Drinking on Purim


The Talmud (Megillah 7b) states, “A person (Israelite) is obligated to become intoxicated with wine on Purim until he does not know how to distinguish between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai.” At a literal level this statement implies that a person should become totally drunk that he does not know right (i.e. blessed Mordecai who with Queen Esther saved the Israelites – Esther 8:1-5) from wrong (i.e. cursed Haman who sought the destruction of the Israelites – Esther 3:13). Needless to say there is much commentary about the requirement of drinking on Purim.


This article will interpret and analyze each clause of this statement from the Talmud and through a wide range of commentaries as follows:

  • Obligation.
  • Intoxication.
  • Does not know.
  • Cursed Haman vs. Blessed Mordecai.


The Talmud (ibid.) states, “A person is obligated מיחייב איניש …” meaning that the drinking on Purim is an integral part of the celebration of Purim. However the degree of intoxication is a matter of dispute. 


The Talmud (ibid.) uses the Aramaic word “לבסומי” which is translated into English as intoxicated or drunk. However this translation is not entirely accurate. Although Rashi (ibid.) interprets this word as שכר which means drunk the degree of intoxication requires explanation. The Korban Netanel, 18th century commentator on the Rosh (Megillah Remark 10) notes that the word “drunk” in Aramaic is spelt רוי which literally means well watered or in the vernacular “plastered”. For example after drinking wine Noah became drunk and was exposed in his tent (Genesis 9:21). The Targum Onkelos on this verse translates “drunk” as רוי. Similarly the daughters of Lot conspired against their father to give him wine with the intention to have relations with him to produce offspring (Genesis 19:31-36). Although the Torah does not explicitly state that Lot became drunk, the Targum Yonatan ben Uziel clearly states that he was drunk and uses the words רוי or רוא (Genesis 19:32-35).  

By contrast the Aramaic word “לבסומי” literally means fragrant or pleasant based upon the root word בסם. This is similar to the Hebrew word בשם which means fragrant as in Exodus 30:23  “fragrant cinnamon – קנמן בשם” or in plural form בשמים spices (ibid.), “take spices –בשמים”. In addition the Targum on Proverbs 3:17, “Its (the Torah’s) ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace” translates pleasantness as דבוסמא.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 38a) records an incident involving the sons of Rabbi Hiyya who were hosted by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi. The sons were in awe of the host and remained silent. Rabbi Yehudah suggested serving them some wine to remove their inhibitions and hear words of Torah. Once lightly inebriated they spoke about the Messiah. The Talmud uses the word דאיבסום to indicate their loosened state which indicates that they were uninhibited but not drunk. The Talmud notes that the gematria of wine יין (70) is the same as secret סוד and concludes that when wine enters secrets emerge. Hence from this incident we see that drinking wine in moderation (דאיבסום) leads to secrets of Torah and not drunken debauchery.

Does not know

The Talmud (ibid.) uses the expression “Until he does not know” or in Aramaic “ עד דלא ידע ” which seems to imply that a person becomes so intoxicated that he does not know right from wrong. However that interpretation would contradict many laws of the Torah, in particular the requirement to be holy (Leviticus 19:2) and to always be aware of Hashem (Psalms 16:8). Hence the word “until” may be understood as either up to:

  • But not including.
  • And including.

Not Including

The Korban Netanel (Megillah Remark 10) adopts the former approach and concludes that one should stop drinking before losing control and cannot differentiate between right and wrong because the sages of the Talmud would not ask someone to behave as a drunk. The Aruch Hashulchan (ibid. 695:4) explains that the sages obligated a person to drink on Purim. However the limit of not knowing the difference between “Blessed is Mordecai” and “Cursed is Haman” is discretionary with each person to be aware of his limits. The Aruch Hashulchan concludes (ibid. 695:5) that one should avoid drunkenness especially when consuming spirits with a high concentration of alcohol. Hence wine is the preferred drink on Purim to commemorate the feasts in the book of Esther (e.g. Esther 7:2, 7, and 8) and its lower concentration of alcohol at 15% or less.      

Similarly the Beit Yosef (Orach Chaim 695) writes, “A person should not become drunk because this may lead to serious sins (e.g. forbidden relations or violence). Rather one should drink more than usual (while maintaining control).”   


