April 23, 2019

Purim: When the Sin Becomes the Mitzvah

The festival of Purim is known for its carnivalesque tenor — a day of unmitigated joy, a celebration of Jewish survival. This exuberant expression of divine disclosure led the rabbis to view Purim as the final iteration of the theophany at Mount Sinai. But lurking right beneath the surface is a dark secret. Purim is a day when transgression becomes necessary — a day of aveirah lishma (sin for the sake of heaven).

The normative halachic tradition developed a series of directives (mitzvot ha-yom) to performatively shape what was viewed as the very core of the story that includes the expression of joy and the commandment to hate. The liturgical insertion for Purim, the Al’ha-Nisim prayer, is one of the oldest extant liturgical formulas. It begins with setting the day as a battle between good (Mordecai) and evil (Haman). It then moves to praising God for turning evil into good, introducing Purim’s distinctive quality of inversion (v’nahafoch hu). The prayer concludes with something we rarely see in classical Jewish texts: the celebration of murder in the hanging of Haman and his sons — “And they hanged him and his sons on a tree.” It is not surprising that some siddurim add an addendum in parenthesis about divine miracles, as if to say that the sages felt uncomfortable ending a prayer with the celebration of murder. But, in fact, that is part of what Purim is about.

Thus, the day celebrates survival and “commands” hate — the hatred of evil, the celebration of its demise and waiting for absolute evil (Amalek) to succumb to the power of good. There is something here that is dissonant to the Jewish ear. Although violence has always been a part of any human collective history, Judaism does not generally celebrate human violence in such an open, ceremonial and ritualistic fashion. The story’s surprising and unexpected turning of evil into good is part of the emotional charge that enables us to celebrate violence. But what of this inversion? How systemic is it? Can the divine power that is able to make evil into good also make the prohibited into the permissible? Does not Purim, with its focus on inversion, have an innate antinomian (anti-legal) strain? Inversion … rising above the binary of good and evil … divine absence revealed as divine presence (God’s absence from the story reveals God’s innate presence at the end) … v’nahafoch hu, the notion that everything is different than it appears (performed through wearing masks) — these motifs all point to something that erases the line that separates what we see and what really is, from evil to good, from prohibited to permissible.

The mitzvah to become inebriated (levasumei) on Purim, to achieve a state where there is “no difference between blessed (Mordecai) and cursed (Haman),” is another iteration of this same motif. The goal of inebriation in regard to Purim is to experientially enact the rupture of the binary that stands at the center of the entire rabbinic worldview (what is permissible and what is forbidden — issur v’heter). It is thus not far from “sin for the sake of heaven” (aveirah lishma). Much of what is written about Purim revolves around questions of good and evil, the nature and character of inversion, and the permissibility, even obligation, to celebrate death. Let us recall that the midrash has God chastising Israel for celebrating the death of the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds. But on Purim we celebrate the death of the enemy. These questions illustrate what I am calling, Purim as aveirah lishma.

“Purim provides the occasion for a seismic and dramatic good/evil inversion that breaks the binary of ‘blessed’ and ‘cursed.'”

Averiah lishma is a much-discussed jurisprudential category, denoting instances when prohibitions can become temporarily permitted. Thus, aveirah lishma functions inside the halachic orbit, a legal category that leaves open the possibility that deviance can sometimes be required. My exploration of Purim as aveirah lishma will be based on my reading of a short essay in Rabbi Ya’akov Moshe Charlap’s “Mei Marom.” Charlap (1882-1951) was born and died in Jerusalem, having lived there his entire life. A respected member of the Old Settlement Jewish community — he was rabbi of the Sha’arei Hesed neighborhood in Jerusalem — he became a Zionist and a close friend (talmid chaver) of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. He served as dean (rosh yeshiva) of the Yeshivat Mercaz ha-Rav Kook from its founding in 1924 until his death in 1951, after which the position went to Kook’s son, R. Zvi Yehuda Kook. Charlap wrote a number of important works including the multivolume “Mei Marom” dedicated to Torah commentary, essays on the festivals, and Musar. Before turning to Charlap’s rendering of Purim as aveirah lishma, I will offer a few brief reflections on the structural nature of aveirah lishma.

