Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra‘
In the shadow of Nadav and Avihu’s tragic death, God turns to their father, Aharon, and commands:
Do not drink wine or intoxicating beverage, you and your sons with you, when you come into the Tent of Meeting, and you will not die; this is an eternal decree for your generations. In order to distinguish between the sacred and the profane and between the impure and the pure, and to teach the children of Israel all of the statutes that God has spoken to them through Moshe.
While the text seems to clearly prohibit the consumption of any alcoholic beverage during the Kohen’s fulfillment of his functions as priest and educator, the Talmud, after extensive debate, limits the full biblical prohibition to the ingestion of “intoxicating amounts” of wine. In further discussion, many halachists delineate additional, less severe penalties both for the consumption of other intoxicating beverages and for smaller amounts of wine. Finally, most scholars extend the requirement of sobriety during the teaching and application of the law to all teachers and not only to the Kohanim.
Moving beyond the technical aspects of the law, numerous commentaries focus on its potential motivation. The Torah’s concern, they say, centers on the debilitating effects of alcohol. An individual who is inebriated to any degree will neither be able to properly execute the Sanctuary service nor appropriately engage in halachic discussion and decision making. The Torah therefore prohibits the consumption of wine as a safeguard against possible intoxication.
Why are these commandments necessary?
Given the intricate detail of the Sanctuary service; given the clear repeated divine warnings concerning the potential consequences of error in that service; given the overwhelming specter of Nadav and Avihu’s death as an apparent result of ritual deviation; given the fact that proper halachic decisions clearly require one’s full faculties; why would anyone assume that these functions could be performed in a state of intoxication? Why must the Torah state the obvious?
To go one step further, if the Torah’s fundamental concern is potential error in the Sanctuary service or in halachic deliberation, why frame the prohibition as a ban upon alcoholic beverages? Why not simply reiterate a general warning that these disciplines must be approached with awe, reverence and caution?
Finally, if this law is based on the potentially debilitating effects of alcohol, why is a difference drawn in the Talmud between wine and other intoxicating beverages? Shouldn’t all substances that could potentially lead to inebriation be equally prohibited?
An astute observation made by a museum guide during one of my first trips to Israel can help us frame an answer to these questions.
“You can deduce,” he said, “common practice within a society from the legal edicts enacted by its government.”
“Centuries from now,” he continued to explain, “when the ruins of this museum are excavated, archaeologists will not find signs in the rubble stating ‘No bicycle riding.’ Since it is not current common practice in our day to ride bicycles through museums, legal postings prohibiting such behavior are not necessary and will not be part of the archaeological record.
“Excavators will, however, find ‘No smoking’ signs. This discovery will lead them to correctly surmise that smoking was likely to occur in public buildings during the twentieth to twenty-first centuries and that the administrators of this museum moved to prevent such activity.”
This comment may well shed light on the Torah’s concern for the sobriety of the Kohanim.
God finds it necessary to prohibit the consumption of wine during ritual and intellectual religious activity in response to “common practice” of the time.
The use of alcohol and other psychoactive drugs was an integral component of the religious rites of many ancient cultures. Rather than viewing inebriation and similar “escapist” behaviors as impediments to spiritual search, these societies considered the use of psychoactive substances an essential prerequisite of that very search.
Archaeological evidence, in fact, traces the use of psychoactive drugs in every age and on every continent from prehistoric times to the present. In modern times, the term entheogen (meaning literally “generating the divine within”) has been coined to refer to vision-producing drugs taken to bring on a spiritual experience. (Gordon Wasson, The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980), xiv) The use of such substances, many have believed across the ages, enables man to loosen the shackles of his earthly existence and truly encounter the Divine.
In direct opposition to this approach, normative Judaism preaches an “earthly” encounter with our Creator. As we have consistently seen (see Shmot: Shmot 3, Approaches D, E; Yitro 2, Approaches C, D), one of the Torah’s primary messages is that God is to be found and experienced in this world, with our feet firmly planted on the ground. The Sforno maintains that Moshe, our greatest prophet, achieved his greatness specifically because of his ability to relate to God without relinquishing his physical senses. (Sforno, Shmot 33:11)
The ban on alcoholic consumption in specific settings, therefore, does not emerge solely from apprehension over alcohol’s potentially debilitating effects. A much more fundamental philosophical issue is reflected in this prohibition.
God’s message to His people is once again clear: I am not to be found in the mists at the summit of Sinai. I am not to be encountered in esoteric visions or “out of body” experiences. You are to find Me in your world through performance of My mitzvot, through the sober study, application and living of My law.
We can now also understand, as well, the distinction made in the law between wine and other intoxicating substances. Wine, even more than other psychoactive materials, has long occupied a particular place in religious ritual. This fact is evidenced at both extremes within Jewish law. On the one hand, because of the unique status of wine in pagan culture, the Torah mandates the prohibition of yayin nesech (wine that has been used for idolatrous purposes and is, therefore, prohibited to all Jews at all times). On the other hand, wine, in moderation, finds its positive place within Jewish practice, used to mark special occasions and events.
Had the Torah’s only concern been for potential error on the part of the Kohanim, all intoxicating beverages would have been treated equally. By singling wine out for special attention, however, the Torah communicates that there is more to this prohibition than meets the eye. Wine used properly and in moderation, the Torah teaches, like all of God’s physical creations, enhances our appreciation of the Divine. When used to escape reality, however, all psychoactive substances undermine our spiritual search, which is predicated on creating a union in our lives between heaven and earth.
At the dawn of our history, as the spiritual search of our nation begins, God again reiterates the distinction between Judaism and the surrounding cultures. Others may find their spiritual path predicated upon an escape from the realities of the physical world. Our path, however, is based upon the embrace and sanctification of that very world.