However according to the view that “does not know” is literal the reader may ask, “How could the sages command someone to drink until he dies not know right (blessed is Mordecai) from wrong (the cursed Haman)?” The answer follows in the next section of “Cursed Haman vs. Blessed Mordecai”.

Cursed Haman vs. Blessed Mordecai

There are many answers to this question and for sake of brevity the author will discuss the following themes:

  • Gematria – The gematria of the expressions cursed is Haman (ארור המן) and blessed is Mordecai (ברוך מרדכי) are the same at 502. Hence a person should drink until he becomes intoxicated until he cannot (easily) compute these numbers (Magen Avraham 695:3).
  • Song – Others explain (e.g. Aruch Hashulchan Orach Chaim 695:3) that people would sing a ballad on Purim with an alternate refrain namely “Blessed is Mordecai” or “Cursed is Haman”. When one is slightly intoxicated he may lose his position in the song and accidently switch the refrains. Hence the meaning of not knowing the difference between blessed is Mordecai and cursed does not refer to the difference between right and wrong; rather it refers to the position of these refrains.   
  • Greater Miracle – Some explain (e.g. Turei Zahav on Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 695:1) the difference between “Blessed is Mordecai” and Cursed is Haman” in terms of which is the greater miracle. When one is intoxicated he may not be able to fully thank and praise Hashem for the difference between these two events namely the elevation of the righteous or the downfall of the wicked. The author would like to point out that the gematria of מלכותו (his kingdom both temporal and divine) is also 502 implying that both Haman and Mordecai were key figures in the kingdom of Persia and the story of Purim. It is interesting to note that the first time that the word מלכותו appears in scripture, which establishes a connotation for the word occurs in (Psalms 145:12) in reference to the Kingdom of Hashem. The verse follows,” To inform man of His mighty deeds and the glory splendour of His kingdom (מלכותו). This word occurs 6 times in the book of Esther with the last citation in Esther 5:1, “The king was sitting on his royal throne in the royal palace, opposite the entrance of the house.” In an allegorical sense this verse may also refer to Hashem as the king. Hence this gematria leads one to ponder, which is the greater miracle the elevation of Mordecai to viceroy (Esther 10:3) or the downfall of Haman who was the most prominent of the king’s ministers (Esther 3:1)?      
  • Sleep – The Rema (ibid. 695:2) explains that one should drink until he falls asleep and therefore does not know the difference between “Blessed is Mordecai” and Cursed is Haman”.   The difficulty with this explanation is that the Talmud did not need to mention Mordecai or Haman but simply say drink until drowsy. Others explain in defense of this approach that the mention of Mordecai and Haman is just an example with sleep implied.      
  • Serve Hashem with Joy – The Meiri, medieval commentator of the Talmud, on Megillah 7b explains that one should rejoice through food and drink to celebrate the miracle of Purim. Hence the difference between “Blessed is Mordecai” and Cursed is Haman” is not literal. Rather it is an expression of unbounded joy and not unbounded drunkenness. Along these lines the Meiri continues, “However the sages did not obligate the Israelites to engage in celebrations of debauchery and foolishness. Rather the joy should lead to love of Hashem and thanksgiving on the miracle that Hashem performed.”                     


The commentators on Shulchan Aruch (e.g. Beiur Halacha on Shulchan Aruch ibid. 695:2) discuss the aftermath of drinking with respect to the mitzvoth following the Purim feast (e.g. grace after meals, evening Shema with its blessings, and evening Amidah). If a person cannot regain sobriety when performing these mitzvoth then he should drink more than usual but not to intoxication. For example the Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 99:1) rules that one should not pray the Amidah if he is intoxicated to the extent that he cannot control his speech (literally he cannot speak before a king). If he did pray when intoxicated then Hashem will not accept the prayer (literally the payer is an abomination). According to this view the requirement to drink until one does not know the difference between “Blessed is Mordecai” and “Cursed is Haman” would be explained as above (i.e. up to and not including). However if someone could maintain control on Purim and regain sobriety by nightfall he could become intoxicated. Certainly one should not drive a car when intoxicated.    

