More Than Funny


The Talmud records that according to one authority of the late third century, Jews are obligated to drink as much wine on Purim as it would take to obliterate the difference between “Cursed be Haman” and “Blessed be Mordechai” (Megillah 7b).   Yet this requirement to overindulge to the point of disorientation is immediately followed by a cautionary tale.  Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira jointly organized a Purim feast in which both fulfilled the obligation to drink.  But in his drunken state Rabbah slit the throat of his rabbinic colleague and killed him.  When Rabbah sobered up the next day and realized what he had done, he prays – successfully – for his colleague’s revival.  The next year, Rabbah invites Rabbi Zeira to join him once again in Purim celebration.  This time, however, Rabbi Zeira declines on the grounds that he cannot count on another miracle.

Professor Eliezer Diamond interprets this passage as an example of Talmudic humor.  In declining Rabbah’s invitation Rabbi Zeira is not expressing a loss of faith but a new found discretion.  It is not a factual report on resurrection but a joke.  Since Purim is the quintessential day of joy and laughter in the Jewish calendar, there is much to recommend this interpretation.

Alternatively, the Talmudic story may have been intended to serve two entirely different purposes. 

First, the passage may have been intended to extol the power and virtue of prayer.  So great is the power of prayer – at least from the mouths of the worthy – that it can bring the dead back to life.  Prayer has the capacity to defeat death.  This is not necessarily the case all the time.  That is why Rabbi Zeira declines the subsequent invitation.  There is no guarantee that Rabbah’s prayer would be equally effective the next year should he, in a drunken stupor, commit the same act.  But prayer must never be dismissed as a weapon in fighting against the forces arrayed against us that seem to be insurmountable.

Second, the passage may have been intended to reinforce the concept that those engaged in the performance of a mitzvah are protected from harm.  Thus in preparation for Passover, the householder who extends a hand into a crevice to search for leaven is protected from a possible snakebite.  Here, too, if drinking excessively is a mitzvah on Purim, those who observe the mitzvah should not come to any harm.  This does not mean that after drinking excessively Jews today should drive without fear of losing control of a motor vehicle since, as Rabbi Zeira sensed, we do not rely on miracles and, in any case, drunk driving almost assures catastrophe and the likelihood of damage is an exception to the “protection” rule (Pesahim 8b).

In any case, there may be a hidden – and serious – message that lurks behind the humor of the Talmudic story.  Likewise, the Book of Esther makes no explicit mention of God yet lurking behind the often comical events of the story is the hand of God directing the outcome to what is for Jews a great victory.

Happy Purim!


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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