As we approach Purim this election year, we may be tempted to have an extra drink. We may even be attracted to Ahasuerus’ magnanimous approach to alcohol at his 180-day feast: “Royal wine was served in abundance, as befits a king, in golden beakers, beakers of varied design. And the rule for the drinking was, ‘No restrictions!’ For the king had given orders to every palace steward to comply with each man’s wishes” [Esther 1:7-8].
The king’s stewards were basically bartenders tasked only with not holding back. Those in the ancient Persian empire clearly knew how to party. In fact, the Hebrew word “mishte,” specifically a wine party, appears 20 times in the Book of Esther and only 24 other times throughout the Hebrew Bible. It is not surprising that when Esther wanted to get the king’s attention, she made not one, but two, wine parties.
But back to “no restrictions” for a moment. Rashi, in his commentary on Esther 1:7, describes what can only sound to the modern ear as a fraternity party where guests were normally forced to drink the contents of large vessels, regardless of their consent. This echoes Josephus’ reading of events in “Antiquities,” pointing out that the king was being a good host: “He [Ahasuerus] also gave order to the servants, that they should not force them to drink by bringing them wine continually, as is the practice of the Persians, but to permit every one of the guests to enjoy himself according to his own inclination.”
Ahasuerus was not alone in his predilections. Tom Standage, in “A History of the World in 6 Glasses,” describes ancient banquet scenes in a similar fashion. Guests used to drink in excess from “shallow bowls, seated on wooden couches and flanked by attendants, some of whom hold jugs of wine, while others hold fans, or perhaps flyswatters to keep insects away from the precious liquid.” In that spirit, Standage describes a 10-day banquet of Ashurnasirpal II, where beer was replaced with wine, a sign that the royal house spared no expense since wine was not likely produced in his empire: “Serving wines from distant regions within his empire…underlined the extent of his power.”
Expensive wine was naturally served in expensive bowls or glasses, both at Ahasuerus’ party and at the only other foreign royal drinking party in the Hebrew Bible. In the Book of Daniel, a drunk King Belshazzar calls for the best that he owns: “Under the influence of the wine, Belshazzar ordered the gold and silver vessels that his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the Temple in Jerusalem to be brought so that the king and his nobles, his consorts and his concubines could drink for them. They drank wine and praised gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone” [Dan. 5:1-4]. Drinking out of magnificent conquered cups, for King Belshazzar, was a demonstration of beauty, muscle and bravado. For us, it was a selfish act of exploitation.
The Talmud not only assumes that the vessels Ahasuerus used for wine were also from the Temple, but that the king also wore, as a display of power, the priestly garments [B.T. Megillah 12b]. This rabbinic reading is not surprising given that Esther is the only book in the Bible to open with a lavish party in a lavish palace that competed with the Temple in its description. The rabbis were concerned that the seductions of Persian life had drawn the Jews of Shushan and its environs to Ahasuerus’ world while forgetting the centrality of the Temple to their lives.
Rashi, citing the Talmud, also suggests this in a subtle but compelling way. Not only were there no restrictions placed on the alcohol, but wine was dispensed according to “each man’s wishes.” Here, the medieval French commentator adds his interpretation: “Each man’s wishes means that every person was served wine native to his own country.” This small, passable comment suggests what those far away from home most crave: the tastes of their own country. The ultimate expression of exile is living far away from home and pretending it’s home.
We would be wise to think carefully about the Book of Esther’s subtle exhortations when wine, beer and hard liquor are offered excessively as a recruitment tool or an instrument to win Jewish hearts at social events and on college campuses. Maybe we can think twice when alcohol is served in excess at Jewish organizational functions and kiddushes as a centerpiece and a staple. It seems, of late, that Ahasuerus’ party continues into Jewish happy hours everywhere. I hold my breath, hope that there is a designated driver and say a silent prayer that, for the buzz of recruitment, we have not created the roots of addiction.
Alcohol is the sponsoring beverage of the Book of Esther precisely because it is the ultimate symbol of exile. It speaks to arbitrary fate and impulsivity. It catalyzes rage and poor decision-making, propelling the actions of the Megillah from chapter to chapter. Alcohol blurs discretion. It makes evil look tempting, and the diaspora look like one’s birthplace. If the wine were really from the native countries represented in Ahasuerus’ empire, it would have offered the enticement of home without any of its protections.
Erica Brown directs the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at George Washington University and is the author of the new book, “Esther: Power, Fate and Fragility in Exile” (Koren).