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The Joy of Purim—Alcohol Not Included

The holiday’s delights aren’t only found at the bottom of a bottle

Stuart Halpern
March 02, 2023
Tablet Magazine; original photos: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images; David Bohrer/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images; Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
Tablet Magazine; original photos: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images; David Bohrer/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images; Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
Tablet Magazine; original photos: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images; David Bohrer/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images; Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
Tablet Magazine; original photos: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images; David Bohrer/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images; Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

I’m a grape-juice-at-the-Seder kind of guy. It’s because alcohol—the taste, the temptation of shedding inhibitions, and the loosening of logic—is just not my thing. I’m not moved by Manischewitz, I sipped my first (and last) beer in my late 20s, and never felt the siren song of schnapps beckoning me from the white disposable tablecloth-bedecked kiddush in shul. Relying on modern-day rabbinic opinions that the four cups of redemption can be brought to you by Kedem, I’ve been able to picture myself as if I left Egypt without being enslaved by the choice of red or white.

So I’ve always had a particularly hard time imbibing on Purim.

“One must drink on Purim until that person cannot distinguish between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai,” the Talmud instructs in Tractate Megillah. Alas, the years of experience I’ve accrued downing the same drinks as my three young children have led me to believe the road to joyfully confused inebriation on the 14th of Adar is ruefully closed to me, even if I topped things off with a glass of sparkling grape juice. Some years I’ve tried to sneak in a nap relying on the rabbinic suggestion of this lie-down-for-a-few-minutes loophole, since while you’re dozing, you can’t differentiate between the Purim story’s hero and villain. Other years, I’ve comforted myself with the thought (hope?) that the intention behind the rabbinic edict can be found by finding unabashed bliss amid the holiday’s carnivalesque climate, bouncing between homes after Megillah reading with little Luke, Leia, and Boba Fett in tow, handing out mishloach manot, giving charity to the poor, and chowing down on the festive meal with family and friends.

The concoction of intoxication and elation, spirits and scrolls, delirium and danger and ultimately delight is, after all, the maze through which the ancient Jews of Shushan navigated. “When Adar enters, joy increases,” the rabbis stated in another part of the Talmud, an adage about which one could not distinguish whether they were being prescriptive or descriptive. That is because the story of Esther offers—amid its poured glasses, politics of power, beauty contests, and military clashes—a perspective on joy that predates today’s pundits by millennia.

The actual word for joy, simcha, appears eight times in the Megillah’s 10 chapters. Its first occurrence is hardly an auspicious one and is rather unexpected. In a tale in which to this point numerous parties have been proffered, a new queen has been found, an assassination attempt foiled, and a plot hatched by Haman to dispose not only of his enemy Mordechai and all his fellow Jews, no one is yet described as being happy. It is only in the book’s fifth chapter, after Esther works up the courage to enter Ahasuerus’ throne room and invites Haman and the king to a feast, and then to a second feast, that the reader even catches the possibility of joy, but even then, only aspirationally. Zeresh, Haman’s wife, offers a suggestion to her bummed-out husband, whose hyperexclusive series of invitations into the king and queen’s private dining room is not enough of an ego boost as long as that pesky Mordechai is refusing to bow down to him. “Build gallows 50 cubits high,” she suggests. “And tomorrow morning, recommend to the king that Mordechai be hung on them.” This way, she says, “you will go to the next feast with the king joyfully.”

Offering the possibility of peace of mind, victory, and even joy through the murder of his personal foil, Haman and his family undoubtedly spent the evening celebrating like any good Shushanite, offering toasts as they hammered the gallows up high.

One royally disturbed night of sleep later, and Mordechai ends up ceremoniously paraded through the streets instead of pulverized by Haman. And when Esther reveals both her hidden Jewish identity and Haman’s plot to destroy her people to an enraged King Ahasuerus, Haman and his lot end up being the ones hanging from the gallows.

And it is then that joy in the book is made manifest—and multiplies, appearing seven times in the book’s closing three chapters.

