Purim – Women and Alcohol
Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman
She'elaDoes a woman have to drink on Purim?
Before we can discuss whether a woman has an obligation to drink to the point of inebriation on Purim, we must first examine whether such an obligation exists in general, for men or women.
The gemara (T.B. Megilla 7b) quotes Rava as saying “A person is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until he does not know the difference [between] cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai” While the gemara does not cite a contradictory halachic statement, it does bring the following curious story (agadata):
The Gemara relates that Rabba and Rabbi Zeira prepared a Purim feast with each other, and they became intoxicated to the point that Rabba arose and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira. The next day, when he became sober and realized what he had done, Rabba asked God for mercy, and revived him. The next year, Rabba said to Rabbi Zeira: Let the Master come and let us prepare the Purim feast with each other. He said to him: Miracles do not happen each and every hour, and I do not want to undergo that experience again. (translation Sefaria)
In an attempt to determine if the halacha is indeed in accordance with Rava many Rishonim debate the relationship between Rava’s statement and the following agadata – is it meant to be a proof or a refutation? While the Rif (Megilla 3b) and the Rosh (1:8) quote Rava verbatim, indicating that this is the halacha, Rabbeinu Efraim, the Meiri, and the Ran (on the Rif Megilla 3b) see the agadata as a demonstration of the dangers of overindulgence brought to refute, or greatly temper, Rava’s original statement. Therefore, they rule that while one should drink more than usual on Purim there is no obligation to get drunk.
Similarly, while many poskim rule like Rava they interpret the parameters of drinking in way that vastly mitigates the degree of inebriation. Rambam rules that one should only drink enough to make them drowsy so that they will sleep. Others provide more homiletic interpretations of what “the difference between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai” entails, all of which indicate that one should get tipsy, but not drunk (Tosafot Megillah 7b, Magen Avraham OC 695:3, Mishnah Berurah 695:4)
Rav Yosef Karo in the Beit Yosef cites more moderate opinions, but in the Shulchan Aruch (OC 695:2) he rules in accordance with the Rif, Rosh, and Tur, and quotes Rava verbatim – “One is obligated to become intoxicated until they don’t know the difference between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai.” The Rema, however, cites the Rambam, Kol Bo, and Maharil that one may fulfill the obligation by drinking a bit more than usual and sleeping. He concludes that “whether one drinks a lot or a little, their heart must be directed to heaven.”
The Mishnah Berurah rules in accordance with the Rema. In the Beiur Halacha he explains that Chazal instituted the mitzvah to drink so that we remember that the miracle occurred through the feasts of wine (mishtaot). Drinking is not an obligation, but rather a rather an optional mitzvah that enhances the joy of the feast and the day. He concludes with a reminder that one may not drink to a point that they may come to disregard other commandments like washing, benching, or lightheadedness and lewd behavior.
As is clear, many Poskim are wary about drinking to the point of inebriation. Additionally, not one of these sources above distinguish between men and women. In general, the laws of Purim apply to men and women alike (although there is some discussion regarding megillah reading). Specifically, it would seem that women should be included as the mitzvah of drinking is often understood as an aspect of the mitzvah of the Purim feast. Yet the lack of distinction between men and women does not necessarily prove none existed. It is possible that the unique formulation of the obligation “a man is obligated” is a distinction in and of itself, or that such a distinction may have been obvious based on sociological factors.
In the last century or so a number of prominent poskim (rabbinic decisors) have questioned whether women are included in this obligation. For example, Rav Wosner (Shut Shevet Halevi 10 18:2) rules that a woman is not obligated to get drunk based on a gemara in Ketubot (65a) that warns that too much wine causes women to behave lewdly. The gemara he cites discusses whether a husband must provide wine for his wife along with her daily fare. Based on this gemara the Shulchan Aruch and Rema, among others, rule that women are given a moderate portion of daily wine if that is the local custom (minhag hamakom). Their language implies that women should drink less than men, but that they may still drink in accordance with the local custom. Interestingly, in the very same teshuva Rav Wosner includes a cryptic parenthetical comment that seems to question whether the obligation of “ad dlo yada” applies for men today.
Similarly, Rav Shternbuch (Moadim u’Zmanim 190) rules that women are not obligated because they do not regularly get drunk and drunkenness could lead to serious sins. In the same passage Rav Shternbuch also mitigates the amount of alcohol men should drink. He explains that the institution of drinking with the Purim meal was meant to reflect contemporary celebratory feasts and that nowadays the norm is not to get drunk at such meals. Additionally, he explains that the original formulation of the obligation by Chazal meant a person should drink until the point of intoxication, but should stop before becoming intoxicated – ad v’lo ad bichlal (up to, but not including).
While some may balk at this double standard between man and women, it is inappropriate to dismiss opinions of such poskim without a second thought. In this case it seems reasonable to entertain the possibility that this distinction between men and women is at least partially based on physiological differences that still exist today. There are a plethora of studies indicating that women have a lower alcohol tolerance than men – meaning that the average woman gets drunk twice as fast as the average man, and overindulgence can pose a more significant threat to women’s health. (For example, see: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23500890, https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/moderate-drinking.htm, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17159008, https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199001113220205)
Additionally, it would be irresponsible to ignore the fact that inebriation makes a person even more vulnerable than usual, so a woman who chooses to drink on Purim should be careful to do so in a safe environment.
In summation, it is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to find a written source that expressly obligates women to drink to inebriation. Indeed, many poskim are unenthusiastic about men drinking that much as well. Barring extenuating circumstances, the Purim seudah (feast) on Purim should include some wine, and both men and women should drink a bit more than usual. While it may be permissible to drink more than that it is certainly prohibited to exceed one’s limits – one must be scrupulous not to bring themselves to a state where they might sin – this includes a state that may endanger one’s physical health. In cases where one is unsure of their limit they should be stringent with the biblical commandment of “v’nishmartem me’od lnafshoteichem” – you must safeguard yourselves – and be lenient regarding the rabbinic mitzvah of drinking. As the Rema states “whether one drinks a lot or a little, their heart must be directed to heaven.” I find it is harder to have the proper intention when overimbibing, and rather easier to tell myself that I am refraining from drinking for the sake of heaven.
Other notes to bear in mind: the overwhelming majority of poskim rule that the mitzvah only applies during the day, and not at night, and some limit it further to the seudah itself. Some poskim, such as Rashi, Rambam, and Rav Menasheh Klein, indicate that wine should be used for the mitzvah, or at least for the seudah.