“Until One Cannot Distinguish”: The Limits of Joy and Celebration

Celebration has an honored place on Purim. We will learn about the reasons for this celebration, become familiar with different ways of encouraging joy and celebration on the holiday and examine the limits of celebration.

Resource Ages: 12-14


Mordechai left the king’s presence in royal robes of blue and white, with a magnificent crown of gold and a mantle of fine linen and purple wool. And the city of Shushan rang with joyous cries. 

The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor. 

And in every province and in every city, when the king’s command and decree arrived, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a feast and a holiday. And many of the people of the land professed to be Jews, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.

Esther 8:15–17

וּמָרְדֳּכַי יָצָא מִלִּפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ בִּלְבוּשׁ מַלְכוּת תְּכֵלֶת וָחוּר וַעֲטֶרֶת זָהָב גְּדוֹלָה

וְתַכְרִיךְ בּוּץ וְאַרְגָּמָן, וְהָעִיר שׁוּשָׁן צָהֲלָה וְשָׂמֵחָה.

לַיְּהוּדִים הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה וְשָׂשֹׂן וִיקָר.

וּבְכָל מְדִינָה וּמְדִינָה וּבְכָל עִיר וָעִיר, מְקוֹם אֲשֶׁר דְּבַר הַמֶּלֶךְ וְדָתוֹ מַגִּיעַ,

שִׂמְחָה וְשָׂשׂוֹן לַיְּהוּדִים, מִשְׁתֶּה וְיוֹם טוֹב […].

Mordechai recorded these events. And he sent dispatches to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Achashverosh, near and far, 

charging them to observe the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar, every year— 

the same days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy. They were to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor.

Esther 9:20–22

וַיִּכְתֹּב מָרְדֳּכַי אֶת הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וַיִּשְׁלַח סְפָרִים אֶל כָּל הַיְּהוּדִים […]. לְקַיֵּם עֲלֵיהֶם לִהְיוֹת עֹשִׂים אֵת יוֹם אַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר לְחֹדֶשׁ אֲדָר וְאֵת יוֹם חֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר בּוֹ בְּכָל שָׁנָה וְשָׁנָה. כַּיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר נָחוּ בָהֶם הַיְּהוּדִים מֵאֹיְבֵיהֶם וְהַחֹדֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר נֶהְפַּךְ לָהֶם מִיָּגוֹן לְשִׂמְחָה וּמֵאֵבֶל לְיוֹם טוֹב לַעֲשׂוֹת אוֹתָם יְמֵי מִשְׁתֶּה וְשִׂמְחָה וּמִשְׁלֹחַ מָנוֹת אִישׁ לְרֵעֵהוּ וּמַתָּנוֹת לָאֶבְיֹנִים.

When Adar arrives, we rejoice more.

Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Taanit 29a

מִשֶּׁנִּכְנָס אֲדָר מַרְבִּין בְּשִׂמְחָה.

A person is obligated to become drunk on Purim to the point where he cannot distinguish between ‘Curse Haman’ and ‘Bless Mordechai’.

Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah 7b

מִחַיַּב אֱנִישׁ לְבַסּוֹמֵי בְּפוּרַיָּא, עַד דְּלָא יָדַע בֵּין אָרוּר הָמָן לְבָרוּךְ מָרְדֳּכַי.

Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How does Judaism shape or define our understanding of happiness?
  • Why are holidays, rituals, customs, important to me, my family, and my community?
  • How do Jewish rituals and practices enrich the way I experience my life and the world?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • What is the emotional value of reaching a state in which “one cannot distinguish”? What problems can it bring? 
  • What are the boundaries for expressing joy? 
  • What is joy for us and how is it expressed?

Background for Teacher

Joy (simcha) is an important value that we learn from the story of Purim. According to Sages, we should increase our rejoicing from the start of the month of Adar. The word שמחה (simcha) appears 10 times in the megillah. In most of the...

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Joy (simcha) is an important value that we learn from the story of Purim. According to Sages, we should increase our rejoicing from the start of the month of Adar. The word שמחה (simcha) appears 10 times in the megillah. In most of the places in which it appears, the word refers to celebration and rejoicing related to the saving of the Jews. For this reason, Purim is a holiday of festive meals that include drinking and rejoicing, to commemorate the joy of having been saved.

Different Jewish communities have different customs for celebrating the joy of Purim. The custom of dressing up in costumes, which today is practiced by all communities, appears to have begun in Italy in imitation of Carnival festivities. In Egypt, Tunisia and Poland, there were joyful Purim parades. In Eastern Europe and Spain, there was a custom of putting on humorous plays about the Purim story. In Djerba, they would hold a lottery and, in many communities, it was customary to play games of chance. In Europe in the past and today in Israel, in yeshivas, there is a custom to appoint a Purim Rabbi, who is funny and tells jokes.