Dangerous Drinking

The Talmud (Megillah 7b) relates that Rabba and Rabbi Zeira prepared a Purim feast in which they became intoxicated (איבסום). Rabba arose and appeared to kill Rabbi Zeira. The next day, Rabbi realized what he had done and asked Hashem for mercy to revive him. The next year, Rabba said to Rabbi Zeira, “Let the Master come and enjoy the Purim feast together.” The latter replied, “Miracles do not happen every day therefore I do not want to undergo that experience again.”

Based on this incident Rabbeinu Nissim (on the Talmud Megillah 7b) comments that one should not drink excessively on Purim, lest any danger befall him. However some point out that one should drink on Purim because Rabbi Zeira could have answered that he will attend the meal but not drink. Rather he said that miracles do not happen every day, implying that one should drink at this meal.  As explained above both views may be reconciled by drinking on Purim but not to excess which may lead to danger.

The commentators on the Talmud debate he meaning of the expression, “Appeared to kill (שחטיה)” as follows:

  • Passed out – Rabba gave so much wine to Rabbi Zeira, who was not used to drink in large quantities, that he passed out not that he actually killed him (Maharsha ibid.).
  • Hugged him – The word שחטיה (killed him) may be read as סחטיה (squeezed him) with a hug because the Talmud is written without vowels hence the letter ש may be read with a “sh” or “s” sound (Meiri ibid.). 
  • Appeared – During the meal Rabba appeared to slaughter Rabbi Zeira by passing a knife near his neck. Overcome by fear Rabbi Zeira fainted but was later revived.

Rejoicing with Reverence

A gematria links rejoicing with reverence to festivities on Purim based upon Psalms 2:11, “Serve Hashem with reverence and rejoice with trepidation or in Hebrew וגילו ברעדה. The gematria of this expression is the same as פורים at 336 implying that one should rejoice on Purim but with limits.

The Zohar (3:56a) discusses this balance between rejoicing and reverence based upon different verses in Psalms as follows:

Verse 2:11 – “Serve Hashem with reverence and rejoice with trepidation”.

Verse 100:2 – “Serve Hashem with joy, come before Him with praise.”

On the surface these two verses appear to be in contradiction because serving Hashem with reverence implies limits on joy to maintain reverence. The latter verse does not place limits on joy. Hence the Zohar make the following observations:   

  • Prerequisites.
  • Study of Torah.
  • Joy without excessive physicality.


The Zohar explains both modes of serving Hashem are proper as the verses indicate.  However the sequence is to first serve Hashem with reverence and then serve Hashem with joy.

Study of Torah

The reader may ask, “When does a person know that he has progressed to serve Hashem with joy as well as with reverence?” The Zohar answers that reverence for Hashem is connected to study of the Torah as the verse states (Psalms 111:10), “The beginning of wisdom is reverence of Hashem with proper understanding to all who perform them (i.e. mitzvoth).” In Addition King Solomon says in Proverbs (1:7), “Reverence of Hashem is the foundation of knowledge.” Hence reverence of Hashem is a prerequisite for Torah study, meaning that study of Torah should lead to serving Hashem.

Joy without Excessive Physicality

Hence with the prerequisites of reverence of Hashem and Torah study one can rejoice with Hashem through the mitzvoth of the Torah and sages. In this manner drinking on Purim is a means to an end (i.e. serving Hashem with joy by recounting the deliverance on Purim) and not an end in itself which may be connected to the evil inclination.  


This article analyzed the statement from the Talmud to drink on Purim from different perspectives taking into account celebrating Purim while maintain safety and propriety. The degree of drinking also depends upon the individual’s tolerance to alcohol resulting in the following guidelines:

  1. Drinking more than normal while maintaining full control.  
  2. Drinking until moderate impairment (e.g. unable to compute gematria or losing place in a song).
  3. Drinking until falling asleep.
  4. Drinking until inebriated but before an accident may happen. Practically one should have a safety person or in the vernacular “a designated driver” to avoid any serious incidents. 

Certainly one should consult a rabbinic authority to determine which of the above guidelines is appropriate for him, family, and guests following the advice of King Solomon (Proverbs 3:17), “Its (the Torah’s) ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace”.

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