Parshat Shemini (2012)
What the Torah Tells Us About Holding Your Drink
In this weeks parsha, we read of the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon who died after brining “aish zarah / strange fire” in their incense pans and placed it upon the altar. The scheme of the parasha like most of this book does not go in chronological order necessarily, but this incident hangs over the whole parsha. We aren’t exactly sure what this means.The sages gives us the opinions that either they arrogantly brought foreign corruption upon the sacred altar, others suggest that they were caught up in a form of fatal religious ecstasy. (see Leviticus 10:1-2)
Though we aren’t sure exactly for what reason they died, it was such a dramatic and heartbreaking loss on the day of the inauguration of the Mishkan – the Tabernacle Sanctuary – that G-d changes directions. Up until now He speaks to Mosheh – to Moses – but now in compassion He reaches out to Aharon directly.
“And Hashem spoke to Aharon saying:
You shall not drink strong wine to intoxication,
nor your sons,
when you enter into the Ohel Moed [the Tent of Meeting]
so that you do not die.
This is an eternal statute throughout your generations.”
| Vayedaber Hashem el-Aharon lemor:
| Yayin veshechar al-tesht atah
| itach bevo’achem el-Ohel Mo’ed
| velo tamutu,
| chukat olam ledoroteichem.
Does that mean that one is not allowed to drink wine when on duty? Not necessarily. The key word here in our text here is veshechar – from the simple Hebrew word “shechar / to make one drunk.” Rashi citing the opinion of the Sifra says that this doesn’t mean just to drink alcoholic beverages; but to drink a lot, undiluted, and uninterrupted until it leads to intoxication. (Sifra/Torat Kohanim 10:35) Because the key point is intoxication Ibn Ezra and the Sadia Gaon say this also applies to any other intoxicant aside from wine as well.
Noticing that this comes just after Moses instructed Aharon regarding the proper practice of the priestly duties, and immediately after the instructions regarding ritual purity. (see Parshat Shemini-2011) If we look at the text it is not hard to understand that the prohibition against Temple service while intoxicated is to safeguard one from accidents that could result in death. This ritual service is powerful and needs to be taken on with solemness, intention and sobriety.
But it’s more than just that. The priests not only had to take into consideration their own ritual cleanliness, but also that of the people they were appointed to serve. Notice the Torah continues on by stating it this way:
“So that you will be able to distinguish
between holy and profane (or the common),
and between the ritually unclean and the pure.”
| bein hakodesh uvein hachol
| uvein hatame uvein hatahor.
Though strictly speaking, like most of the laws of Leviticus, these were originally mostly intended to apply to the Levitical priests and sons of Aharon. The priests acted in many functions, their chief responsibilities were not just to ritual but also serving as the physicians. Peoples inflictions and infections would be examined and a course of action prescribed, then followed up with them to insure they were cured.
But the post-Temple world, in the absence of the Temple cult and the change of station regarding purity in this void (all of us being ritually unclean, because we don’t have the Temple there is no essential remedy nor application for cultic purity) our rabbis broadened these commandments and helped apply them to the everyday lives of the common Jew.
But for the rabbis, the teachers and legal chiefs of our people, they also took from it a very solemn personal understanding based on the continuing verse:
“To instruct [also render decisions]
the Children of Israel
in the statutes
that Hashem spoken unto you
from the hand of Moses”
| et-benei Yisrael
| et kol-hachukim
| asher diber Hashem aleihem
The sanheidrin, the assembly of the people always existed since biblical times in some fashion. (see Parshat Shoftim 2011) But in the absence of an active priesthood many of the functions fell squarely on the shoulders of the scholars and sages – our rabbis. They began to instruct and became the only body of people to render decisions and instructions for us. They declared that we should understand this to mean that one should not lay down halachic decisions when intoxicated. The priests weren’t allowed, neither should we. Not that the position is the same, the level of severity for an intoxicated priest is seemingly great enough to demand the death penalty, but it is not so for a mere teacher from among the congregation of Israel. That does not mean that one’s intoxication might not lead to their death, but it doesn’t demand it either in the case of a scholar. (see Rashi for v.11)
But as we look over this text we can begin to see that safety is not the only key issue here. The other is that one is not able to give judgment on matters of good and bad, sacred and profane when impaired. How can one whose senses are numbed and is not of a clear mind be able to distinguish between the two? This reason of temperance to maintain responsibility is equally important. Rashi teaches us in his commentary for verse 10 that a priest who performs any type of service or work his deeds are “avodato pesulah / his service is invalid” when drunk. Not just invalid but pasul – meaning inappropriate.
Just because Torah nor Jewish Law demands exacting punishment doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences when one gives in to debauchery. (see “When Redemption Turns Fatal: Atonement and the implications of premature death”) But we cannot safeguard ourselves, nor be useful and appropriate when we do not have the clarity of mind to distinguish between good and bad.
