s story. The story is a dark comedy that plays Rabbah for the fool. It responds on one level to Rabbah’s attempt to rabbinically coopt the practice of drinking by making him realize that the carnival energy is more powerful than the law. The story also uses comedy to respond to the seriousness of legal obligations. The comic story as a carnivalesque form (Bakhtin thought that stories were inherently somewhat carnivalesque[15]) thus responds to Rabbah’s legalistic appropriation and ensures that the passage ends with frivolity.

The Obligation to Listen to Every Word of the Megillah

I have long found it strange that the Megillah, a work of great comedy often read and listed to by people in costume, is the one publicly read ritual document that halakhically compels the listener to hear every word.[16] This  feels at odds with the carnivalesque spirit of the day, and seems to reflect a rabbinic overreaching—as if the rabbinic tradition needs to assert itself because it cannot fully control the day.

A Final Purim Thought

I have always loved Megillah reading as an aesthetic project. My German traditional trop is mellifluous, and I grew up hearing wonderfully musical leiners who could even make me forget that I was still fasting on Purim night. My enjoyment of the Megillah’s musical aesthetics is always interrupted by the cacophony that accompanies the blotting out of Haman’s name. Every year I struggle internally, because I know that there is strong customary support for blotting out Haman’s name. I also know that every synagogue attempt that I’ve seen to curtail the noise or control the method of its production has backfired. And I smile because it is clear to me that the attempt to control the day’s carnivalesque energy is ultimately not going to fully succeed.

Notwithstanding the unbridled, carnival energy of Purim, permit me to close by reminding people to celebrate safely.