Jews are commanded to drink four full cups at the traditional Passover Seder (meal) and the festival of Purim is a time of licensed alcoholic excess. Yet the Torah explicitly condemns the sin of drunkenness. What then is the truth about Jews and alcohol?
Wine is regarded as particularly sacred and has its own brachah (blessing). Wine sanctifies the Sabbath at its inception (kiddush) and its conclusion (havdalah). The English word wine may derive from the Hebrew yayin.
Jews like to see themselves as restrained drinkers. However, recent statistics suggest that Jews are just as susceptible to the lure of alcohol as most people in modern society, as the parade of overly-enthusiastic biblical tipplers surely bears out!
Noah was the first man to plant a vine, says the Bible. He was also the first to become intoxicated by its product, leading his children to uncover him sleeping naked. Noah’s resultant shame is construed as criticism of excessive drinking.
Lot became drunk and was seduced by his daughters. Aaron’s two sons were killed for officiating as priests while drunk. They had committed a sin as defined in Leviticus 10. Likewise, judges were forbidden to sit in judgement if they were drunk.
The High Priest Eli suspected, incorrectly, that Hannah was drunk when she prayed with such fervour for a child at the Shiloh Tabernacle (Book of Samuel). The pious Nazirites (Judges) took a vow of abstention from drink. Yet at the end of the vow’s remit, the Nazirite would make a sin offering for having given up the pleasures of God’s world. Psalm 104 proclaims that alcohol “rejoices the heart of man”.
Only on Purim (when Jews commemorate the brave Queen Esther for saving her people from certain death) are Jews encouraged to drink to excess. One custom even decrees that a Jew should drink ‘until he does not know’ (ad-lo-yada in Hebrew) the difference between Mordechai (their loyal leader) and Haman (the evil betrayer).
Chassidic Jews offended other Jews by praying while inebriated in the 18th century. They counter-argued that everyone should worship God in joy. The Talmud rules that drunkenness is no excuse for your bad actions; even business deals enacted while drunk are considered valid.