It was two in the morning. Broken wine bottles littered the streets. Boys and men of all ages binged on alcohol. Some were dancing, others singing, but most were stumbling, vomiting, or passed out on the curb. I was 18 and had witnessed similar scenes at a few parties in high school, but this was different. It was the celebration of a religious holiday, Purim, in the Old City of Jerusalem.
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The custom of drinking wine on Purim stems from a quotation in the Talmud attributed to a fourth century rabbi, Rava: “One must drink on Purim until that person cannot distinguish between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai” (Megillah 7b).
No explanation for the prescription is presented, and the reader is left wondering why anyone would want to stop distinguishing between Mordechai, a hero of the Book of Esther, and Haman, its villain.
I decided to investigate Rava’s intention. I wanted to better understand his views on alcohol, as well as his opinion on Purim more generally. I began to scour the Talmud for clues.
First, I found that Rava believed “wine and incense help people achieve deeper insight” (Yoma 76b). This is a far cry from saying that the purpose of drinking on Purim is to achieve mind-numbing inebriation. Rava sought to sharpen the mind, not to incapacitate it.
It seemed to me that Rava intended for his audience to recognize a similarity in the behavior of these two characters.
But wait a minute, I thought: What could possibly be similar about the behavior of Mordechai – the pious hero who refused to bow down to Haman because of devotion to the Jewish God – and Haman, the villain who sought to kill all Persian Jews?
As I sifted through the Talmud, it became clear that Rava’s view of Mordechai was radically different than the traditional view of Mordechai as a hero. Repeatedly, Rava went out of his way to denigrate Mordechai. Employing farfetched interpretations of verses in the Book of Esther, Rava suggests that Mordechai and Haman were both government ministers in charge of alcohol at a debaucherous party so terrible that anyone who participated was worthy of death (Megillah12a) that Mordechai voluntarily abandoned Jerusalem (Megillah 13a) and that when the king rewards Mordechai in a way that humiliates Haman, the implied message to the reader is that Haman deserves hatred, not that Mordechai deserves admiration (Megillah 16a).
Why, I wondered, was Rava out to get Mordechai?
After searching some more, I found the answer: Rava says it would have been good if one of Mordechai’s ancestors had been killed that way, Mordechai would have never been born, and he would have never incited Haman to genocide (Megillah 12b). Rava believed that the source of the Jews’ problems in the Book of Esther was, in fact, Mordechai’s refusal to bow to Haman.
This went against everything my Jewish education taught – that Mordechai’s disobedience was an act of religious devotion.
Again, I decided to let Rava explain for himself. I found that elsewhere in the Talmud, Rava breaks from the majority view – which asserts that one should die rather than worship idolatry – and states explicitly that one may worship idolatry out of fear of serious repercussions from other people. In reaction to this view, Rava’s contemporary and main opposition, Abaye, asked the very question we are addressing: “Could one then worship a person like Haman?” Rava’s answer is yes. He believed that worship of idolatry under duress was not actually worship, unless the practitioner truly believed in the idolatrous deity (Avoda Zara 54a Sanhedrin 61b).
Rereading the Book of Esther through Rava’s eyes paints a very different picture than the traditional portrayal of Mordechai. According to Rava, Mordechai and Haman begin the story as equally sinful government ministers at King Ahasuerus' infamous celebration. Haman is then promoted and Mordechai refuses to bow to his newly minted superior. His real motivation is not religious devotion, but power hunger and jealousy, which provoke his rival.
When Haman threatens the annihilation of Persian Jewry, Mordechai refuses to relent. Instead, he effectively pimps out his cousin, Esther, to the king. He then asks her to risk her own life to save Persia’s Jews. She succeeds, but Mordechai's hypocrisy colors the entire story.
Rava’s radical rereading of the Book of Esther has much to offer. Those who drink on Purim should keep Rava’s ultimate goal in mind if they want to follow his prescription faithfully, but the implications of Rava’s view are farther reaching.
For me, the heroic, brave Mordechai of my childhood is gone. I now understand him as the paradigm of those who feign religious devotion at the expense of others as a pretext for gaining power. Sadly, our society is all too familiar with people like this. At times it can even appear as though their duplicity, as well as the pain they cause, dominate humanity. Purim has become a day on which I celebrate the fact that, despite the prevalence of Mordechais in the world, decency and honesty still prevail.
Ayalon Eliach is a lawyer and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College. He holds a BA in Religious Studies from Yale University and a JD from Harvard Law School. Ayalon is passionate about reading old books with fresh eyes, reinvigorating Jewish life, and using religion as a source of connection rather than separation in the world.