The Dictum of Rava
אמר רבא מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי
“Rava says, A person is obligated livsumei on Purim until he doesn’t know the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordekhai.’” (b.Megillah 7b)
Many people, adopting a widespread view, interpret Rava here to be communicating some sort of obligation to excessively consume alcohol on Purim until one either loses some or all of their senses.
What many do not know – or choose to ignore – is that there were those among the Geonim and the Rishonim who understood this statement, as it appears within the context of the Gemara, as being nidheh (“pushed out,” “set-aside,” “excluded”) from the halakhah. These posekim maintain that there is, in reality, no obligation to drink at all other than the inclusion of wine at one’s Purim seudah, and much less to get drunk.
The Rishonim most notably of this position are the Ran and the Rabbenu Efraim (see Arokh HaShulhan, Hilkhot Megillah 695:1-5 for a full discussion). In his siddur, Rav Saadia Gaon lists and explains the laws of Purim, but makes no mention whatsoever of drinking or becoming drunk. He merely instructs that a seudah be eaten during the day that includes meat and wine, both which usually accompany any festive meal in the halakhah.(cf. b.Pesahim 109a, Hilkhot Shevitat Yom Tov 6:1). He also nowhere mentions falling asleep from drunkenness (cf. Siddur Rasag pp. 256-257).
However, it is likely that we are missing the entire point that Rava intended to make in his famous statement. The entire enterprise of drinking on Purim in the first place is suggested based on reading the word livsumei as “to make [oneself] drunk.” In full context of the Gemara and the Geonic codes, the basis for such an interpretation is in actuality fairly weak, and is even forced. As was asked above, what if livsumei doesn’t refer to drinking alcohol at all?
Happiness, Not Drunkenness
The so-called “minor tractates” (masekhtot ketanot) of the Talmud include textual material which dates to the time of the Mishnah which was arranged, expounded upon, and then formally redacted during the Geonic era into fourteen separate discussions. In printed editions, these smaller tractates usually appear just after Seder Nezikin. One of them, Masekhet Soferim, appears just after Avot De-Rabbi Natan and discusses various laws related to the public Torah readings and various sacred books.
In Masekhet Soferim 20:1 (19:1 in some editions), it says:
“And we do not make the blessing on the new moon except for on motza’ei shabbat when a person is happy (mevusam) and in nice clothing…”
The word “happy” (mevusam) is the adjective describing someone who has performed the action of livsumei, used in Rava’s statement on b.Megillah 7b. If we understand livsumei to mean “getting drunk” then we have to reasonably conclude that Masekhet Soferim is instructing one to do kiddush levanah while intoxicated. Such a reading is not only incorrect, but absurd.
The word livsumei means “to make [something] pleasant or sweet” (from the Hebrew word bosem, referring to spices) not “to become drunk,” and it is being used here to metaphorically indicate “happiness,” i.e. the happy mood resulting from the proper observance of the weekly Sabbath was considered – at least by this opinion – to be the best time to recite the blessing upon the new moon.
The Ra’avyah (Rabbi Eliezer ben Yoel HaLevi, 1140-1225) also appears to confirm such a meaning for livsumei. His text of the Gemara was apparently at slight variance from our printed editions. He quotes Rava as saying:
מיחייב איניש לבסומי נפשיה עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי
This reading appears to make even more sense (especially in immediate context, as will be explained below) and very likely means:
“A person must make himself happy (lit., pleasant) to the point that he doesn’t know the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordekhai.’”
In his commentary, the Ra’avyah makes no mention of drinking or drunkenness on Purim, but only cites his unique version of the Gemara (cf. Sefer Ra’avyah, Megillah, Siman 564) which he apparently views as being enough of a straightforward instruction regarding the nature of celebration of Purim.
The Sheiltot De-Rav Ahai Gaon: From Pretext to Context
Probably the greatest and most cohesive proof that the meaning of livsumei is “to makes oneself pleasant” comes from the Sheiltot De-Rav Ahai Gaon (8th century). Divided into sections according to the weekly parashah, each section in the Sheiltot contains both halakhic and hashkafic Q&A that is arranged topically. The answers to the questions asked are selected from the Gemara and the Midrash and often contain readings that do not match our printed editions of the Talmud. More often than not, Geonic works such as the Sheiltot and the Halakhot Gedolot hold more accurate versions of Talmudic passages and are regularly used by Talmudic scholars to solve textual difficulties – and it appears the statement of Rava in b.Megillah 7b is no exception.
In Parashat Vayakhel (Sheilta 67), Rav Ahai Gaon relates the dictum of Rava as follows:
ואמר רבא מיחייב איניש למיכל ולמישתי ולאיבסומי בפורייא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי
“Rava says, ‘A person is obligated to eat, to drink, and to be happy (le-ivsumei) on Purim until he doesn’t know the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordekhai.’”
It seems that Rav Ahai’s version of the Gemara (or, perhaps his elucidation of it) is meant to mirror the pasuk in Kohelet 8:15 which says, “And so I praised happiness (simhah), that there is no good for a man under the sun except to eat, drink, and to be happy…”
The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah of Berlin, 1816-1893), in his Emek HaSheilah to this passage, has a lengthy comment which features his very thorough his assessment of this citation of the Sheiltot:
 He begins by noting that the Gemara in the Talmud Bavli does not include a mention of eating and drinking, but only says livsumei.
