In Vino Veritas: Antisemitism, Alcohol and Purim

18 Mar 2011 by CST

Jewish history is a somewhat lengthy subject, and the Jewish calendar (which is lunar with a solar correction and hence differs from the Gregorian calendar or strictly lunar calendars) is punctuated throughout the year with festivals, commemorations and various special events. Combine the two and quite often an aspect of Jewish religious or historical relevance can be found to chime with contemporary events.

In recent weeks, the media has alighted upon (real and alleged) instances of celebrity antisemitism, citing both drunkenness and egotistical behaviour. Turning to the Jewish calendar, we see that these cases coincide now with the festival of Purim, which, despite being about 2,400 years old, contains some of these elements, except on this occasion the alcohol has a Jewish connotation, in that it is Jews who are supposed to get drunk.

The celebrity antisemite of the Purim story is Haman, the prime minister of King Ahasuerus’ Persian kingdom. An impressively wide array of Jewish sources depict Haman as egotistical, arrogant etc; and, in a tale that resonates through the ages, he plans to kill all the Jews of the Empire after one of them, Mordechai, refuses to bow before him. The Jews are saved when the King’s newish (and Jewish) Queen, Esther, intercedes on their behalf. Haman and his ten sons end up hanged on the gallows that were intended for Mordechai. 

The full story is far more complex, cliff-hanging and ironic than this, but the aspect of wine is well summarised as follows

The miracle of Purim is inextricably linked with wine. Vashti’s downfall occurred at a feast of wine, and Esther took her place. Haman’s downfall occurred at the feast of wine which Esther made. This feast of wine served to rectify the transgression of the Jews who had participated in the feast of wine made by Acashverosh [Ahasuerus]. (Eliyahu Kitov, The Book of Our Heritage: The Jewish Year and Its Days of Significance, Feldheim 1999: p.432.)

Among the core messages of Purim is not only a reminder that in every generation there will be a person or movement that wishes to oppress or exterminate Jews and Judaism, but also a reminder of the importance of guarding Jewish identity in the face of adversity.

There is some debate right now in Jewish academic circles about the historical, political and mass psychological meanings of regarding antisemitism as a constant (and therefore seemingly inevitable) thread of history; but in recorded history, the Purim message is surely more correct than it is wrong.

Nevertheless, Purim is about celebration, not morbid paranoia. Rather than bemoaning, “there’s always somebody, somewhere, out to get me”, Jews are instead instructed to get so drunk during the festive meal on Purim afternoon that one is unable to tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai. (It is also customary to eat vegetables, but this aspect of Purim attracts few headlines.)

The Tractate Megilah (7b) of the Babylonian Talmud records a statement by the sage Rava

?????? ????? ?????? ?????? ?? ??? ??? ??? ???? ??? ????? ?????. ("Mechayav Inish L'Besumei B'Puraya Ad D'Lo Yada Bein Arur Haman L'Baruch Mordechai").

Translated loosely from Aramaic, this means

One is obligated L'Besumei on Purim until he cannot distinguish between ‘Cursed is Haman’ and ‘Blessed is Mordechai’.

The Aramaic word L'Besumei is simply explained as “to become drunk with wine”, but Jewish legal commentaries differ – some quite sharply – on how much a person should drink in practice.

In fact, immediately following this statement, the Talmud, using hyperbole, gives a deeply lyrical vignette, which warns of the potential catastrophe of irresponsible drinking. It relates a story of two sages, Rabah and Rebbi Zeira, who one year ate the Purim meal together. Rabah got drunk and slaughtered Rebbi Zeira. The next day, having sobered-up, Rabah prayed and restored Rebbi Zeira to life. The following year, Rabbah invited Rebbi Zeira to share the Purim feast once again. Rebbi Zeira, however, declines, saying: “Miracles do not always happen”!

The basic idea behind the importance of wine to the Purim festival is that the miraculous nature through which the Jews were saved came through wine, and so it is celebrated through wine. In the festival of Hanukah, oil plays a central role; on Purim, it is wine. Nevertheless, the word “L'Besumei” is related to the Hebrew word “Bosem”, meaning “pleasant fragrance”; and “bosem” (noun) means “perfume” in contemporary Hebrew. One idea, then, is that through imbibing wine, in combination with celebrating the historic significance of Purim and its attendant commandments, the inner fragrance of a person will come out to the open. They will rejoice in the festive spirit, not become crazed.

In considerable contradistinction to the notion of L’Besumei, the “alcohol-fuelled ravings” of modern celebrities smell neither of “perfume” nor any other “pleasant fragrance”. Rather, they reek of sweat and vomit; and many observers fear that the stench also carries an inner truth about the endurance of antisemitism; revealed when one’s ego and drunkenness combine to strip away all social inhibitions.

Latin provides a fine expression for this:

in vino veritas - in wine [there is the] truth

In the Babylonian Talmud (Eruvin 65a), there is the wonderful statement:

???? ??? ??? ??? ("nichnas yayin yatza sod")

- In came wine, out went a secret

The Talmud’s continuation of this (even without grasping its inherent triple play on the word root "??", “kos” and the Hebrew alliteration) is better still and is even more celeb-scandal relevant:

 ????? ????? ??? ???? ????? ?????? ?????? (Eruvin 65b) ("B’shlosha dvarim adam nichar b’koso, b’kiso, v’b’kaso")

- In three things is a man revealed: in his wine goblet, in his purse, and in his wrath


Footnotes

Hitler is considered by many to be a modern day Haman, and there is an echo of the hanging of Haman and his ten sons, in the hanging of the notorious Nazi antisemite, Julius Streicher, along with nine other leading Nazis at Nuremburg in 1946. Prior to his execution, Streicher screamed at the witnesses “Purim fest 1946!” (See here for more on this; and see here for Hitler’s obsession with Purim.)

In 2009, CST previously noted that the image of choice for the Guardian’s online production of Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children was a particular scene from the Passover seder (the unique festive meal in which Jewish families gather to teach one another about the exodus of the Hebrew nation from slavery in Egypt) in which the whole family recounts the names of the ten plagues visited upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians. As each plague is named, all present dip their finger into red wine and spill a drop onto their plate. The association of blood with Jews has long been an antisemitic obsession, as embodied in the Blood Libel charge. The accusation was that Jews murder non-Jewish children to use their blood in religious rituals, especially at Passover. Leading rabbis have even advised that Jews should use white wine instead of red wine on Passover in areas where false accusations were rife, lest the surrounding communities accuse them of drinking Christian blood. 

In July 2010, we noted that the organisers of the Palestine International Festival in Ramallah requested that the visiting 1970s pop group, Boney M, refrain from singing their most famous hit, “By the Rivers of Babylon.” The message went beyond boycotting Israel to boycotting references – even in pop music – to the historical Jewish connection to and longing for Israel, or Zion. The bitterly ironic aspect of this event was its proximity to the Jewish date of Tisha B'Av (the 9th day in the Jewish month of Av), a public day of mourning and fasting for the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem, along with other tragedies coinciding with this date. And, of course, the Boney M song is based on the original Hebrew version of "By the rivers of Babylon" (Al Naharot Bavel) in Psalm 137.


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Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis
Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth