The devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Jewish community began last year following the holiday of Purim. Not only did many people hold large Purim holiday gatherings which may have helped spread this terrible SARS 2 coronavirus, but probably the main culprit was the excessive alcohol intake that is common among many Jews on Purim. Scientific research shows that consuming alcohol raises the risk to get bacterial and viral diseases. In the case of COVID-19 alcohol consumption raises the risk to get severe complications leading to hospitalization and even death.
How Alcohol Consumption Increases Risk for COVID-19 with Severe Complications
Alcohol has a Bad Effect on the Immune System
Alcohol has a bad effect on many different organs in the body such as the liver, kidneys, brain, pancreas, the microbiome of the gut and the immune system. Scientific research has found that alcohol consumption weakens the immune system’s ability to fight off infectious diseases. The more you drink the more you damage the immune system and the greater is the chance to get a bacterial or viral infection like COVID-19.
Many people may not have realized that their immune systems were already battling an unseen invading coronavirus when they sat down to their festive Purim seuda (meal) last year. Research shows that drinking alcohol raises the chance for the virus to be able to successfully invade the body. Even moderate amounts of alcohol or binge drinking may damage the immune system. In fact, people who regularly abuse themselves with excessive alcohol consumption are in fact considered to be immunocompromised (having a very poor functioning immune system).
Alcohol Increases Inflammation in the Body
Alcohol not only increases inflammation in the body, but also interferes with the body’s ability to control inflammation. Alcohol consumption can prevent balancing over-production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. This could lead to a cytokine storm cited as one of the main ways that COVID-19 damages organs in the body.
Heavy Consumption of Alcohol Raises the Risk for ARDS a Severe Complication of COVID-19
Heavy consumption of alcohol raises the risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). ARDS is one of the most severe complications of COVID-19 that requires hospitalization and can lead to poor outcomes and death.
Jews only used to Drink Wine
For thousands of years Jews only drank wine. Wine or grape juice are mainly used for making the kiddush blessings on Shabbat and the holidays. Excessive drinking leading to drunkenness was always frowned on. However, with the rise of the Hassidic movement under the Baal Shem Tov, Hassidic Jews began to also use schnapps (hard liquor with higher concentrations of alcohol than wine).
Jews Returning to Israel from Exile Brought New Drinking Habits
Also, Jews returning to live in Israel from our long exile brought new drinking habits they had picked up from the various nations they had lived in such as drinking vodka, arak, whiskey and beer. When I visited Israel in the 60s and again in the early 70s, the only pub in the entire country was in the port of Haifa for American sailors and marines. Today, however, pubs and bars are now found all over Israel. The rise in alcohol consumption has also been accompanied by a rise in accidents, violent crimes, family violence, pedophilia, sexual assaults, suicide, mental illness, early onset dementia, liver diseases, cancer, cardiovascular diseases and addiction.
Custom of Drinking Alcohol on Purim is a Disaster for Recovered Alcoholics and their Families
Many of us have loved ones with addiction problems to alcohol and drugs. Pressuring people on Purim to fulfill the so-called mitzvah of drinking alcohol leads to tremendous further suffering to recovered alcoholics, drug addicts and their families. Years of treatment can be undone in a few seconds. This month saw the great loss to our people of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Twerski zt”l who died from the coronavirus. Rabbi Twerski did so much to help fight addictions in the Jewish community such as introducing the 12 Steps to fighting addiction. He was both a rabbi and a psychiatrist. He will be greatly missed.
Some People have Experienced an Alcoholic Blackout on only a Few Sips of Wine
Some rabbis say a person should only drink a little more alcohol than usual on Purim. While some people seem to be able to drink a lot without getting drunk, a few people have experienced an alcoholic blackout on only a few sips of wine. A blackout is a loss of memory. A blackout can be very dangerous because unlike a stupor where the person is unconscious, the person who is having a blackout is able to do things, but without the person’s ego being present. The mind is blacked out, but the mindless body can still mange to function and terrible crimes and accidents have occurred from blackouts. Drinking a little more than usual can still lead to drunkenness, especially if a person has a blackout, and then continues to drink.
According to Rabbeinu Ephraim it is Forbidden to get Drunk on Purim
This minhag (custom) to drink alcoholic beverages to the point where one can no longer tell the difference between good and evil (Haman and Mordechai) is based on a comment by Rava in the Gemara. However, Rabbi Yehuda Spitz of Ohr Sameach points out that the Gemara recorded several instances/rulings in regard to drinking on Purim.The Gemara first cites the statement of Rava that one should drink on Purim until they would not know the difference between Hamen and Mordechai (good and evil). However, on the very same page the Gemara relates a story about Rabba (not to be confused with Rava) who lived a generation before Rava, although they overlapped a bit. The story related that Rabba invited Rabbi Zeira to celebrate Purim with him. Rabba got drunk and murdered Rabbi Zeira. When Rabba saw what he had done while drunk, Rabba begged HaShem to resurrect R. Zeira and HaShem brought Rabbi Zeira back to life.