Our tradition, where as it demands solemn sobriety of mind when it comes to our responsibilities, it does not demand that we become teetotalers. Halacha does not demand that we go dry and abstain. Though notice that here the text does step out of the normal mode of narrative with G-d Himself speaking to an individual and asking them to warn for future generations of the dangers of losing ones sensibility to inebriation.
Wine is a very important part of our tradition, we make Kiddish on it because it is a symbol of joy and celebration for each Shabbat and holiday. We are just coming out of Pesach with the four large cups we drink. Alcohol is not something taboo or disapproved; in fact if anything it is prescribed. So much so that some people make issue with one certain holiday because in all Jewish communities we are accustomed to drinking significantly on it; it is on Purim, which we celebrated just a few short months ago. And it is ordinarily prescribed that we not just drink, but drink to full intoxication. This is not just some obscure tradition by any measure, it comes from the Talmud itself.
Let us look at this text because it also gives us some good historical background and a good lesson to learn about how to handle our drink when we are partying. The Mishnah states:
“Rava said: It is the duty of a man
to make himself bisumi
[intoxicated, lucid, mellow]
on Purim until
he doesn’t know the difference between
‘Cursed is Haman’ and
‘Blessed is Mordechi.'”
אמר רבא מיחייב איניש |
עד דלא ידע בין |
ארור המן |
לברוך מרדכי |
Mishnah, Megilah 7b
According to our tradition, we are told by the Mishnah, the highest and authoritative level of oral tradition and case law, that one is to become intoxicated and make revelry until he cannot distinguish the difference between the mention of the name of evil Haman and saintly Mordechi during the reading of Megillat Esther. We begin to enjoy ourselves and loosen up to the point that not even the mention of our foe can bring us down – its all good in our haze of liquid joy and communal celebration. We are encouraged to get caught up in the ecstasy.
Now historicallyy we should understand that wine in the biblical times was not just for celebration, it was also used for everyday table use as a regular drink like we would soda, tea or juice today at our dinner table. Water was often of such poor quality wine was safer to drink, and to avoid intoxication wine would be watered down. In this diluted and yet still acidic state the plain water would not be as harmful or foul-tasting. Not that all wine was made to be highly intoxicating to begin with.
In fact to reach intoxication often times fragrant spices (Heb. basamim) and other additives were loaded into wine and drinks. Even resins (such as from the balsam tree, see בלסם) were known to be utilized by the Greeks for causing elucidation and intoxication. Others uses myrrh and frankincense as well in the days of the Temple and rishonim. For this reason it makes sense that many of the sages interpret in our parsha the word yayin to mean “strong drink” and insist it does not merely mean wine. It is spiked wine made for intoxication, with the aim of unbridled tipsiness; or bisum in modern Hebrew.
Our rabbis and our own linguistic deduction shows us the same reasoning of the rabbis. We can see they are correct in their assertion that in our parasha’s use of the word v’shachar means “to the point of intoxication” is correct; that one should not run around shikur (Heb. drunk) all that time. We are to be cautious so that intoxication does not lead to a lack of reasoning and enviably our harm.
Yes our tradition allows us to embrace the ecstasy! But the Gemara gives us a warning to not get overwhelmed by it:
“Rava and Rabbi Zera
made their Purim feast
with one another.
They became drunk;
Rava arose and slaughtered Rabbi Zera.
The next day, he asked for mercy for him,
and his life was resuscitated.
The next year, he [Rava] said to him:
‘Let my Master come
and we shall make a Purim feast
with one another.’
He [Rabbi Zera] said to him:
‘Miracles don’t happen every single time.'”
רבה ורבי זירא |
עבדו סעודת פורים |
הדדי איבסום |
קם רבה שחטיה לרבי זירא |
למחר בעי רחמי |
לשנה אמר ליה |
ניתי מר |
ונעביד סעודת פורים |
בהדי הדדי |
אמר ליה |
לא בכל שעתא ושעתא מתרחיש ניסא |
Gemara, Megillah 7b
Some scholars contend this is just an allegory. Others who are more mystical take this completely literally. We see two rabbis celebrating Purim and are discharging their obligation to drink to intoxication and celebration. As they are drunk Rava takes out his shochet’s knife – a knife for kosher ritual slaughtering of animals for food – and slits the neck of his friends and companion Rabbi Zera. When Rava wakes up in the morning and realizes what he has done, as a learned man of medicine and as a tzaddik – a righteous and saintly man – he quickly acted. After praying for mercy for his companion, he was brought back to life.
As intense as this crisis is, in the end Rabbi Zera and all of us understand that he was intoxicated and not within his proper state of mind. He does not seem to be punished or held criminally accountable nor sued for negligence. And there is no bad blood between the rabbis even after this whole event. The love was still there, but that doesn’t mean he needed to go there again. Having adverted danger before, it was better to be on the safe side.
The Torah doesn’t demand that we avoid the drink, but it most certainly does insist that we avoid harmful situations; not relying on miracles or fate to rescue us.