Talmudic Debates on the holidays 4: Purim

Our 4th class on  Talmud sections relating to holidays dealt with Purim and we looked at two different debates regarding the holiday.

The first  doesn’t focus on Purim but it is based upon a statement in the Mishna that one must read the Megilla in order and can not read it in a  language other than Hebrew  if the intent is to fulfill the obligation for hearing the Megilla being read on Purim. The mishna clarifies this by pointing out that one can read the Megilla in the vernacular if people do not understand Hebrew but that one fulfills the obligation if one hears it in Hebrew even if one doesn’t understand Hebrew.

This is an interesting discussion and leads eventually to one of my favorite sugyot, talmudic debates, that I have ever studied or taught.

The Talmud relates to the issue of the Megillah on Purim to the saynig of the Shema and begins with a disagreement between Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi (“Rebbe”) and the other sages. Rebbe says the Shema must be recited in Hebrew, the sages say: “In any language”

Rebbe gives the reason for his tradition as being that the first paragraph of the Shema says; “These words shall be (on the heart)”. He says “these words shall be” implies they shall be as they are, namely in hebrew. The sages defend their opinion by saying that the word; “Shema” implies hearing and understanding. Thus, one can say the Shema in any language on understands.

The Gemara then asks the students of Rebbe how they understand the word “hear” if they don’t think it is related to understanding. They respond that it means that the Shema must be heard, to fulfill our obligation, the shema  must be said out loud.

The Gemara than asks the sages how they learn that the Shema must be said out loud as they can’t learn it from the word “Shema” since a word can only be used once in teaching law and they already used the word “shema” to indicate that it can be said in any language.

The sages answer that they believe that if one recited the Shema without hearing it, they have fulfilled their obligation. So, they don’t need to learn it from any place.

The Gemara then asks what the Sages do with the word “they shall be” which Rebbe used to teach something they don’t agree with. They said, it teaches that you shouldn’t read the Shema out of order.

The Gemara then asks the students of Rebbe how they learn that the Shema can not be said out of order. He says the Torah  says’THE words” when just “words” would have been sufficient.

The sages however then say they learn nothing from the fact that THE words are used.

So, we have this wonderful short debate which is based on the idea that ideally statements of Jewish ritual law need to have a basis in the Torah text and that once one uses a specific text to teach one lesson, one can’t use it to teach another lesson as well.  These are the “rules of the game” for the Rabbis.

Then, we read another brief text. That text dealt with the Talmudic tradition that a person is obligated to drink on person until you can’t tell the difference between “Cursed be Haman and Blessed be Mordecai”. This is such a difficult tradition to understand especially since the Talmud recounts a story of a Rabbi Zera and Rabbah who had a Purim feast together which ended up tragically due to drinking.

Many look to that story as an attempt to cancel out the Talmud’s expectation that we drink to excess on Purim. However, other Rabbis have found ways to claim that the Talmud never really wanted us to drink to excess.

Maimonides says that the Talmudic expression concerning drinking meant that we should do things which would cause us to sleep deeply on Purim because, when asleep, we don’t know the difference between the phrases. Other Rabbis claim that, in fact, the difference between Haman and Mordecai, between evil and good, is sometimes minimal and that even the slightest amount of liquor might render us incapable of distinguishing between the two. Still others claim that there was a long poem sung on Purim which contained the words; “Cursed be Haman Blessed be Mordecai” which was really a type of a tongue twister and that, again, even the slightest amount of liquor would cause on to be unable to say the prayer.

The bottom line is that regardless of what the Talmud meant originally, we should not use Purim as an excuse to drink to excess. Proper celebration of this or other occasions are appropriate of course and each person can make their own decision concerning alcohol consumption but to say we have an obligation to get drunk on Purim is a horrendous thought. Too many people struggle with alcohol consumption and to minimize their issue with alcohol in this way is insulting and dangerous. And, certainly, those who are below drinking age should not be given alcohol or nor drink in honor of the holiday.


Our next class will deal with Pesach.

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