Simchat Purim :
A conceptual analysis of the mitzva of simcha on Purim.
Of all the festive days in our calendar, Purim could truly be described as our most “wild”. There is the frenzied delivering of Mishloach Manot and the sometimes raucous Megilla readings and of course, the costumes; people masquerading as anything from Rav Ovadia Yosef to Madonna. But the real wildness comes in that famous Mitzva mentioned in the Gemara (Megilla 7b) – that Mitzva of drinking. It has already been noted by our commentators , that getting catatonically drunk is a most un-Jewish way of acting. It is indeed strange that this activity is nor just a minhag. It is halachically mandated by many authorities .
Our shiur this week is going to attempt to take a look “behind the scenes” at the mitzva of “simcha” – rejoicing or maybe feasting – on Purim. We will be looking at a variety of halakhic sources to try to decode the inner dynamic of this revelry, and we will – of course – try to explain the strange mitzva of getting drunk within the rubric of the Purim festivities.
The material in this shiur is not my own. The ideas and mekorot presented here are my notes from a shiur that I heard this year from Rav Yosef Blau the Mashgiach Ruchani of Yeshiva University.
MEKOROT AND QUESTIONS FOR CHAVRUTA STUDY
- Defining the Mitzva of Simcha:
- Shabbat :Hil. Shabbat 30:1
- Yom Tov :Hil. Yom Tov 6:16-17 , 20
- Purim :Hil. Megilla 2:15
How does Simcha appear in Purim as opposed to that of Shabbat or Yom Tov?
- How does Avelut affect Purim (or Purim affect Avelut)? If Purim is a somewhat happy day should mourning not be in some way annulled?
- Tur Orach Chayim 696
- Rambam Hilchot Evel 11:3
- Hallel on Purim : Why don’t we say Hallel?
See the Gemara Megilla 14a “Tanu Rabbana 48 neviim … akkati avdei Achashverosh annan”
THE SHIUR SECTION:
The Rambam’s Mishne Torah has always been perceived as a masterpiece of order and classification. Another hallmark of this supreme work is the Rambam’s brevity of language. Maimonides will frequently teach us a revolutionary new concept by simply classifying a halakha in an unusual location or by a particular turn of phrase. Much of our shiur will focus on the specific way in which the Rambam codifies the halakhic obligation of “simcha” – rejoicing – on the Shabbat and Chagim (festivals). A comparison of the Rambam’s formulations in a variety of places will assist us in our analysis and precise understanding of his comments as regards the Halchot of Purim.
SHABBAT AND YOM-TOV
In Hilchot Shabbat the Rambam does not list any Halakhic category that might be described as “simcha”. Instead, he talks about two Rabbinic commands: 1. Kibbud and 2. Oneg. Let us get a glimpse of these concepts through the Rambam’s codification in Hilchot Shabbat (Chap 30).
“Kavod Shabbat includes the wearing of clean clothing and that one’s clothing on Shabbat differ from week-day dress … and the table is set for the Friday night meal … in order to honour Shabbat … and the lights should be lit, the table set and the beds made ….
What is Oneg? … the choicest of meals, the best wines according to economic ability … three meals on Shabbat …”
The category of Kavod would seem to relate to pre-Shabbat preparations, whereas Oneg is the physical enjoyment of Shabbat itself. Kavod is a reverence for Shabbat, treating the advent of the day with an air of veneration. Oneg relates to the food and warm atmosphere and rest of the Shabbat experience. The term “simcha” however, is a category that is not found in Hilchot Shabbat. It is in connection with Yom Tov that this halakhic category is found.
I say this because the Rambam is rather precise here. In Hilchot Yom Tov (6:16), Maimonides describes the categories of Kavod and Oneg just like Shabbat. However the Rambam continues (Hilchot Yom Tov 6:17-18):
“For the duration of the seven days of Pesach and the eight days of Sukkot and all other festivals, eulogies and fasts are prohibited. Every person must be happy and in an elevated mood; him, his spouse and children and all the wider family as the Torah details: ‘You shall rejoice on your festival.’ Even though the Torah here is describing “simcha” in terms of the Chagiga sacrifice … the celebration of the family is included too.
For children, one buys food treats, for women one buys new clothes and jewelry – all in accordance with one’s budget, and men eat meat and drink wine … and when one eats one must include the stranger, the orphan and widow and all the poor who feel neglected. One who closes his front door, eating and drinking with the family, but does not feed the poor and the outcast letting them share his drink, this is not the “celebration of mitzva” (simchat mitzva) but rather a self fulfilling indulgent celebration.”