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In his Hebrew essay, “Averah Lishma: Reflections in Law and Thought,” Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein suggests three traditional responses to cases where one’s sense of divine mandate and halachah conflict, a condition that arguably enables aveirah lishma to become operative. The first response is that such a breach is simply impossible; halachah is the will of God, and thus halachah can and should provide the solution to all potential problems. The second response is that such a breach is indeed possible but has few, if any, practical implications. I understand this to mean that while halachah and divine will can be in conflict, in principle the instances where this occurs are minimal enough as to not pose any threat to the legal system. The third response is both more radical and more conservative than the first two. It suggests that one can actually come to know divine will outside of halachah, but one is still forbidden to follow it because one’s primary responsibility is to the law, “even though it may err.” In this third case, irredeemable conflict between one’s sense of divine mandate and halachah is affirmed and, by implication, that one’s sense of personal mandate may indeed better express divine will than normative practice. This is the space out of which aveirah lishma evolves.

There are, of course, numerous biblical passages that gesture toward the notion that transgressions can sometimes be permitted, often leaning on the verse in Psalms, “How can one act for God, they are desecrating your Torah” (Psalm 119:126). However, this and many other cases of aveirah lishma are episodic and thus cannot support a more systemic break with normative halachah. Thus, the law remains, even “as it may err.” Except, that is, in cases of aveirah lishma. In that case, the halachah is inverted and the aveirah becomes the halachah itself.

One illustration of aveirah lishma that views Purim as a peculiar case of “necessary transgression” comes from Charlap’s collection “Mei Marom.” In an essay about Purim titled “The Obligatory Hatred of Amalek as Aveirah Lishma in a Temporary Setting (hora’at shah),” Charlap begins with the following provocative statement:

There are times when it is impossible for the world to continue (kiyum ha-olam) in its complete purity except by means of transgression in a temporary setting (aveirah b’hora’at shah). And even though this temporary setting is Torah … nevertheless the act [of aveirah lishma] still contains a remnant of transgression. For example, we learn that a light that was kindled by a gentile on Shabbat cannot be used for the light of Havdalah, even though we hold that a gentile is not commanded on the Sabbath laws. To the contrary, “A gentile who keeps the Sabbath is liable to the death penalty (b.T. Sanhedrin 58b).” Nonetheless, there is still a hint of transgression in the light.

Charlap goes on to suggest that the commandment of becoming inebriated (levasumei) on Purim is similar, as the drunken state disables the ability to distinguish between good and evil. When Amalek emerges as an operative force that will try to destroy the world, a temporary situation (hora’at shah) is set in motion to oppose that force from being victorious. Such a situation and goal would require the transgressive to be temporarily permitted. Purim is thus a commemorative iteration of this “temporary setting.” It is the day when one must descend to pure physicality through inebriation, the day when one must celebrate survival and also hate; all of this dark energy so that the evil forces, or “sitra akhra,” will be chocked and consequently destroyed. For Charlap, the temporary situation (hora’at shah) instituted by the continued existence of Amalek exists at all times. Purim, however, is the one day of the year when Israel can have some deep impact on Amalek’s demise. However, they can do so only by acting in a transgressive manner that, in that moment, becomes obligatory. Purim provides the occasion for a seismic and dramatic good/evil inversion that breaks the binary of “blessed” and “cursed.” Purim is the day when the sin becomes the mitzvah.

