“Miracles Do Not Happen at Every Hour”: Purim Drinking as anti-Christian Polemic
Of all the texts, customs, and practices that color the observance of Purim, there is one that elicits highly polarized reactions. Some sing it with gusto, enthusiastically celebrating it as an expression of the day’s festive nature. Others are disgusted by it, consider it an enabler of dangerous and illegal behavior, and do all they can to offset its normative impact. I am referring to Rava’s (in)famous statement recorded in Megillah 7b:
.אמר רבא: מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי
Rava said: A person is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim, such that they
cannot tell the difference between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai.’
Whether celebrated as a dispensation for drunkenness or decried as promoting illicit underage libations, Rava’s statement is rarely subjected to careful scrutiny and close reading. In what follows I will propose that we must read both Rava and the subsequent story of Rabbah and R. Zeira seriously: doing so will unveil a sharply polemical statement with deep contextual and historical roots.
Our text is brief enough that we may begin by citing it in full:
אמר רבא: מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין "ארור המן" ל"ברוך מרדכי." רבה ורבי זירא עבדו סעודת פורים בהדי הדדי. איבסום, קם רבה שחטיה לרבי זירא. למחר, בעי רחמי ואחייה. לשנה, אמר ליה: ניתי מר ונעביד סעודת ספורים הדדי. אמר ליה: לא בכל שעתא ושעתא מתרחיש ניסא
Rava said: A person is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim, such that they cannot tell the difference between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai.’ Rabbah and R. Zeira made a Purim feast together. They became drunk. Rabbah got up and slaughtered R. Zeira. The next day, he prayed for him and resurrected him. The next year, he [Rabbah] said to him [R. Zeira]: “Come and let us make a Purim feast together.” He [R. Zeira] replied: “Miracles do not happen at every hour” (Megillah 7b).
Rava’s statement seems straightforward enough: a person must imbibe so much on Purim that they can no longer remember the reason they are celebrating in the first place. Upon closer consideration, however, making sense of Rava’s proclamation is challenging. Rava says that this drinking is a hiyyuv, an obligation, yet he cites nary a biblical nor a tannaic source in support of this claim. In the absence of any earlier source backing the claim, we might surmise that Rava is explaining the established requirement to hold a mishteh, a celebratory feast, on Purim (See, e.g., Esther 9:22).
On this reading, Rava would argue that one fulfills the hiyyuv mishteh only if the finer distinctions between biblical characters are lost to the bottle. This interpretation, however, would be difficult since there are well-established requirements that govern celebratory feasts throughout halakhah, and Rava’s statement marks a severe deviation from those norms. We are thus left with a perplexing question: whence this notion that a person must become so inebriated on Purim that they cannot tell the difference between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai?"
Rava’s statement seems to allude to the following discussion in the Yerushalmi:
.רב אמר: צריך לאמר ארור המן ארורים בניו
Rav said: One must say, “Cursed is Haman, cursed are his sons” (y. Megillah 3:7).
According to Rav, “cursed is Haman” constitutes liturgy that must be recited on Purim. Masekhet Soferim expands the liturgical requirement several words further:
ואחר כך מקלס לצדיקים, ברוך מרדכי, ברוכה אסתר, ברוכים כל ישראל. ורב אמר צריך לומר, ארור המן, וארורים בניו
And after [reading Megillat Esther], one praises the righteous: “blessed is Mordechai, blessed is Esther, blessed are all Israel.” And Rav said: he must say “cursed is Haman and cursed are his sons” (Soferim 14:3).
This text may be familiar from the piyyut asher heni’ (better known as Shoshannat Ya’akov) which includes ארור המן אשר בקש לאבדי / ברוך מרדכי היהודי. Tur and Shulhan Arukh mandate the recitation of Rav’s formulation as well (Orah Hayyim 670).
With this context, Rava’s statement in Megillah 7b thus comes into somewhat clearer focus. Rava states that one must become so inebriated on Purim that he can no longer properly formulate the liturgical blessings and curses that accompany the reading of the megillah. (This interpretation is followed by Tosafot (s.v. de-lo yada’), Meiri (s.v. hayyav adam le-harbot), and Tosafot Rosh (s.v. bein arur haman), all ad. loc.)
Thus, according to Rava, those whom the liturgy canonizes as cursed are instead blessed, and those usually celebrated with blessing are subjected to curses in the day’s prayers. Advocacy for such confusion between blessing and cursing is highly evocative of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you (Matthew 5:45).
The Sermon on the Mount comprises perhaps the most central collection of Jesus’ teachings in the gospels. In this address, Jesus celebrates the meek, the oppressed, and those who withstand suffering without retaliating. It is in this context that Jesus exhorts his followers not to hate their enemies, but to love them, bless them, and pray for them.