 He notes that Rav Ahai Gaon, by first mentioning eating and drinking, is reminding the reader that the main point of the seudah is to “thank and praise” HaShem, as it states in the beginning of the sheilta. A state of thankfulness and praise, says the Netziv, cannot be attained while drunk (cf. Hilkhot Shevitat Yom Tov 6:20).
 He also notes that the only “drunkenness” (shikhrut) that should result from this seudah is the normal “intoxication” that happens in the course of a hearty meal of meat and wine. He makes reference to b.Ta’anit 26b where a kohen does not lift his hands at either Minhah or Neilah of Yom Tov for the reason that “intoxication” is common on those days. Rashi there explains that the reference is to a “kohen shatui” and being a shatui means only that one has had a minimal amount of wine (approximately 3 oz.) – he is not “drunk” in the forbidden conception of drunkenness (cf. Hilkhot Tefillah 4:17). Although still in his right mind, a kohen shatui is nevertheless forbidden from performing his priestly duties after having recently consumed even a single serving of alcohol.
 He cites the opinion of Rabbi David Luria (Radal) who notes that the meaning of livsumei – as it is used in the Gemara directly in the discussion that directly precedes Rava’s famous statement – is to eat sweet delicacies at the seudah (“revaha livsima shekhiha – room for sweets can always be found” – see b.Megillah 7b). The Radal goes on to say that “It has been established for us that any drinking is supposed to be during the seudah, and wine which is taken with a meal does not get one quickly intoxicated,” a reference to Maimonides in Hilkhot De’ot 5:3.
 He then brings the Ba’al HaMaor who, citing Rabbenu Efraim, is of the opinion that, due to the violent narrative involving Ravah and Rabbi Zeira at the Purim seudah, the statement of Rava is nidheh from the halakhah.
 To counter the Ba’al HaMaor, the Netziv brings a teshuvah from the Hatam Sofer (OH, Siman 196) where it is explained that the narrative of Ravah harming Rabbi Zeira cannot be applied broadly because Ravah was a special case (i.e. shani – see there). His special circumstances were due to him having been born under the planet Mars, as it explicitly says in b.Shabbat 156a:
האי מאן דבמאדים יהי גבר אשיד דמא א״ר אשי אי אומנא אי גנבא אי טבחא אי מוהלא אמר רבה אנא במאדים הואי אמר אביי מר נמי עניש וקטיל
“One who is born under Mars will be one who sheds blood, as Rav Ashi observed such a one will either be a surgeon, a thief, a slaughterer, or one who circumcises. Ravah said, ‘I was born under Mars.’ Abaye responded, ‘You also inflict punishment and kill.’”
After hearing the pronouncement about those born under Mars and what their professions will be, Ravah notes that he too was born under Mars and yet he engages in none of these professions. Abaye responds to Ravah that he is nevertheless a violent person. According to the Hatam Sofer, Abaye made this statement in reference to the very incident of Ravah and Rabbi Zeira at the Purim seudah!
That there is in reality no such thing as astrology or astrological influences is the topic for another discussion. However, within the general Persian worldview of the hakhmei Bavel in the Gemara it seems that what took place during their Purim seudah was not due to drinking at all, but was instead attributed to the predisposition of Ravah to violence. The Gemara also states that specifically during the month of Adar is when a person’s individual mazal is very strong (b.Ta’anit 29b), which may – in the view of the Amoraim – have pushed Ravah over the edge toward being actively violent. In fact, when this story is related in the Sheiltot, it entirely lacks the word ivsum (intended as “became drunk” – a word present in the Gemara’s version) before kam Ravah (“Ravah arose [and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira]”) and does not seem to attribute Ravah’s violent episode to drinking at all.
Instead, the Hatam Sofer explains that Rabbi Zeira refused to make a seudah with Ravah the following Purim because there was a clear and present danger (i.e. shekhiah hezika – see there) that needed to be avoided, as it is forbidden to rely on miraculous intervention for safety in the face of practical realities. This is perhaps instructive for us today when choosing what company to keep for the Purim festivities. There are those who will undoubtedly be violent and inappropriate on Purim, but such people should be avoided out of a concern for our personal safety and the safety of our children.
The version of the Sheiltot supports the reading of the Ra’avyah, Rav Sa’adia Gaon, and others who never viewed Rava’s statement as being a reference to becoming drunk, and therefore saw no need to exclude it from the halakhah, as did the Ran and Rabbenu Efraim. Instead, Rav Ahai Gaon in his Sheiltot understands Rava to be referencing a normal, Biblical rejoicing where the Jewish people eat, drink, and are happy (Kohelet 8:15). The word livsumei is either a reference to rejoicing or to the eating of delicacies, as mentioned in the direct context of the Gemara just before the statement of Rava. The narrative of Ravah slaughtering Rabbi Zeira was not due to drinking at all, but was instead due to Ravah’s supposed astrological inclination toward violence, caused by the supposed strengthening of his mazal during the month of Adar. Rabbi Zeira’s refusal to make another seudah with Ravah is also not due to his prior excessive drinking, but due to the prohibition of relying on miracles in the face of practical safety concerns. On that page of the Gemara, the story should be seen as a related tangent – something that is highly common in the flow of the Talmudic discussion – being apropos because of the context of the incident having taken place at a Purim seudah.
It should now be abundantly clear that there is simply no way to justify the drunken and intensely shameful behavior that is perpetrated year after year on Purim in the name of Torah and Judaism.