5771 - #25



            Vayikra 10:9 presents the prohibition on a kohain of performing the Temple service intoxicated.1 T.B. Kritot 13b, through its analysis of Vayikra 10:11, extends this prohibition to also apply to the process of psak, forbidding someone intoxicated from rendering halachic decisions. This extension of the law to the realm of psak would not seem to just be an addendum, an outgrowth from a primary law forbidding intoxication in the Temple service. It seems to be an essential part of the Biblical mitzvah itself. Chinuch, Mitzvah 152 presents the command as having two elements: to not enter the Temple intoxicated and to not render halachic decisions intoxicated. These two parts of the mitzvah seem to be inherently connected. The rav and the kohain seem to be inherently connected. The question is: how? 

            The discussion in the chumash text clearly would seem to emerge from a focus on the avoda, the service in the Temple, specifically the incorrect service of Nadav and Avihu for which they suffered the penalty of death. Vayikra Rabbah 12:1 brings down a view that the punishment of Aharon’s two sons was sealed by their entry into the Ohel Mo’ed intoxicated. Pursuant to this view, it would clearly seem that the focus of the Torah is the prohibition for kohanim to drink wine before doing the avoda. The further prohibition regarding halachic decision making would be seen, as such, as secondary. The equal footing by which the Chinuch presents this mitzvah demands of us, though, to search for a different perspective. The problem with Nadav and Avihu was not, according to this statement in Vayikra Rabbah, that they specifically entered the Ohel Mo’ed intoxicated but, rather, that they, through entering the Ohel Mo’ed in this state, violated a broader, more generic value encompassing not only this specific act but others as well, such as rendering halachic decisions intoxicated. It is this broader concept that we must discover.2

            The Chinuch, itself, presents one possibility. He contends that the essential purpose of this mitzvah is to direct us that the performance of Torah matters of import and honour must be undertaken solely when a person is balanced, contemplative and able to focus. Intoxication simply is not an honourable state. Significant Torah duties such as the Temple service and the rendering of halachic decisions, as such, should not be undertaken when one is in this condition. This is an idea that then can be extended, as well, to apply in numerous other situations. A difficulty, though, may develop for the gemara in Kritot specifically excludes other cases of communal Torah study from this law. While it is forbidden to render halachic decisions intoxicated, there is no similar prohibition regarding the teaching or studying of Torah. As this may be another situation that reflects Torah honour, one could question why this case of study is excluded from the commandment.3 Nonetheless, the Chinuch does present a possible understanding of this mitzvah that explains its true essence beyond the details.

            Ntziv, Vayikra 10:9-11 presents a most novel understanding. To him the issue is simcha, joy, and achieving this state, in these cases, through the activity itself and not artificially through alcohol. There is a simcha shel mitzvah, a joy that emerges from the performance of a mitzvah, which can surface from performing the Temple service that must be allowed to develop purely through itself. A similar joy can materialize within the realm of psak, specifically in the teaching of halacha l’ma’aseh, practical halachic direction, to interested students. This whole approach of the Ntziv actually is most interesting, raising many questions in regard to the use of alcohol within our Torah lifestyles. Clearly, and this is emphatically evidenced by our recent holiday of Purim, there are times that the state created by alcohol is deemed to further the mood that is to be developed within the actions and experiences of the event itself. Yet, there would also seem to be situations whereby the Torah demands that the mechanics of the event itself produce the necessary emotions and mood and no artificial means of achieving that state are to be tolerated. The further need would be to clearly define the demarcations between these two situations so that we may not only understand their significance but also to provide guidelines to apply these principles in other matters.4  

            Of interest to me, though, is still the inherent difference between avoda and hora’ah, the rendering of halachic decisions. It would seem obvious that there would be a prohibition to drink before rendering a decision for alcohol affects the cognitive function. The general view of spirituality is the opposite, though. To many, the whole function of a spiritual act is to lose oneself, to negate reason and self, in the attempt to relate to the Divine. It is for this reason that many religious groupings in the world even promote the use of drugs and alcohol. So, it would seem, within this command we actually find two distinct directives, one of which is in line with what we would otherwise think and one that is not. The simplest understanding of this correlation would be that the Torah is informing us that the world view of spirituality is not the Torah view and, indeed, reason must be an inherent part of our avoda. The correlation may, though, also work the other way, stating that our world of reason and hora’ah must not adopt an “academic” model but must also reflect the soul of an avoda. Indeed the rav and the kohain must merge.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht



1 While there is some disagreement, both in the gemara and in the rishonim, as to whether this prohibition applies solely to wine or to all alcohol, (see, for example, Ramban, Vayikra 10:9), the practical reference is generally to intoxication. See, for example. Rema, Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 242:13.

2 A question often emerges in the study of Halacha whether the details of a certain law represent the essential, concrete requirement or whether they are a symbolic manifestation of the essential requirement. For example, the last mitzvah in the Torah is the commandment to write a Sefer Torah (Chinuch, Mitzvah 613). Is this transcribing, though, the concrete, essential requirement of this mitzvah or is this writing but a symbolic manifestation of what is really the essential requirement which is to acquire works from which to study Torah? It would seem that both not entering the Temple and not rendering halachic decisions intoxicated are, in this light, symbolic manifestations of the true essential requirement which we must discover.

3 This type of question could actually be asked in regard to most, if not all, of the presented theories. An answer to this question, as such, would have to be developed in each instance. It should be noted, though, that explanations of a Torah category often encounter specific details that do not fit. The lesson of the general principle is not deemed to be lost because there may be exceptions.

4 The Ntziv also discusses another situation whereby alcohol may be forbidden because it will produce a state that is not in line with the real events that are happening. An onein, someone, before the burial, who has just lost a loved one, is not allowed to drink wine. It is a time when an individual is to feel the sorrow of the moment and is not to attempt to avoid this feeling via the induced joyful state that may be created through alcohol.

Nishma 2011

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