Strikingly, Jesus’ words are fulfilled to the letter by Rava’s statement. Reversing “cursed is Haman, blessed is Mordechai” in the liturgy does precisely as Jesus specifies: “bless them that curse you … and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you.”
In my view, Rava is poking fun at a fundamental Christian text. Jesus’ doctrine of universal love, Rava slyly insinuates, is intelligible only when one is in a drunken stupor. No sober, rational-thinking person could possibly take this central teaching of Christ with any seriousness.
With this in mind, let us reconsider the story of Rabbah and R. Zeira, which immediately follows Rava’s statement. Rabbah and R. Zeira share a feast; Rabbah slaughters R. Zeira; Rabbah prays, and the next day R. Zeira is resurrected; R. Zeira declines Rabbah’s invitation next year because “miracles do not happen at every hour.”
R. Zeira’s miraculous resurrection is intended to remind us of a most important Christian doctrine: Christ’s resurrection. However, R. Zeira’s death and resurrection are not the somber culmination of a divine mission, nor does his miraculous revival bring salvation in any measure. Rather, R. Zeira’s resurrection is but the zany outcome of Purim buffoonery. It is a drunken exploit, not a theological linchpin. In allowing R. Zeira to return from death, the story degrades resurrection from a foundational theological concept to a convenience that is dispensed towards drunk people.
We are thus meant to read the story of Rabbah and R. Zeira as continuous with Rava’s statement, as both lampoon fundamental elements of Christian belief. (This diverges from some (including Meiri, s.v. hayyav adam, citing Geonim) who read the story as in tension with Rava’s statement.) Rava implies that one must be inebriated beyond measure to give any credence to illogical Christian teachings; the Rabbah and R. Zeira vignette suggests that resurrection is a casual aid to inebriated rabbis, and is hardly a mark of deific significance.
Rabbah and R. Zeira’s episode closes with the latter politely declining the former’s invitation to next year’s Purim feast: “miracles do not happen at every hour.” Though this conclusion could certainly be read differently, my reading is as follows. The Gospels can be read as a litany of Jesus’ miracle work: Jesus heals the sick, distributes bread and fish to the masses, revives the dead, walks on water, and so on. The impression one gets is that miracles tended to occur “all the time” around the Nazarene. R. Zeira’s rather blithe demurral of Rabbah’s invitation serves as a searing dismissal of Jesus’ miracle-work; the Gospel’s reports are fanciful fantasy, since we know that “miracles do not happen at every hour.” Even more searing, the story suggests that when miraculous resurrections do occur, intoxicated rabbis are the lucky beneficiaries, rather than salvific messiahs and their adherents.
Despite the scathing polemic against fundamental Christian tenets, the story of Rabbah and R. Zeira also invites readers to step inside the realm of Christian belief. The story beckons us to consider resurrection as a narrative device, as something that can happen to esteemed figures, even as it rejects resurrection by granting it to drunken revelers rather than deities. The story enters Christian doctrine in order to pillory it. Rava’s statement, too, mocks Christian doctrine by demanding that Jews briefly adopt it. Rava encourages us to “bless those who curse,” even if in so doing this doctrine’s absurdity is exemplified.
This model of engagement and simultaneous mockery is in fact endemic to Purim texts and liturgies. Historically, Purim is an extraordinarily ripe locus for Jewish polemics and parodies of Christianity. In Late Antiquity, Jews produced commentaries to Esther packed with anti-Christian polemics; burned effigies of a crucified Haman apparently representing Christ; and wrote popular poetry for Purim featuring, astonishingly, Jesus debating Haman about who met a more wretched fate.
The inclusion of Christian figures in Jewish cultural production for Purim is indicative of Purim’s status as a “carnivalesque” release involving “boundary-crossing.” But, as Ophir Munz-Manor writes regarding the Jesus-Purim poetry: “On the one hand they transgress the accepted boundaries, but on the other they reinforce them.” Rava’s foray into the teachings of the Gospels, and Rabbah and R. Zeira’s experiments with resurrection are distinctly within the genre of Purim texts: they involve transgressing a boundary that is normally impenetrable. Yet, these brief excursions into Christianity conclude with the boundary reinforced; the rabbis laugh at Christianity.
Endnote: For further reading on rabbinic readings and parodies of the gospels and Christian doctrine, see: Peter Schafer, Jesus in the Talmud (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007). Schafer raises the possibility that gospel traditions were known to the rabbis of the Bavli through Tatian’s Diatesseron, which spread through Babylonia. For the argument that Babylonian rabbis responded equally to Christian influence from the Roman east as to Sassanian Babylonian influence, see: Richard Kalmin, Migrating Tales: The Talmud’s Narratives and their Historical Context (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2014). For an argument that broad swaths of literary material from the Roman east found their way to Babylonia via Syriac Christian channels, see: Daniel Boyarin, Socrates and the Fat Rabbis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 136-138.