“And Mordechai went from the presence of the king in royal apparel of blue and white, and with a great crown of gold, and with a robe of fine linen and purple; and the city of Shushan shouted and was joyful.”

Letting loose not because of libations but because their very lives had been liberated, the Jews of Shushan, and in fact all the city’s inhabitants, are unabashedly happy. Celebrating their salvation, the Jews enjoy “light and joy, happiness, and honor.” Through a series of proclamations ensuring the commemoration of the salvation that had been achieved, the 14th of Adar is declared a “day of feasting and joy.” So is the 15th of the month for the Jews of Shushan.

The joy enshrined in Purim’s practices, the call to cultivate that original outpouring of happiness, couldn’t be more different from that which Zeresh attempted to offer her pouting husband. It is a joy emerging not out of the need to destroy difference but rather of the possibility of delighting in diversity. “Observe the 14th day of the month of Adar,” the Megillah instructs, “and make it a day of joy and feasting, and as a holiday and an occasion for sending gifts to one another.” The same month during which the Jews had faced destruction at Haman’s hands “turned from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy.” Sending gifts to one another, and charity to the poor, were the ways to observe these “days of feasting and merrymaking.” Sure, drinking will make an appearance at the feasts, but the ethos is less bartending than brotherhood.

In 2020, a team of international scholars set out to uncover the formula for joy. Distilling the findings of these “distinguished and prolific academic experts on the science of happiness” in a 2022 article for The Atlantic, former think-tank president turned Harvard social scientist Arthur Brooks listed ways to get happier that “work and are workable.” And they will come as little surprise to those who have ever felt even a little bit sloshed in celebration of Shushan’s salvation.

“Invest in friends and family” was the first recommendation—say, by hosting them for a seudah, for example.

“Join a club”—because it fosters a sense of belonging and protects against loneliness. You can’t do much better than delivering mishloach manot to welcome new neighbors, reconnect with old friends, and foster a sense of communal solidarity.

“Be physically active.” Anyone who’s ever climbed in and out of a minivan with young kids in tow for half a day while balancing cardboard boxes stacked with mishloach manot can most definitely skip “leg day” at the gym.

“Practice your religion.” As spiritual experiences go, it’s kind of hard to top a wall-rattling, grogger-spinning Megillah reading.

“Act nicely” and “be generous”—say, by giving funds and food to those less fortunate.

“Don’t leave your happiness up to chance,” Brooks concludes. Make sure you proactively cultivate it and “share it with others.”

Mordechai and Esther and our wise ancient rabbis understood what today’s credentialed elite only now discovered. “The Jewish response to trauma is counterintuitive and extraordinary,” wrote Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in an essay titled “The Therapeutic Joy of Purim.” “You defeat fear by joy. You conquer terror by collective celebration. You prepare a festive meal, invite guests, give gifts to friends.”

What was true in ancient Shushan remains timeless. True joy can be found not in elite invitations to exclusive soirees but in the “my roommate’s best friend is visiting for the day—can she pop by … and also bring a friend … and can that friend bring a friend?” balagan that is de rigueur at Purim seudahs. Deeply felt smiles emerge not from accumulating power but from spotting Spider Man praying at the Western Wall and clown cars blasting “mi she, mi she, mi she, mi she nichnas Adar” down Broadway. Serenity is achieved not through dunking on, let alone hanging, our enemies, but through delivering smiles, sustenance, and sure, some spirits, to both those less fortunate and those more familiar—all while carrying your 5-year-old’s plastic light saber. Adar’s monthlong merrymaking, and Purim’s mix of generosity, spirituality, community, and connection offer a cocktail of joy … even to Purim prudes like me.

Excerpted from “Judaism as an Ode to Joy: Happiness in Thought of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Beyond,” edited by Erica Brown and Shira Weiss, forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan.

Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern is Senior Adviser to the Provost of Yeshiva University and Deputy Director of Y.U.’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. His books include The Promise of Liberty: A Passover Haggada, which examines the Exodus story’s impact on the United States, Esther in America, Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth and Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: The Hebrew Bible in the United States.