18 August 2003
In approaching any topic from a Jewish perspective, it is important to keep in mind that Judaism is less of a creed-based religion and more of a religiously based way of life practiced by a particular people. While some rabbis have attempted to create lists of non-negotiable beliefs to which one must subscribe in order to be a Jew, none of these has ever been adopted as authoritative. Thus, in discussing the attitude of Judaism toward a subject like alcohol consumption, one must be prepared for multiple opinions coexisting even when apparently contradictory and many gradations of positions within a single topic.
Within early Judaism, there is a tension between an idealized, semi-nomadic past and the realities of a more settled, agricultural based society. I have heard it said that human beings first discovered how to make beer and then set out to develop farming as a way of assuring a steady supply. It may be that this is what is reflected in the biblical story of how Noah leaves the ark and immediately plants a vineyard, makes wine, and gets drunk. The other half of this tension, the idealization of the nomadic past, is seen most clearly in the words of Jeremiah: „I remember the love of your youth, the bridal love [you manifested] when you followed Me into the desert, to an uncultivated land" (Jeremiah 2:2).
A second biblical story which clearly points to the dangers inherent in the release of inhibitions due to intoxication is the story of Lot and his daughters. Believing that they are the only surviving people in the world after the destruction of the cities of Sodom and ŒAmorah, they get their father drunk so that he will consent to make love with each of them and so produce a new generation for the world. The children of this relationship, the nations of Amon and Moab, are seen as mean spirited peoples by the biblical authors.
Two other biblical stories are also associated with alcohol consumption. The first, perhaps surprisingly for many readers, is the story of Adam and Eve. In the Talmud, Rabbi Meir says: "That Œtree‚ from which Adam ate was a grapevine, for there is nothing that brings calamity on a person more than wine" (Sanhedrin 70a-b). While it is also true that other rabbis associated the tree of knowledge with a pomegranate and the knowledge attained with sex, it is interesting to speculate on the meaning of the relationship between knowing good and evil and alcohol consumption.
The third and last biblical story often associated with drinking is that of the deaths of Aaron‚s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu (Leviticus 10:1ff). While there is no explicit mention of drunkenness as the reason for their violation of the prohibition against unauthorized entry into the Holy of Holies, the text immediately following this story prohibits Aaron and the priests from serving while inebriated, This both suggests drunkenness as the reason for Nadav and Avihu‚s transgression as well as the idea that one cannot serve God and people when under the influence of alcohol. This leads to the ruling that the members of a Jewish court may not deal with a capital offense if they have drunk even a quarter of a measure of wine (i.e. our equivalent of a minimum level of alcohol in the blood).
Most of the references to alcohol in Jewish writings are to wine consumption. Rav (Rabbi) Chanan said: Wine was created to comfort mourners and to reward the wicked (Sanhedrin 70a) in this world. Rabbi Yitzchak takes this latter idea one step farther and says that wine reddens the face of the wicked in this world, but pales it (with embarrassment) in the world to come.
Wine is the only liquid which has its own, specific blessing to recite before drinking ("Blessed is God_who has created the fruit of the vine"). Not only is this blessing recited whenever a person drinks wine outside the framework of a meal, there are several opportunities created in which the drinking of wine is an explicit commandment and thus the blessing is recited even when in the overall context of a meal. Thus, the two major meals of every Sabbath, Friday evening and Saturday lunch, are introduced with a special blessing of sanctification for the day recited over a cup of wine. The meals of the three pilgrimage festivals and the new year are also structured in the same way.
The Passover seder reflects the view of wine as a blessing even more dramatically. Four times during the seder, there is a requirement to say the blessing over the wine and drink at least the liquid equivalent of an olive. In the Talmudic tractate of P‚sachim (Passover) 109a, Rabbi Y‚hudah the son of B‚tayrah says: When the temple still stood, joy was expressed through the eating of meat, as it is written, "You will sacrifice peace offerings, eat there, and be happy before Yhvh your God" (Deuteronomy 27:7). Now that the temple no longer stands, there is no joy other than with wine, as it is written, "Wine makes the human heart happy" (Psalms 104:15).
Even as they praised the value of wine as a source of comfort for the bereaved and as an enhancer of joyous holidays and celebrations, the rabbis also warned people about the dangers of alcohol consumption. Thus, they have God admonishing Noah for planting his vineyard, saying that he should have learned from Adam‚s mistake. Rava said that the result of alcohol consumption is bloodshed and Rav Kahana added that improper consumption impoverishes. Rava adds that it destroys a person (Sanhedrin 70a).
In another text (Eruvin 64a), Rav Y‚hudah says that one who has had even a little to drink should not teach [law]. Rabbah the son of Bar Chanah says that someone who has had a little to drink should not pray, though if s/he does, the prayer is acceptable after the fact. However, if one is truly drunk, then not only should this person not pray, but if s/he does, the prayer is an abomination.
People who are drunk are still completely responsible for their actions. Their purchases and sales are valid. If they violate a commandment whose punishment is death, they can be sentenced to death. For less severe offenses, they can be flogged if that is the punishment. The general principle is that they are considered the same as those who are sober in all cases except for prayer, that is that they are exempt from the laws of prayer. Rabbi Chaninah limits this to those cases when people get as drunk as Lot did, at which point they cannot be held responsible for their actions. This should not be interpreted as giving a drunk person permission to violate normal codes of acceptable behavior, but rather to say that such people have totally lost control of themselves and so their actions have no standing in the community.
The high risk of immoral sexual behavior as a result of too much alcohol also was expressed in the way in which wedding celebrations were conducted during the Middle Ages. Given the drinking of wine as a key element of the celebration, it was deemed best to segregate the sexes at the same time. The Jewish community has always had a great concern about being certain of patrimony, and so it didn't want to have men and women in close physical contact (i.e. dancing together) while they were simultaneously drinking alcohol, since this could lead to sexual relations while under the influence and then pregnancies where it would be difficult to establish the identity of the father. While, on one level, this seems peculiar to us, on another it very much mirrors modern concerns with the implications of having sex while drunk.
There is only one day each year in which the rabbinic concerns about the over-consumption of alcohol were relaxed, and this is the holiday of Purim. The story of this holiday is found in the Scroll of Esther, and is full of decisions of great importance being made impulsively while drunk. King Ahasuerus calls for his wife Vashti to appear before his male advisors while drunk. Vashti, likely also drunk, refuses. The king then decides to have her removed as queen while still drunk and then, when sober, regrets his decision which, because it is a royal decree, cannot be revoked.
Later in the story, the king and Haman sit down and drink after their decision to kill all the Jews in the Persian Empire and, still later, Queen Esther reveals that the plot is also against her and gets the decree revised, allowing the Jews to defend themselves, by first getting her husband the king, drunk.
As a result, the holiday of Purim which commemorates this reversal of fortunes is celebrated by encouraging people to drink enough so that they can no longer tell the difference between "cursed is Haman [the villain] and blessed is Mordecai [the hero]. While there are many profound theological explanations for this custom, it remains the case that it is observed literally even to this day.
At the same time, even this custom is interpreted and ultimately limited. The Talmud tells the story of two rabbis who got drunk together one Purim and one killed the other. The deceased rabbi miraculously came back to life, but turned down an invitation to repeat the experience the following year, arguing that one cannot depend on a miracle (M‚gillah 7b). Several centuries later, Maimonides reviews the laws of Purim and states that a person drinks until s/he falls asleep from the wine (Laws of Purim, ch. 2). Still later, Rabbi Yosef Karo (who authored both extensive commentaries on two previous codes as well as a code of his own) states that, even though it is said that a person can get drunk on Purim, this is not to be taken literally. Drunkenness is forbidden altogether and a person should only drink a little more than s/he is used to.
While there are also rabbinic sources which continue to permit and even encourage drinking on Purim to the point of not being able to distinguish heroes from villains, it is significant that so much of rabbinic opinion favors limiting this custom and keeping it within bounds close to those observed the rest of the year.
Overall, the approach of the Jewish rabbinic tradition is to encourage the moderate use of alcohol, particularly wine, within the frameworks provided by existing commandments which require one to be happy in their fulfillment. Wine is an important part of Sabbath and holiday observances, life cycle celebrations, and the holiday of Purim. In the Hassidic world, a small amount of vodka is a legitimate preparation for listening to the teachings of the rabbi and, in oral traditions, a measured amount of alcohol on a regular basis is considered good for one‚s health.
At the same time, an alcoholic is not an acceptable witness, cannot be a judge, or lead the community in prayer. Even a small amount of alcohol invalidates one‚s teaching and a person is held accountable for all his/her actions while under the influence, unless they have reached the (depraved) level of Lot, whose judgement was so impaired that he was willing to commit incest and was incapable of telling his daughters the truth about their situation.
Perhaps the Jewish point of view can be best summarized by the following teaching given as a commentary to a text in the midrash called Genesis Rabbah (37:7): Wine has two characteristics, one opposite the other. A little is good and a lot is hard. Wine will make a person‚s heart happy. A little wine opens the heart to Torah and too much leads to sin and idolatry. About this, it is taught that wine should not enter too deeply into any feast which is not obligated by the observance of a commandment. Wine should only be part of the supernal divine, for the sake of a commandment such as the comforting of mourners and, even there, one should drink only a little.
Rabbi Daniel Siegel
Jewish Chaplain at Dartmouth College, 1987-97
Rabbinic Director, ALEPH: Alliance for for Jewish Renewal
Last Updated: 9/17/08