Alcohol has always been a part of my life as a Jew. Twice on Shabbat we make Kiddush over a wine and then the Havdala prayer is made over yet another cup of wine. On Passover we drink four cups of wine during the seder, on Simchat Torah we drink to be happy with the Torah and then there is the Jewish custom of making a "L’Chaim" toast with a cup of alcohol.
Clearly the consumption of strong drink is a powerful part of contemporary Jewish life. But should it be?
There are many examples where the Torah disapproves of getting drunk. The story of Noah and Lot in Genesis come immediately to mind. Both got drunk and the consequences were negative (Genesis, chapters 9 and 19). Maimonides makes it very clear that it is impossible to serve God when one is inebriated (Mishna Torah, Laws of Festivals, 7:20).
Yet the Talmud states that one should get drunk (Livsumai) on Purim to the extent that one cannot differentiate between “blessed is Mordecai and cursed is Haman,” (Meggilah, 7b). There is much discussion amongst Talmudic commentators whether this means that one should actually become intoxicated and if so to what extent. The consensus of rabbinic opinion seems to be that it is never desirable to becoming drunk--not even on Purim.
As to what the Talmud meant when it said that one should get drunk, some explain that the next story in the Talmud which talks about the murder (and subsequent revival) of Rav Zaira by Raba (two famous talmudic sages) while drunk on Purim is meant to negate the prior statement that encourages drinking (see Rabbanu Nissim). Others say that the word Livsumai does not mean to get drunk but rather means that one should drink a little more than usual (see Joseph Karo).
Saying 'L’Chaim' over hard liquor
After studying all of this it becomes clear that drinking to excess is seen within classical Judaism as reprehensible. The question then begs to be asked: why is there a culture of excessive drinking of alcohol within many Orthodox Jewish circles. The answer is that many of the contemporary Orthodox communities hail from Eastern Europe and Russia where excessive drinking is part of the culture.
In Russia, for example, it is customary to drink vodka whenever people get together with friends--toasting over vodka even in the workplace or on the train is very common in Russia. Clearly, pre-war Orthodox Jews living in the Pale of Settlement adopted the local drinking culture, albeit in a Judaized manner. Today this has continued and saying multiple L’Chaims with friends has now become a normal part of Orthodox Jewish life.
Recognizing where this comes from is important, because the argument has been made that saying "L’Chaim" over hard liquor is an authentic Jewish custom. This is far from the truth. Making Kiddush and using wine for sanctity is indeed a Jewish custom. However, drinking to excess in the manner that is found in certain parts of Eastern Europe and Russia in antithetical to Judaism and to authentic Jewish values.
Serving God with joy is a biblical precept (Deuteronomy, 28:47) and most major Jewish sages from throughout the ages have accepted that this cannot be done when inebriated. Nonetheless Judaism believes that a small amount of alcohol can augment our service of God. The difference between Judaism and other religions, in this regard, is that our religion gives us the responsibility of moderating our own alcohol consumption. This is a trustworthiness that must be cherished and never abused.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is author of Jewish Wisdom for Business Success: Lesson from the Torah and Other Ancient Texts
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