So apparently the Rambam has a mitzva of Simcha on Chagim. This is a family celebration, which includes festive meals. The Rambam explains that every member of the family should have something, which they enjoy, and he relates differently to men, women and children in this respect. He also tells us that we dare not close ourselves off during the festive season. We must share our table, and our rejoicing with the outsiders of society. But one further Halacha is important for our purposes. It will be an interesting contrast to Hilchot Purim.
“When a person celebrates on the Festival (Regel) he should not be drawn towards excess of wine, and silly, light-headed partying justifying his actions by saying that the more one ‘parties’ the more one fulfils the mitzva of “simcha”. Drunkenness, excessive revelry and unrestrained “letting go” is not “simcha”. It is foolishness and unbridled wildness. We were not instructed to do this … but rather “simcha” that has at its centre, the ‘service of the Creator’.” (ibid. 6:20)
Let us now look at the Rambam in Hilchot Purim (Hil. Purim 2:14-15)
“The mitzva of the day of the 14th … is that it be a day of rejoicing (simcha), feasting and sending food gifts to friends and gifts to the poor. … The practice of rejoicing (simcha) and feasting is only during the day … a feast of Purim (the festive Purim meal – Seudat Purim) that was celebrated at night, does not fulfill the mitzva.
What is the nature of this obligatory festive meal? It is that one eats meat and creates a festive meal according to his means. He drinks wine until he GETS DRUNK and falls asleep in his drunkenness ….”
So our question is quite obvious. What is the nature of the “simcha” of Purim? A moment ago, the Rambam told us that festival celebration should be directed to God’s service and should not include wild drunkenness. Now he tells us that Seudat Purim should include drink and drunkenness. So, it’s true that the Rambam does not tell us to go on a drunk rampage. He advises us to go to sleep. But still, what is the nature of the Purim celebration that drink is so essential an element ?
TEST CASE (1): AVELUT
If we wish to examine the nature of “simcha” the best way is to “test” this simcha by examining how it responds to contradictory forces. In this way, we can see how strong or weak it is. The test that we are going to apply is that of Avelut. Mourning is the antithesis to rejoicing. How do the Halachot of Avelut (mourning) apply to a day, which is defined as a festive day?
ON SHABBAT, we find that a mourner (someone who is “sitting Shiva”) does not express any outer symbols of mourning: the mourner does not sit on a low stool and changes his clothes , leaves the house to shul etc. In private, certain laws apply, however it would seem that the mourning is somehow suspended for the duration of Shabbat. At the end of Shabbat , however, the mourner will resume his Avelut in full force, resuming all the laws of “Shiva”.
ON YOM TOV, there is a more remarkable law. Yom Tov CANCELS a Shiva. If a person sat Shiva for a day before chag (or even an hour, a minute!) the advent of the Yom Tov sweeps away the seven initial days of mourning. On the Yom Tov/chag, there is NO mourning, neither in public nor in private.
Let us examine these laws. It would that mourning is contradictory to the elevated spirit of Shabbat, and hence, the active state of mourning GIVES WAY to Shabbat. Here Shabbat has a certain power to suspend mourning practices. But, on Yom Tov, where there is a specific obligation of “simcha”, the halakha sees Yom Tov as totally overpowering mourning to the point that it leaves no trace. The mourning is eradicated in the face of the simcha of the Yom Tov!
How about Purim? Clearly, we might be able to assess the nature of “simcha” on Purim by examining the way in which it responds to Avelut. In this matter the Gemara and early sources are silent. The question is raised, however by the Rishonim, and a difference of opinion is brought in the Tur (Orach Hayim #696):
Opinion 1. Sheiltot : Purim annuls a Shiva (like Yom Tov)
Opinion 2. Maharam of Rotenberg : No public mourning on Purim (like Shabbat)
But what of the Rambam? Until now, we have been discussing his view of things. The Rambam (Hilchot Evel 11:3) states:
“On Chanukah and Purim (and Rosh Chodesh) we do not eulogise the dead, however all manner of mourning is practiced”
According to the Rambam, there is NO real reduction in mourning practices. Does this imply that there is no “simcha” in Purim? What is the Rambam trying to say? After all the sheiltot equated Purim to Yom Tov, and the Maharam equated it to the status of Shabbat. Does the Rambam not see any contradiction, any conflict between Purim and mourning?
TEST CASE (2)
A second “test case” mentioned by Rabbi Blau is the Halakha of “EIN me’arvin simcha besimcha”. This applies to marriages on a festival (or chol hamoed). The Gemara tell us that we do not arrange weddings over the chag because we do not want to “mix” one simcha with the other. A variety of reasons are suggested for this Halacha. But at least one view sees the problem as somehow, the simcha being confused, overstepping its boundaries. The simcha of Yom Tov is one thing and the celebration of a wedding is another thing. One should not infringe on the other. They should be separated.
