Rava’s position in the gemara is famous:
רבא מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי
Rava obligated people to drink on Purim until he would not know between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordachai”.
This is the law as recorded in the Shulchan Arukh (O”Ch 695:2) , although his other work, the Beis Yoseif, does explore other opinions. Those who can’t believe that it could possibly be Jewish to get that drunk offer other explanations. E.g. the Rambam’s position is that one should drink until they fall asleep, at which time they are unaware of the distinction between Haman and Mordachai. The Mei’iri maintains the literal meaning, but warns that the obligation not to make a fool of oneself and of the Torah overrides this obligation; it only applies to people who can maintain self-control. The Rama (O”Ch ad loc) writes that the obligation is simply to drink more than usual.
Another possibility which sets the required amount of drink quite low is offered by the Marahil, who notes that in gematrai, “arur Haman” and “barukh Mordachai” are equal, both come to 502. The Maharil suggests that the obligation is to get too drunk to do the math.
Along similar lines, I would point out that the distinction that is to get blurred isn’t between Haman and Mordachai, but between cursing Haman and blessing Mordachai. Between knowing when to attack evil and when to build good. Which is pretty hard to know even when sober!
But what happens in all these explanations to the words of the gemara?
What is often omitted is the rest of the discussion of this obligation. The gemara continues:
רבה ורבי זירא עבדו סעודת פורים בהדי הדדי איבסום קם רבה שחטיה לרבי זירא למחר בעי רחמי ואחייה לשנה אמר ליה ניתי מר ונעביד סעודת פורים בהדי הדדי אמר ליה לא בכל שעתא ושעתא מתרחיש ניסא
Raba and Rabbi Zeira made a Purim meal together. They got drunk. Raba got up and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira. The next day, [Raba] begged for [Divine] Mercy, and [Rabbi Zeira] came to life.
A year later, [Rabba] said to him, “Come, master, and we will make a Purim meal together.”
He said to him, “Not every time will we experience a miracle.”
A cautionary tale, Rava’s is not the final word on the subject.
There are some hints that more is going on here. Rabba’s name means “large” or “great”. “Zeira” is Aramaic for “young” (c.f. Hebrew “tza’ir“) or “small”.
Rav Elyakim Getzel Levitan, the Maggid of Brisk, (cited in Kehilas Yitzchak by R Yitzchok Reitbard, in Pirchei Nisan to Parashas Mikeitz) cites a number of sources to show the personalities of these two amora’im. (R’ Levitan says that Chavos Yair 152 speaks about this. I didn’t have a chance to look it up, and I wanted to post this before Purim. Kehilas Yitzchak directs us to Hagahos R’ Shaul Katzenelenbogen, Berachos 30b, which is printed in the Vilna Shas. it’s worth looking up.)
Shabbos 30b says that Rabbah would begin every shiur with a milsa dibedichusa, a humorous and entertaining thought. As for R’ Zeira, Niddah 23a has R Yirmiyah trying to cheer him up, and Sanhedrin 59b has R Avahu calling him by the name of a bird with a mournful dispoition.
In addition to the sources provided by the Maggid of Brisk, there is also a story in which Rabbah makes a man (presumably a golem) and sends it as a gift to R’ Zeira (Sanhedrin 65b). When Rabbi Zeira spoke to it and it wouldn’t answer, R’ Zeira realized it was made by a sage and told it to return to dust. In another gemara (Berakhos 57a), we are told that Rabbi Zeira moved to Israel from Bavel after being told in a dream that his sins were forgiven. First he took efforts to forget the Babylonian mode of study. Then R’ Zeira went in such haste, “to obtain a blessing denied Moshe and Aharon”, he crossed the Jordan by foot without taking the time to change out of his clothes!
To generalize, then, the gemara draws Rabba as a cheerful teacher who tried to share his joy of life with his students, as well as with R’ Zeira. Rabbi Zeira, at least at the time Rabbah knew him in Bavel, as a sad person (perhaps he lived in the shadow of belief that he was an undeserving sinner).
One was “Rabba – Great” the other “Rabbi Zeira — the smaller rabbi”.
