By Mordechai Schmutter
I don’t drink on Purim.
Unless you count a half a cup of Bartenura, which no one ever does, for some reason.
I almost never drink, because drinking gives me heartburn. People have suggested that I drink a little bit, and then a little more, and then a little more (but not all in one day) to build up a tolerance; but really, is this something that I should build up a tolerance for? I don’t even like the taste. The more expensive a wine is, the less I like it. In fact, I can tell how expensive a wine is by how little I enjoy it. I have to build a tolerance to something I don’t even like?
But people still bother me about it, especially around Purim. And especially my high-school students, who want nothing more than to see their teachers drunk. And to take pictures. “Isn’t there a mitzvah,” they ask, “to drink so much that you can’t tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai?”
For years, I’ve been excusing myself by saying that there are heteirim. For example, the Gemara says that you can drink a little more than you’re used to, and then go to sleep. And when you’re asleep, you don’t know the difference.
“We don’t rely on heteirim,” they say. “And like anyone takes a nap on Purim!”
So I’ve come up with an excuse, which makes so little sense that they stop arguing, because they don’t know where to start. And that gives me the opportunity to go on with my lesson, which, whether they admit it or not, is the main reason I come to school.
Because really, how drunk do you have to be to not be able to tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai? These are not very similar people. Arguably, they’re not even comparable. I would say they’re like apples and oranges, but they’re nothing like apples and oranges. Comparing them to apples and oranges would be like comparing apples to oranges. How much do you have to drink to not tell the difference between Mordechai and Haman?
Maybe that’s why Chazal gave a whole extra day to recover.
This is really one case where being ignorant is a significant advantage. (In other words, my students have one over on me.) Mordechai and Haman are as different as night and day.
But the truth is that there’s another place where we’re supposed to try to find a difference between things: Night and day.
At the beginning of Berachos, which is about the furthest that some of us have gotten, the mishnah talks about the earliest possible time you can say the morning Shema. (This is less of a problem nowadays. They could ask this in those days, because snooze buttons hadn’t been invented yet. Also, if you got a good gathering of rabbis for your Seder, it could go on until Shacharis.)
There are different opinions as to when you can start saying Shema, and all of them involve when it’s bright enough to tell the difference in appearance between two things—a techeiles thread and a white thread; a techeiles thread and a green thread; or, one opinion even says that you have to be able to recognize someone from a short distance away. Not that any of this matters nowadays, because most of us are still in bed when people are figuring out whether it’s too early to start Shacharis. The only time this really concerns all of us is Shavuos mornings, when we’ve been up all night and can barely tell the difference between caf and decaf, and we want to daven Shacharis already so we can sleep until lunch. But the point is that all these differences are visual.
And maybe that’s the difference that is hard to tell between Haman and Mordechai—a difference of appearance. We always assume they looked very different—all the coloring books have Haman with a pointier beard and a twirlier mustache, so he could twirl it while he plotted stuff. But maybe they didn’t look all that different. Haman’s daughter wasn’t able to spot the differences from up on the roof, and she was Haman’s own daughter. And this is despite the hat, that we assume Haman always wore 24/7, even while swimming, even though most of us generally have different hats for different occasions. (And Haman actually was a man of many hats—he was a prime minister, a barber, a bathhouse attendant . . .)
So maybe you’re supposed to get drunk enough that you can’t tell the difference in appearance between Haman and Mordechai, but hopefully not drunk enough that you throw garbage on one of them and take a flying leap off the roof. When you’re drunk, everything is hazy (not that I would know), and sometimes you see double, and you have to wonder—is that two Hamans? Two Mordechais?
But really, why would someone who is drunk ever have to tell the difference in appearance between Haman and Mordechai? I guess it matters if one of them is approaching, and you’re quickly trying to figure out whether it’s Mordechai or Haman. Fortunately, there are a lot of people named Mordechai nowadays, and not a lot of Hamans. But what if you’re not drunk? In what situation would it matter whether you can tell the difference?
And the answer is: Shavuos night. (Or Pesach night, if you have an all-night Seder going.) In that case, you’re not trying to figure out a personal difference, you just need to recognize someone from a short distance away. You see someone approaching in the dark, and you want to know if it’s Mordechai coming to Shacharis, or Haman walking by to ask Achashveirosh if he can hang people on the enormous 100-foot structure he spent all night building in the dark, so that you can daven Shacharis and go to bed.
Sure, even if Mordechai and Haman have a similar appearance, there’s a pretty good chance they dress differently. But who can tell the difference between their clothes? It’s still too early to tell the difference between techeiles (Mordechai’s favorite color) and Haman’s white barber smock.
If you go to sleep at night, though, you’ll never have to make that distinction, because, like we said, by the time you wake up, everyone else is asleep, and it’s definitely okay to start davening.
To sum up, because admittedly we haven’t been making sense, you may have to be able to tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai if one of the following two instances comes up:
1. You’re drunk; or
2. You’ve stayed up all Shavuos night.
If you never get drunk and you go to sleep every night, this situation will never come up anyway. This is why they say that if you’re not going to drink, then you should at least sleep. Maybe by the time you wake up it’ll be Shushan Purim, and you won’t have to worry about it.
So really, I’m okay with my half a cup of Bartenura.
But that kind of brings us back to the question, right? Who sleeps on Purim? Definitely not people like me, who pretty much get drunk on candy.
But the truth is, you don’t really have to sleep. Look at Shavuos night. There is a minhag to stay up and learn all night. But they say that if you don’t learn—if you pretty much hang out and battul and eat cookies—then it’s like you’re sleeping.
So here’s what I do on Purim: I drink a little bit—more than I’m used to—and then for the rest of the day, I don’t learn. I pretty much just hang out and battul and eat cookies.
And voilà! It’s like I slept.
This works out for me, because it says that one is supposed to drink “yoser melimudo”—more than he learns. If I don’t learn, how much do I have to drink already? v
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of three books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com.