As Purim approaches, we encounter a Talmudic conundrum:
Rava said: One must become so intoxicated on Purim that he cannot distinguish between “Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai.” Rabbah and Rav Zeira celebrated the Purim feast together. They became intoxicated. Rabbah arose and slaughtered Rav Zeira. The next day, Rabbah prayed for mercy on Rav Zeira’s behalf and revived him. The following year, Rabbah said, “Let master come, and we will celebrate the Purim feast together.” Rav Zeira answered, “Not every time does a miracle occur.” Megillah (7b)
What is going on here? A holy Sage declares we must get whopping drunk on Purim. Another Sage obeys and gets so drunk that he slaughters a colleague, and yet the killer merits to have his resurrection prayer answered by G-d. Whoa. Let’s see what the commentators say.
Regarding Rava’s declaration, Rambam (the great rabbi/philosopher/doctor, Moses Maimonides) says one should simply drink more than usual - just enough so we fall asleep and thus can’t tell the difference between “Cursed is Haman, etc.”
Rav Ephraim says the story was included by the original editors of the Talmud in order to disprove Rava’s declaration that one must get drunk. But the Shulchan Aruch, (our modern and very Orthodox Code of Jewish Law) says, yes indeed - get drunk.
Of the story itself, Rambam’s son, R’ Avrohom says, this passage is an example of Talmudic hyperbole in a situation where the literal meaning is clearly impossible. Therefore, what really happened is that Rabbah struck R’ Zeira a serious blow on the neck, and the term “slaughter” is used because the neck is the location of ritual slaughter for kosher animals.
On the other hand, Maharsha says it was the intoxication itself which caused Rav Zeira’s near-death experience. Thus, after Rabbah plowed him with wine, he prayed that his friend would recover, and so he did.
But, according to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, we have not reached a proper interpretation until (1) we acknowledge that the simple meaning of the story is true (Rabbah and R’ Zeira got drunk and the former “slaughtered” the latter) and (2) our interpretation reveals an image of our Sages which befits their holy stature. Rebbe Schneerson accomplishes this task by comparing the Sages of our Purim story to Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, who entered the Holy Sanctuary while intoxicated (Vayikra Rabbah 12:1) and expired as a result. They too appear to have behaved inappropriately, yet Moses himself praises them (Leviticus 10:3).
OK, are we closer to understanding our conundrum, or even more confused? The answer can be found back on Day 283 of our Daf Yomi cycle at Eruvin 65a: “When wine enters, secrets come out.” These secrets are not your nasty college exploits but rather hidden meanings of Torah. If you drink the right amount and for the right reason, wine will help you uncover mystical secrets. Few people, however, have the capacity to drink just the right amount, and perhaps fewer still can maintain their holy intent once they’re nicely intoxicated.
Rabbah was able to use wine correctly because he had the right constitution and a mighty intellect. Rav Zeira preferred to plumb the depths of Torah in other ways. He gave Rabbah’s method a try one year and it nearly killed him. So the following year he politely declined.
May we all merit to find our own best ways to learn, and may we all occasionally step out of our comfort zones for the sake of Heaven.
Originally Published 3/1/2012 at the Jewish Journal