Rabbeinu Efraim, who was a Rishon (meaning many centuries after the Gemara was recorded), understood from the Gemara’s placement of the story with Rabba after the ruling of Rava as coming to qualify Rava’s statement – meaning the Gemara meant it as a cautionary tale and not to take Rava’s ruling literally. According to Rabbeinu Ephraim’s understanding, the Gemara’s conclusion was that one should not get drunk on Purim as it may lead to such extreme behavior and tragic outcome.
Preserving Life Overrides Shabbat and Yom Kippur
At any rate, the law of pikuach nefesh (preserving life) overrides even the halachic laws of Shabbat and Yom Kippur, so how much more would pikuach nefesh override a minhag of Purim? Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin of Salant better known as Rabbi Yisrael Salanter once called off a Yom Kippur fast in Vilna, Lithuania. At the time a cholera epidemic was raging and doctors warned him that fasting could weaken people and make them more susceptible to falling ill and catching the raging cholera plague. So since we are to live by the mitzvot (commandments) and not die by them, for the sake of pikuach nefesh he stopped the fast on Yom Kippur morning. See our story The Cholera Epidemic and Eating on Yom Kippur about Rabbi Yisrael Salanter.
Is getting Drunk a Way to Glorify our Great G-D?
For those of you who think that it is a mitzvah to get drunk on Purim I have a question. Is it a mitzvah to get drunk, to vomit, to urinate and even defecate on the streets, spreading diseases while exposing your nakedness? Is this the way to glorify our great G-D who miraculously saved us on Purim from a pending genocidal massacre against all of our people? Is this the way to remember righteous Mordechai and Queen Esther? Esther was brave enough to tell her husband King Ahashuerus that she was also a Jew and was also destined to be killed with her people because of the evil designs of the king’s advisor, Haman. Haman had convinced King Ahashuerus that every Jew from the newborn infant up to the elderly should be killed. The result was that wicked Haman and his sons were hung and the Jews of Persia were saved.
A raging Coronavirus is also attempting to do what Haman Wanted to Do
Tragically today, a raging coronavirus is also attempting to do what Haman wanted to do. This merciless virus has killed infants born and unborn, a pregnant mother of 4 and people and children of all ages. While the first onslaught was mainly against the elderly, today in the coronavirus wards in Israel’s hospitals are infants, children, teenagers, pregnant mothers and young people in serious condition on ventilators and OCEM machines. Tragically, a young pregnant woman and her fetus died late Saturday night in Jerusalem from the coronavirus. The young mother of four, including a one year old baby, had no previous health problems. She had not been vaccinated. She suffered severe respiratory distress and multiple organ damage. Doctors are calling on all pregnant women to get vaccinated as soon as possible after their first three months of pregnancy, although some doctors recommend vaccinating pregnant women even during the first three months.
Israel Health Ministry Warned Hospitals to Prepare for Increase in Serious Cases of COVID-19 in Children
According to YNET news February 16, 2021 there are about 30 children now hospitalized in Israel in serious condition with complications from COVID-19 and a 14 year old boy in critical condition. Also, the Israel Heath Ministry notified hospitals that they should l be prepared for an increase in serious cases of COVID-19 in children over the next two months March/April because of the re-opening of schools and the fact that children have not yet been vaccinated. The British mutation is spreading rapidly among children. Fortunately, most children do not get serious cases. However, many kids who do not show symptoms can spread the virus to other children or adults who might get severe cases. So for this reason parents, teachers and grandparents must be vaccinated as soon as possible.
Purim has Seen many Miracles
Purim has often been a time for miracles. The wicked Czar Nicolas 1 who conscripted Jewish boys from age 12 to serve 30 years in the Russian army died on Purim March 2, 1855. These Jewish boys called cantonists were not allowed to keep any Jewish practices like eating kosher food and many in fact died. When the new Czar Alexander II took over he abolished this terrible conscription law in 1856.
The Gulf War when Sadam Hussein sent more than 40 SCUD rockets against Israel ended on Purim February 28, 1991.
Let us hope and pray that this Purim will see an end to this terrible plague.
Therefore, I urge everyone not to get drunk this Purim and in fact it would be best not to consume any alcohol at all for the sake of pikuach nefesh, saving lives and to help prevent catching and spreading this terrible coronavirus. Since children under age 16 have not been vaccinated, make sure that none of them touch one drop of alcohol. Some families offer alcohol on Purim to boys after they have reached age 13. Please do not do that. Even if we have recovered from COVID-19 or have been vaccinated we can still catch a new mutated strain, especially if our immune systems become weakened from consuming alcohol.
I would suggest that this upcoming Purim that all Jews everywhere celebrate by giving more money to charity and doing good deeds, having a festive seudah (meal) and staying sober. This year Purim should be a holiday for teshuva (turning back to the LORD our G-D. If we do this, then maybe this year we will be able to celebrate the Passover seder together with our families, unlike last year when so many of us sat alone on lock-down on the Seder night. After all, our Great G-D can stop this pandemic in an instant like He did on Lag B’omer when He miraculously stopped the plague that killed thousands of students of Rabbi Akiva during the Roman occupation. However, we have to show Him that we merit His salvation.