Perhaps a reference to the ideas of Gadlus haMochin and Qatnus haMochin. (Hat tip to Dr Alan Morinis for introducing me to these concepts. Any mis-presentation, though, would be due to my trying to understand the ideas while coming from a fundamentally different upbringing. As you shall see, my presentation draws from my YU-based upbringing, and is therefore not necessarily loyal to the more chassidic worldview from which is comes.)
Gadlus haMochin, literally: Greatness of Mind, is the entire mindset that breeds self-confidence, security. In Modern Orthodox parlance, it is Adam I — the last element in Bereishis ch. 1′s description of creation, ready and confident that he can recreate the world and conquer it. Qatnus haMochin is more Adam II. The Adam of chapter 2 is lonely and seeks companionship, reaches out in need to the A-lmighty. Gadlus haMochin strives to understand G-d, Qatnus haMochin is the intimate experience of Him that comes so readily in times of trouble. Gadlus serves through ahavah and yir’as haRomemus (love of G-d and awe of His Greatness), qatnus through yir’as ha’onesh and yir’as hacheit (fear of punishment or fear of the failing of the sin itself). Returning to Rav Soloveichik’s language — advance and retreat. “Yes I can!” and “Yeah, but…”
Rabba served G-d through gadlus hamochin, constantly looking at the joyous possibilities. Rabbi Zeira, at least in Bavel, served through qatnus, through caution, taking each step as though looking for possible land-mines. (Perhaps this is why Rabbi Zeira took efforts to forget his former mode of thought as part of his aliyah to Israel.)
Think of the worse curse we can think for someone. In the weekday Amidah we curse those who slander and work against the community. Who thereby endanger other Jews. (Actually, the earlier version was against apostates;
but many historians believe that in both cases the reference was to the early Christians who were willing to endanger the rest of us in order to endear themselves to the Romans. Not that it helped keep them from being fed to the lions.)
So here we are, cursing turncoats and apostates, and what’s the horrible fate we foresee G-d meting out to them? “And for the informers, let there be no hope.”
There is a famous notion in the gemara “nichnas yayin, yatza sod — wine enters, secrets (or: the foundations) go out” (Eiruvin 65a). Rabba drank wine, and out came his fundamental cheerfulness. Rabbi Zeira drank wine, and he got enmired in hopelessness.
Rav Zeira imbibed wine, and out came his fundamental pessimism. He lost hope. He was slain.
Taanis 22a tells the story of how Rav Beroqa of Benei Chuza’a (perhaps: from among the seers) would go to the market of Lapat and meet Eliyahu haNavi. One time he asked the prophet if anyone in the market was deserving of the World To Come. The prophet said no. (Rabbi Aqiva Eiger understands this gemara to mean that none were deserving before going through the trials and atonement of death.)
In the course of other encounters, Eliyahu pointed out a jailer who kept the men and women separate, and would dress as a non-Jew to get information back to the Jewish people. (Note the contrast to the aforementioned turncoats.)
The story ends with Eliyahu pointing to two brothers who happened just then to pass by. Rav Beroqa approached the men and asked what they did for a living. They explained they they were jesters, their job was to cheer up unhappy people and to heal disagreements between people.
There is a time for Qatnus haMochin, for caution, for “yeah-but”, for facing our troubles and seeking Hashem’s support — but not Purim. The happiness that comes from hope, from focusing on opportunity, is an essential element of the day. The smoothing over of past grievances, the unity and happiness of mishloach manos. What is Purim about if not the story of redemption from invisible and unexpected places?
And so, a person is obligated to drink on Purim, but only if he is Rabba, where wine will bring out the joys of potential. Rav Zeira should follow the Rama’s advise, and spend the afternoon napping, in a vacation from his worries. Barukh Mordachai and Arur Haman.
Let me leave you with this litmus test for which approach to take:
If you find yourself reaching for a drink to celebrate Purim, drink, it’s a mitzvah!
But if you find yourself celebrating Purim because it’s a license to drink, don’t!
(For the curious: In Ben Asher, the mesoretic text considered more authoritative, the name is written “מָרְדֳּכַ֗י”, with a chataf qamatz under the dalet. For that reason I transliterated it “Mordachai”, with an “a” after the “d”, not the more common “Mordechai”. In any case, the first vowel is a qamatz qatan, closer to the long /ō/ sound of a cholam than the usual qamatz.)