On Purim, once again, the Rishonim (The Rashba and so it would seem from the Rambam) have no problem with a wedding that is held on Purim itself. Does this mean that Purim is not a day of “simcha” – halachically mandated rejoicing?
One other interesting thing about Purim is that we do not recite Hallel. Why not? The Gemara (Megilla 14a) discusses this question and gives three possible answers:
- That miracles in chutz la’aretz do not warrant Hallel
- The reading of the Megilla constitutes in some way, a form of Hallel 
- “Rava says, there (in Hallel) it states “Servants of God, Praise (God)!) because we are servants of God and not the slaves of Pharaoh, but here … we are still the slaves of Achashverosh!)
Rav Soloveichik dwelt upon this third reason. Is the Purim story not impressive enough to say Hallel? What does the Gemara mean when it says “we are still slaves of Achashverosh.”?
SUBSTANTIAL CHANGE AND TEMPORAL CHANGE.
Rav Soloveichik explains: Purim is a remarkable story. The Jews go from potential annihilation to their salvation (and toppling their enemies) in a remarkably short time. However, where are the Jews left after this story? If she wanted to could Esther say to Achashverosh, “Darling, it’s been nice, but I’d really prefer a Jewish husband. Let’s get a divorce!” And can Prime Minister Mordechai tell the king that he is leaving his post to join his fellow brethren building the ruins of Jerusalem. No! “we are still slaves of Achashverosh.” We are still dependent. We are not on our own turf. At any moment the situation could reverse and there could be another threat to Jewish existence. Our safety is not dependent on us. It is subject to the whim of the emperor Achashverosh.
This is totally different to our three festivals (regalim). They all celebrate the Jewish people taking independent steps to develop their own national culture. Pesach the festival of freedom when we received our independence. Shavuot when we received our national mission. And Sukkot which is symbolic of God’s protection on our journey to statehood, to Eretz Yisrael. Even the agricultural aspects of the festivals relate to the economy of a sovereign nation in their own land. There is something very concrete about these festivals. Even Chanukah is a celebration of Jewish Independence (see Rambam’s Hil. Chanukah).
But Purim. After the events of Purim, where are we? We are still dependent. What does that mean about the Simcha of Purim? The simcha of Purim is illusory. The next day, the Jews still have to “watch their backs.” Yes – the danger has been averted, the threat is removed, but, the coast is not clear. The simcha is a temporal simcha, not a free standing simcha.
This relates to Hallel. The simcha, which warrants Hallel, is an event, which changed the destiny of the Jews in a fundamental way a transformatory act. In the festival of Purim the state of the Jewish nation did not change substantially.
Maybe this explains the nature of the simcha of Purim. It is not a simcha like a “regel”. The simcha of a regel is rooted, substantive. It is a national holiday, which overwhelms all private sadness. It is a statement about the nation and the rejoicing should be happy but with sober thanks to God and an understanding of the Jewish mission.
Purim does not have that robustness. The simcha is more flimsy. The day of Purim cannot stand on its own two feet, resisting mourning and other clashes. Purim as a day has a less thorough simcha. The day is not infused with Simcha.
But when is there simcha? At the se’uda. At the festive meal, we sing and dance and get drunk. Why drink? Because when we are drunk, we are euphoric, we are happy. But we also know that this happiness will be gone in a few hours. By tomorrow, we will have a headache. The simcha of Purim is temporary. It is high in intensity – Oh yes! – it is the joy of the person who has been saved from great danger, but it is not long-lasting. The simcha of Purim is not a transformatory simcha, it is not a “Hallel” type of simcha that infuses the entire day.
So we see something interesting about the nature of the joy of Purim and we understand a little better the reason why drunkenness is an appropriate symbol of Purim. We should also realize a further thing. Frequently, we celebrate all our festivals in similar ways. Similar clothes, similar meals , identical atmosphere. But in Halacha, every festival has a unique personality, every occasion is singular. The dancing on Purim and the atmosphere at the se’uda should be in some way different to that of Chanuka, and certainly different to Seder night, to Leil Shavuot. We enrich our Torah observance when we differentiate and accentuate the singularity of each of our festive days.
Purim Sameach ! and… don’t get too drunk!!!
 See the Biur Halakha of the Hafetz Chayim on Orach Chayim 695 loc cit. Chayav Innish.
 Shulchan Aruch and comments of Rav Moshe Isserliss. Orach Chayim 695:2
 There are those who have proposed the central role of drink as a reflection of the Megilla in which drink features rather prominently: at the 180 day feast of Achashverosh, in the parties (mishte hayayin) that Esther made for Haman and Achashverosh. etc.
 On this basis , the Meiri suggests that if one does not have a Kosher Megilla, one should read Hallel instead!