Purim: Holiday of Euphoria

Rabbi Reuven Mann

The holiday of Purim, celebrates the salvation of the Jews from the wicked plan of annihilation propounded by Haman, a descendant of Amalek. The evil that he sought to perpetrate, was turned upon his own head and he ended up dangling from a rope along with his ten sons. A major theme of the story is that of “VeNahafoch Hu” which means that things were turned upside down.

The idea of opposites looms large in the story of Purim. The enemies of the Jews suffered the fate that was intended for their victims; the time was transformed from one of “sorrow to joy from mourning to holiday” (Esther 9:22). The Jews of the time, began celebrating on the day after the great victory which came about as a result of Esther’s dramatic intercession with the King. And Mordechai decreed that the Jews should continue the festive observances for all future years.

The celebration of Purim, is different from that of other holidays. It contains a strange requirement to drink intoxicating beverages to the point where one can no longer distinguish between, “Cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai.” This represents a significant state of drunkenness which is at first glance, puzzling.

Judaism is not opposed to alcohol, per se, and in fact mandates that certain religious performances, such as Kiddush and Havdala, be recited over a cup of wine. However, it is categorically opposed to excessive drinking which puts a person in a state of irrationality; in which he is not fit to perform Mitzvot.

Therefore, one should be disciplined and only imbibe with moderation. Even on the festive holidays when it is Biblically required to rejoice, the Sages emphasized that the celebration should not be one of debauchery brought on by excessive eating and drinking.

The Rambam, in Laws of Yom Tov 6:20 says:

When a person eats, drinks and rejoices on Yom Tov he should not excessively indulge in joking and merry-making and say that the more he engages in this the more he increases the Mitzvah; for drunkenness and extreme frivolousness are not real joy but boisterousness and foolishness. And we were not commanded about boisterousness and foolishness but about celebration which contains service of the Creator as it says, “Because you did not serve Hashem your G-d out of joy and a good heart” (Devarim 28:47). Thus, you learn that service is with joy, and it is impossible to serve Hashem front the midst of boisterousness or light-heartedness, and not from the midst of drunkenness.

We should note–that Chanukah which celebrates defeat of the Greek oppressor–is regarded as a day of joy and thanksgiving. It essentially focuses on recitation of Hallel and lighting the Menorah, but does not call for feasting and certainly not drinking. Why is Purim different?

Rabbi Soloveitchik noted, that the holiday of Purim takes place on the fourteenth of Adar and the fifteenth, for those who live in cities that were walled during the time of Joshua. This is because the Jews in the time of Haman, “rested” and celebrated their victories from the previous days. Yet, he asks, the holiday of Chanukah occurs on the twenty fifth of Kislev the day of the actual victory over the Greeks. Why didn’t the Rabbis ordain the celebration of Purim on the day of the actual defeat of the Jew’s enemies?

He explains that there is a fundamental difference between the establishment of Purim and Chanukah. After the events of Chanukah, the Rabbis convened and decided to ordain a holiday in commemoration of the miracle. They concluded that it should take place on the very day of the miraculous victory.

However, Purim developed differently. The Megilah states, “And the Jews confirmed that which they had begun to do” (Esther 9:27). This means, that in the time of Haman the Jews celebrated the great victory over their enemies on the day after the fighting ceased. Mordechai decided, that the Jews should commemorate the great miracles in the same manner as the those who had actually experienced the victory.

This insight, enables us to understand the peculiar requirement to get drunk on Purim. The most powerful feeling of joy is that which one experiences when one goes from the lowest level of despair to great salvation. This is what the Jews experienced when their Matzav (situation) was instantaneously transformed, from mourning to a great celebration.

The Jews experienced extreme exhilaration which expressed itself in the removal of all restraints. There were spontaneous outbreaks of joy in which the people came together and distributed servings of foods to friends and gifts to the poor so that everyone could join the party. In moments of euphoria we yearn to reach out to everyone, friends and strangers, to tell of our great fortune and celebrate together.

Historically, the holiday of Purim has always contained an element of exuberance. Students and their rabbis often got together and would “let their hair down.” Even distinguished individuals would wear costumes and get into the spirit of “uninhibited” (within reason) outpouring of joy. Students wrote Grammin (poetic ditties) poking fun at various fellow students, institutions and personalities. An aura of celebration prevailed, bolstered by alcohol, and unlike the celebrations of other holidays.

Of course some of these excessive behaviors got out of hand and courted danger. The authorities sought to reduce the possibility of harm, but in general did not attempt to cancel the raucous celebration. I believe that this is because this behavior is rooted in the underlying theme of Purim, that one should let go of his inhibitions and reach the point of “Ad DeLo Yada” (until he no longer perceives the difference between Mordechai and Haman).

The Jewish People are destined to experience the great exuberance of salvation in the Messianic era. “When Hashem brought back those that returned to Zion; we were like dreamers. Then were our mouths filled with laughter and our tongues with songs of joy–then it was said among the nations; ‘The L-rd has done great things for them’” (Tehilim 126:1-2).

May we merit to experience this joy, speedily and in our time.