Another way to rejoice on Purim is through mishte — food and drink. Our sages referred only to drinking, but we can also see food as an element of celebration. In the Talmud it says that on Purim there is an obligation to get drunk until one cannot distinguish between the evilness of Haman and the righteousness of Mordechai. Out of concern that drunkenness may lead to wild behavior and even sin, there were those who ruled that a person should not get drunk, but rather just drink slightly more than they usually do. Different halachic authorities clarified that it is important to preserve boundaries and moral standards even on Purim and even when one is drinking and ruled that “until one cannot distinguish” refers to falling asleep. That said, most halachic authorities read the statement in the Talmud as obligatory and ruled that a person should drink on Purim, while emphasizing drinking for celebration as opposed to drinking in order to lose control.

In the megillah, we see a connection between the joy of the holiday and the mitzvot of the holiday, which are all based on giving to others. This joy, the joy of mitzvot and doing good, can also teach us about the correct way to celebrate with alcohol: As long as the drinking makes the person happy and makes those around him or her happy and does not harm them, it is an appropriate and healthy celebration.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
Further Study
  • In the first verse, we see different words related to happiness: שִׂמְחָה, צָהֲלָה, אוֹרָה, שָׂשֹׂן (happiness, jubilation, light, joy). Each of these words expresses a different aspect of happiness. Read the verse and write the different words on the board. Invite the students to suggest other words that describe happiness. Ask them to think about what each word expresses and how the words differ from one another. You can use associations and words that are similar to these words to clarify the matter.

    Ask the students to identify an emoji, movement, color, etc. that matches each word. Discuss the fact that there are different types of happiness and different ways of expressing happiness. Happiness is not one thing that looks the same for everyone and in any given situation we can react with a different type of happiness.

  • Start off the lesson by clarifying that this lesson will address some consequences of drinking alcohol. It is very important to note that even among adults, who are permitted to drink, alcohol should be drunk in moderation so that a person does not reach a point at which they are not in control of their actions. For children and teenagers, alcohol use is never appropriate. 
  1. What reasons for rejoicing are mentioned in the verses? What do we celebrate on Purim? 
  2. According to the megillah, how do we mark the celebration of the saving of the Jews on Purim? What about these things makes people happy? 
  3. How would you suggest celebrating a situation of being saved from destruction like the one described in the megillah? What would you suggest that people do to experience joy on the holiday?
  4. What makes you happy? How do you express joy? 
  5. Do you think that there are better or worse ways to experience joy? Explain. 
  6. What’s the relationship between celebration and wildness or losing one’s inhibitions? Are they expressions of the same emotion or different things? How are they different and how are they similar? 
  7. The sages viewed drinking wine as something that contributes to a celebratory mood and disagreed about whether or not it should be limited, since drunkenness can lead to the blurring of moral standards. Think about celebrations in your own life (parties, for example). Do you think that there’s a limit to the ways in which it is appropriate to celebrate? If so, what is that limit? 
  8. What ethical boundaries should guide us during celebrations, parties and as we are having fun? How can we make sure not to stretch those boundaries? 
  • Mordechai and Esther travel in a time machine and arrive at Purim events of our time. What do they think about those events? Do they see the celebrations as expressions of what they experienced? What would they see as appropriate and what would they see as inappropriate? Ask the students to write a dialogue between themselves and those historical figures. 
  • Ask the students to plan events for the month of Adar for the class, grade or school. Have them think about what encourages happiness and creative ways to add joy. 
  • Stick a piece of masking tape or string to the floor, to represent the continuum between happiness and wildness. Put a piece of paper that says “Happiness” on one end and a piece of paper that says “Wildness” on the other. Distribute different situations of happiness and celebration to the students or ask them to think of such situations and write them on pieces of paper. Use general examples, to avoid hurting any of the students’ feelings (e.g., dancing at an event or party, pushing friends into a swimming pool at a party, taking a photo of a friend who is doing something funny while they’re asleep, an evening of singing with a guitar and snacks, walking in the street at night while playing music and talking loudly). Have the students position the situations along the continuum. Ask where limits should be placed, if anywhere, with regard to the different scenarios. What does this continuum mean for us as we celebrate?
  • You can learn about additional Purim customs in the resource The Four  “Memim”.
  • The painting “Purim Parade” by Chaim Goldberg depicts the Purim celebration in the artist’s hometown in Poland. Refer to details in the painting and discuss what in the parade could encourage joy. Is the picture joyful? Goldberg painted this picture in his old age, decades after the whole community was killed in the Holocaust. Do you think this fact is expressed in the painting? Give an example.
  • Additional sources and ideas about happiness and rejoicing can be found in the resource Rejoice in Your Festivals.