Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • The Essence of Purim
To dedicate this lesson

The "Sacred Bear" of Purim

There are unique individuals whose consumption of food is not due to any desire to satisfy their base appetites. Their souls are so capacious that they need large bodies. They are like instruments, elevating the material world to their own level.


Rabbi Ariel Farajun

Rava says: "A person is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim to the point where he no longer knows the difference between 'cursed is Haman' and 'blessed is Mordecai' " (Megillah 7b).

There is an unusual commandment on Purim, a commandment which for many - generally the pious, of all people - is "discomforting." It is the commandment of intoxication.

According to the plain meaning of the Talmud, and this is likewise the opinion of the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 695:2), a person is obligated to become completely intoxicated on Purim. Even the Talmud tells us how Rabba "rose up and killed Rabbi Zeira" while he was drunk on Purim. Yet this did not prevent Rabba from inviting Rabbi Zeira (Rabba had himself resurrected him) the following year once again to join him in a drinking feast.

Rambam clearly rules that a person is obligated to drink "until he falls asleep in his intoxication." That is, one must drink so heavily that he "falls asleep at the table."

If this is not enough, the Purim feast also appears to be blown completely out of proportion. The Talmud tells us about sages who did not reach the study hall until nightfall because they were so caught up with their feast.

Furthermore, the guidelines of this feast are also difficult to fathom. Say, for example, 25,000 dollars were gathered as charity to provide local poor with food for the Purim feast. According to Jewish law, even if there are only fifty poor people in need of food, it is forbidden to use the remaining money for some other purpose (unlike ordinary charity). Instead, food must be bought with the entire amount of money, and only after Purim is it permitted to sell the left-overs!

What are we to make of all this?

Divine Ethics
In approaching God's commandments, the correct path to take is not one of "coping" or "managing" with the words of the Torah. If, in the Torah, we see a patent tendency to a certain direction, even if that direction seems strange, we must examine it and uncover a new layer. We must align ourselves with the God's ethics and subordinate ourselves to the divine will.

And indeed, the reader is correct! The aim on Purim is to drink and eat abundantly. But this is not just beastliness; it actually contains a lofty secret!

Likened to a Bear
The Talmud tells us (Megillah 11a):
Reish Lakish introduced his discourse on this section with the following text: " 'As a roaring lion and a ravenous bear, so is a wicked ruler over a poor people' (Proverbs 28:15). 'A roaring lion': this is the wicked Nebuchadnezzar, of whom it is written, 'A lion is gone up from his thicket.' 'A ravenous bear': this is Ahasuerus, of whom it is written, 'And behold another beast, a second, like to a bear,' and R' Yosef learned: These are the Persians, who eat and drink like bears, and are coated with flesh like bears, and are hairy like bears, and can never keep still like bears. 'A wicked ruler': this is Haman. 'Over a poor people': this is Israel, who are poor in [the observance of] precepts.

The Talmud likens the Persians to a bear. The essence of a bear is its bestiality: it eats and drinks large quantities, it is coated with flesh. Yet, at the same time, the bear is an animal. There is a difference between him and bestiality.

If we were to draw an analogy to humans, we would say that a bestial person is one who wakes up in the afternoon, eats, drinks, and sleeps. He lacks the might of a bear, but he behaves with preying bestiality and turns this into a way of life, a culture of eating and drinking, parties, physical pleasures. These parties and banquets are thoroughly structured and thought out - this was the Persians.

The Sacred Bear
When the impurity of the Persians was broken, when the impure bear was broken, the sanctity which was entrapped inside this impure bear was revealed. Let us call this sanctity "the sacred bear."

What is the character of this bear? He too is covered with flesh, eats and drinks, but with him it is different!

Rabbi Elazar son of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai
The Talmud (Baba Metzia 83b) tells us that Rabbi Elazar son of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Yishmael son of Yosi were so covered with flesh that if they stood facing each other a pair of oxen could pass under their bellies without touching them. They were so fat that a matron once said to them that their children could not possibly be theirs.

It is likewise told (Shir HaShirim Rabba 5:3) that, once, Rabbi Elazar's mother baked him some bread, and he devoured it. She went on baking and he ate everything she baked. Some merchants who saw this said: "Oy! This guy must have an evil snake in his stomach! It looks like he's going to cause a world famine!"

On the other hand, Rabbi Elazar is described as a most pure individual possessing holy and exact intuition, a person who would accept hardships lovingly. He would even refer to these trials as "my brothers and companions." He hid in a cave with his father for thirteen years eating carobs and dates, covering himself in sand and studying Torah. He was so extremely pure that even after his death he did not need to be buried. How can this be reconciled with what we said above about his crass physicality?

"Very" - That's the Evil Inclination
There are people who demand material gratification because they are materialistic people. Their blurred and battered souls cry out from under the layers of material and fat.

On the other hand, there are unique individuals whose need for large quantities of food is not due to any desire to satisfy their base appetites. Instead, their mighty souls are so capacious that they need large bodies to contain them. These special individuals penetrate the depths of life without being harmed by the material. Quite the contrary, they act as instruments, elevating the physical world to the level of their great souls. And this is in keeping with the purpose of material in the world:

" 'And, behold, it was very good' (Genesis 1:31) - 'And, behold, it was good' alludes to the creation of . . . the good inclination; 'very' alludes to the evil inclination" (Kohelet Rabba 3:3). That is, the good inclination is as its name indicates, and the evil inclination is "very." It intensifies the power of the good inclination.

Of course, not every glutton can permit himself to be a miscreant at the consent of the Torah, to devour whatever he sets his eyes upon while talking about "sanctifying the material world." In order to reach a true level of sanctification of the material world one must first spend thirteen years in a cave and undergo much purification, in keeping with the words of the sages. Only then does this powerful level of sanctity appear.

However, for the masses, who demand a little less of the material and also elevate it a bit less, the Fast of Ester is suffices. This fast serves as a purifying introduction to Purim, the festival of sanctification of the material.

Feast and Joy
The essential aim of Purim, then, is to cause the highest possible manifestation of the material, without becoming entangled in it. Everything must be carried out with great purity, and sanctity must be allowed to appear with with full intensity - even physical intensity.

In light of this, it makes sense that there be a special commandment to eat and drink on Purim, to cause sanctity to appear in the depths of the physical world without plummeting into impurity.

Purim - The Festival of Resurrection
During the course of ordinary life, the material world hampers the appearance of the soul. When the soul is finally exhausted it leaves the body and ascends to the spiritual worlds above in order to gather strength and might. When it becomes sufficiently rejuvenated it descends to the world once again for resurrection. At this point it elevates the material world, nourishing the body. Once this has happened, man may live on forever.

In light of this, it makes sense that, according to the sages, " in the World to Come, all of the holidays will be discontinued with the exception of Purim." Purim by its very nature belongs to the World to Come. It represents the manifestation of the material world in a manner that does not stifle the spiritual.

It also makes sense that the resurrection story of Rabba and R' Zeira took place on Purim of all times, for the light of Purim is the light of resurrection.

We were confronted here with Talmudic texts that appeared puzzling and unusual. A forthright and bold study of these texts made it possible for us to understand the essential value of this holy day and its practices. When we understand the aim of eating and drinking on Purim we do not make the mistake of channeling it out of habit into impurity. A person who feels as if he is carrying out a bestial act automatically falls into bestiality. We are presently following the flow of sanctity. May it be God's will that we merit great illumination.
Some of the translated biblical verses and Talmudic sources in the above article were taken from, or based upon, Davka's Soncino Judaic Classics Library (CD-Rom).

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