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Why so Much Drinking and Partying?

If the motif of the drinking party is ironic and critical in intention, how can we explain that the Jews celebrate the downfall of their enemies by imitating their partying?
Noam Zion, Steve Israel
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program

Steve Israel

One of the major features of the Megillah is the drinking party. No fewer than 10 drinking parties or banquets appear in the book. In fact it is no exaggeration to say that the whole of the action of the Purim story is organized around the institution of the drinking party.

The first five drinking parties are organized by the Persians, Ahashverosh, Vashti and Haman. The remaining five drinking parties are initiated by the Jews in the story. Esther organizes two such parties, and the last three are the action of the Jews as a whole.

People live and people die, but fates are decided invariably at those drinking parties that punctuate the rest of the action. It is as if this serious life and death story is told against an atmosphere of hedonistic enjoyment.

With drinking parties comprising so much of the background (and often the foreground) to the book, it is perhaps not surprising that the drinking party is one of the central features of the commemoration and celebration of the Purim story.

Need to be relived?

It is as if we are being told that the basic narrative story that started with drinking parties (Ahashverosh and Vashti) and ended with drinking parties (Esther’s banquets) needs to be relived with drinking and partying.

Nevertheless, while this might seem natural and even predictable in the circumstances, we suggest that it begs a deeper question. What was the purpose of the writer of the Megillah in telling the story with so much detail about the various drinking parties?

For those who see the story as historical, and seek to respond that the story is told that way because the real historical story underneath the text occurred around the drinking parties, we have to respond that this is an inadequate answer.

The writer of the Megillah did not have to write of Ahashverosh’s opening drinking party, for example, in such intricate detail. Almost nowhere else in the Tanakh do we see the same attention given in a report of a banquet, even when it plays a part in the story.

In Daniel (Ch. 5) for instance, we have no more than a couple of sentences with a few colorful details in a scene that arguably plays no less a role in the narrative than the initial drinking party of Ahashverosh.

Shushan’s decadence

Indeed the sort of detail invested in the description of the opening banquet is of a kind generally restricted only to the description of sacred ritual objects, like the Mishkan or the Temple. Thus we have reason to suspect that the writer of Esther put in the details of the elaborate banquet in such an unprecedented form because he wanted to make a point.

We can only guess at the point that he might have been trying to make, but we will probably not be way off mark if we suggest that it is connected with the decadence of the drinking party, and indeed of the way of life in royal Shushan.

In other words, we suggest that the use of the whole drinking party motif in the basic narrative structure is essentially ironic, to point the finger at the decadence of the royal court.

This then begs a further question: If the motif of the drinking party is ironic and critical in intention, how can we explain the idea that the Jews celebrate the downfall of their enemies in this particular story – by imitating their partying.

It is as if the wrong conclusions were drawn from the story. A story critical of decadence where the writer took great pains to show the underlying immorality of the society that he wished to condemn, is remembered by celebrations which represent the same decadence that was seen as so problematic. Can this possibly be?

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