I gave a Shiur this past Shabbat on the Halachic background related to Drinking on Purim. Although, of course, there is no Audio for this Shiur, I am attaching the Source Sheets in case anyone would like to study or otherwise make use of them. If I ever give the Shiur on a weekday, I’ll post the audio. Enjoy, and Purim Sameiach!
February 2013: I see that this post is drawing some attention, so with Purim approaching I will add a few points based on the source sheet for those who would like some help.
1) Notice the boxed words in Source 1. They correspond to the very interesting Meshaneh Halachot in Source 19, which is worth noticing. Rav Menashe Klein in Meshaneh Halachot brings up a fascinating textual problem related to the names in Source 1 which has repercussions for how we can relate to the Mitzvah of drinking on Purim. Our standard Gemara has רבא stating that there is a Mitzvah to get very drunk on Purim, then רבה killing רבי זירא. If this Girsa is correct, says Rav Klein, the Halacha would follow רבא who came later than רבה, knew the story, and said what he said anyway. The story would then be a cautionary tale but not a disagreement with the same Halacha he had already said. However, Rav Klein points out another Girsa in the Gemara, one shared by the Ba’al HaMaor (see Source 14), the Maharil (see Source 16), and the Mordechai, that רבה stated the Halacha before himself becoming the central character in the story of killing רבי זירא. In that case, says Rav Klein, the story would constitute a retraction from what רבה had previously said because of his own experience with רבי זירא. Rav Klein is of the creative opinion that those Rishonim (and the Mechaber) who are serious about drinking on Purim and view the story as merely a cautionary tale must have had our Gemara’s Girsa, in which רבא, who came later, nonetheless made his Halachic statement; while those Rishonim (and the Rama) who assume there is no such mandate at all must have had the Girsa that רבה, who mandated drinking heavily in the first place, was also the one who killed רבי זירא and would certainly have retracted his position subsequent to that experience. The difference comes down to whether there is an implied “BUT STILL …” between the Halacha and the story, or whether there is an implied “BUT THEN …”
2) I also like the conversation that takes place between the Rambam (Source 17) and the Aruch HaShulchan (Source 18). The Rambam, after asking awkwardly how the obligation of this meal functions (כיצד חובת סעודה זו), says that one must drink so much that he falls asleep in his drunkenness. (It is interesting that the Rambam connects the meal and the drinking in this way – we may have thought they were separate Mitzvot.) It is unclear whether the Rambam’s explanation represents a fulfillment of the Gemara’s prescription that one drink עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן וברוך מרדכי, or whether the Rambam intends to cancel that prescription. The Aruch HaShulchan assumes the Rambam could not be explaining the Gemara, because רבא could have employed such a formulation if he had wanted to. Rather, says the Aruch HaShulchan, the Rambam must be assuming, like many other Rishonim, that the Gemara’s obligation never made it to first base, because of the story with רבי זירא. The Aruch HaShulchan is further surprised that the Tur and Shulchan Aruch take the Gemara more seriously than does the Rambam.
3) When closely examined, the famous Rama in Source 23 is extremely difficult to understand. First he says that one should ישתה יותר מלימודו, a statement generally attributed to the Kol Bo before him, but a close look at the Kol Bo (Source 24) shows something very different. The Kol Bo actually gives a very specific reason for this statement: כדי שירבה לשמוח ולשמח האביונים, וינחם אותם, וידבר על לבם – וזו היא השמחה השלמה. The Rama seemed to forget about these important details, because the Rama’s next step is not to cheer up poor people but rather to ישן, sleep, in order to not know the difference between ברוך מרדכי and ארור המן, a comical misreading of the Rambam (Source 17) that sleep is somehow a fulfillment of רבא’s Halacha (which the Rambam never says) rather than a sufficient measure of drunkenness to indicate that one has completed his Mitzvah. So the Rama, אשר מפיו אנו חיים, appears to have strung together an out-of-context Kol Bo and a misreading of a Rambam to form a convoluted Halachic norm for the ages.
There is more in the sources, but those are some highlights. ואידך, זיל גמור.