We seem to associate Simchat Torah with getting drunk. However, unlike other Jewish holidays (Purim is the most obvious example), there is no imperative whatsoever to imbibe and drink on Simchat Torah.
The only mention of the association that comes to mind is that we change around the order of the morning prayer service and move birchat kohanim (priestly blessing) from musaf to shacharit. The reason for this is that on Simchat Torah it is customary to make kiddush after the shacharit service instead of at the end of the service. This means that kiddush takes place before hakafot (dancing with the Torah) and the long reading of the Torah, in which everyone is called up, and the cycle of Torah reading is completed, and then started afresh from the Beginning.
What does this have to do with the kohanim? In Temple times when the kohanim performed the service, there was a zero-tolerance policy to alcohol: they had to come to work fully sober, and were disqualified for even a minute trace of alcohol in their systems. Similarly in contemporary times, when they perform their priestly duty of blessing the congregation, they can only do this if they have not ingested any alcohol.
It seems clear from this that drunkenness is quite incongruous with shule service and Jewish ritual. Indeed, one explanation of why Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu were killed was because they performed the service in the Tabernacle while drunk.
The only reason that comes to mind for drinking on Simchat Torah is because we associate being happy with drinking (“and wine brings joy to a man’s heart” – Psalms 104), and both Succot and Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah are designated “the time of our joy”. Interestingly, the Vilna Gaon says that the most difficult of all the commandments is the one that requires us to be happy all through the festival of Succot!
One of my favourite pieces in the Talmud relating to alcohol is the famous statement: “a person may be assessed by three things: his wallet (how he is with money), his cup (how he handles alcohol), and his anger (his temper)”. In the original Hebrew, these are a neat alliteration: “kiso, koso, ka’aso”. The way a person handles these things tells us a lot about them – about their core values – about what really matters to them, and how they respond when their buttons are pushed.
In particular, alcohol tends to strip away ones inhibitions. There are lots of different kinds of drunks: happy and sad, extroverted and introspective, passive and aggressive. People also drink for lots of reasons; perhaps the worst is embodied in the fabulous Sia song – drink to get drunk. While I don’t advocate complete bans on alcohol in shules, I abhor the binge drinking practices adopted by many of our youth these days.
Shules certainly should have responsible drinking policies (for young and old) and strictly enforce these, particularly ensuring people get home safely. The drinking culture of Simchat Torah needs to be transformed from one of excess for its own sake, to a ‘facilitator’ of joy used in moderation. Let’s make sure we don’t leave the Torah out of Simchat Torah.
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The article originally appeared on Galus Australis, and the article image is taken from there.