By Rav David Silverberg
The Torah in Parashat Shemini introduces the prohibition against performing the avoda in the Beit Ha-mikdash in a state of intoxication. After issuing this prohibition, the Torah adds that this law was established “to teach the Israelites all the statutes which the Lord spoke to them through Moshe” (10:11). Rashi, based on Torat Kohanim and the Gemara (Keritut 13b), comments that this verse extends the prohibition to include “instruction” – meaning, halakhic decision-making. Meaning, just as it is forbidden for kohanim to enter the Temple and perform the service after drinking wine, it is similarly forbidden for a scholar to issue halakhic rulings after drinking wine, as this can distort his judgment and reasoning.
Interestingly, the Gemara (there in Keritut) draws a distinction in this regard between teaching Torah generally and issuing halakhic rulings. Although it is forbidden to reach a practical halakhic ruling under the influence of alcohol, one may study and teach theoretical Torah material in such a state. The Gemara noted that despite this distinction, Rav would not teach Torah at all after drinking wine. The reason, the Gemara explains, is that given his stature of rabbinic authority, any Torah he taught was regarded as a practical halakhic ruling. Accordingly, the Rambam (Hilkhot Bi’at Ha-mikdash 1:4), rules that a “chakham kavu’a le-hora’a” – a scholar who holds an official position as a halakhic decisor – may not teach Torah at all after drinking wine, “because his teaching is practical instruction.”
How might we understand this distinction between the theoretical study of Torah and practical halakhic rulings? After all, if Halakha is concerned that the influence of wine will distort a scholar’s mental faculties and cause him to err, what difference does it make whether he studies practical halakha or theoretical material? Shouldn’t a scholar be discouraged from reaching erroneous conclusions regarding Torah even when engaging in theoretical study?
Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, in Oznayim La-Torah, explains that wine can actually be beneficial in Torah study, as it broadens the mind and allows it to conceive of ideas and concepts that could not be considered in a state of sobriety. Alcohol has the effect of loosening the shackles that normally restrain our mental faculties and keep our thinking process from veering beyond narrow limits of accepted and conventional lines of reasoning. As such, study after drinking wine is specifically not discouraged, because a scholar in such a state can, potentially, be more creative and arrive at insights that otherwise he might not have considered. Halakhic rulings, however, cannot be reached without first thoroughly questioning and challenging one’s ideas to ensure they are sound. In a state of intoxication, a person is capable of creative thinking, but he has limited critical abilities. He can thus arrive at new insights, but will not likely be able to raise potential challenges and objections to test them and ensure their validity. For this reason, Rav Sorotzkin writes, although a scholar may study and teach after drinking, he is prohibited from issuing halakhic rulings, which may not be reached before they are first subject to thorough review and critique.
Originally appears on VBM