For Charlap, the inversion — breaking the good/evil binary — is required to understand the hatred and even murder of Amalek, a centerpiece of Purim. Under normal circumstances, hatred, murder and debauchery are inexcusable transgressions, and it is only the divine command to hate Amalek that makes hatred and the aspiration of genocide into a mitzvah. And yet, Charlap writes that an element of transgression still remains in those behaviors on Purim (celebrating genocide and destabilizing the boundary between good and evil), even as Jews are commanded to perform them. The rabbinic notion of “the nullification of Torah is its fulfillment” seems operative here, as if to say that aveirah lishma is a category internal to the halachic system itself. Halachah, on this reading, cannot fully repair the world; its abrogation, as aveirah lishma, must accompany it.

Charlap uses the category “temporary setting” (hora’at shah) as the condition of aveirah lishma that defines Purim. But how are we to understand the structural parameters that constitute a temporary setting (hora’at shah) and how long does such a setting last? Here the category of “national emergency” may help. There have been four instances a national emergency has been declared in U.S. history (1933, 1950, 1970 and 1971). Even though none of them has ever been formally revoked, each time the society reverted to a normative legislative process once the emergency was no longer considered operative. Perhaps the lack of an official end to the emergency points to the fact that something about the state of emergency remains, just not enough to justify executive privilege to act outside the law. This remaining element of emergency after the return to normalcy (its nonrevocation) enables us to see the permitted actions of an emergency as essentially flawed, even if they may have been necessary. During normal times they remain operative but relegated to the realm of the prohibited. The presence, or resonance, of the emergency in that normal space illuminates its prohibitive state (i.e., it is always overruled as an acceptable mode of behavior). Charlap’s view is that the sin that becomes the mitzvah, yet still retains an element of sin even when it is in a mitzvah state, may resemble the actions taken in a state of emergency.

While Charlap doesn’t say all of this specifically, this is how I understand his reflections on Purim as aveirah lishma. It is significant to remember that, in general, Charlap often echoed his teacher Rabbi Abraham Kook on the paradigm of aveirah lishma to describe secular Zionism. Here, I think he is also echoing Kook by taking the idea of aveirah lishma in a slightly different direction. The secularism of Zionism is, by definition, transient and temporary. Elsewhere Charlap writes, “With the grace of God, God’s glory can be revealed in Israel through its status as a people and a nation, even in a secular form.” But the secular, according to Charlap, can never be truly holy. It may only be temporarily necessary.

“We are commanded on Purim to engage in transgressive acts, even, or precisely because, our inclination would be against doing them.”

Charlap adds another layer to this novel idea. He offers a metaphysical rendering of a temporary setting that would result in making a transgression a mitzvah without erasing all of its transgressive qualities. One might assume that the remaining remnant of transgression exists (although Charlap never says so explicitly). Accordingly, when the temporary setting abates, when normalcy returns, it can return to its transgressive status and not be permanently absorbed into the system of the holy. Here it is necessary to quote Charlap at some length:

Here is the general principle: The foundation of all mitzvot is to establish unity, and transgression establishes separation, all evildoers are scattered (Psalm 92:10). How does this work? A mitzvah can and must be established with the will of the soul and the body together. This exemplifies the true perfection out of which the supernal unity is revealed. A sin, however, can never exist from [that place of] unity. Thus, the soul is never in agreement with the body and its appetites. The sign of this temporary setting (hora’at shah) is when that unity is impossible to achieve [in a normal state]. On the one hand, there is the pain in that we are in a place where this sin has been [or has needed to be] turned into a mitzvah. On the other hand, there is joy that we are able to fulfill the will of God and God’s commandments specifically in this multitudinous manner that fulfills the very purpose of a temporary setting….  From here we can understand the sages when they teach, “One must become inebriated on Purim until one does not know the difference between cursed Haman and blessed Mordecai.” (b.T. Megillah 7b). The whole notion of inebriation is like a “temporary setting” that continues to exist as long as Amalek does. But when there truly is no difference between cursed Haman and blessed Mordecai, everything will be considered in the realm of blessed Mordecai. At that time, the temporary setting will end and the obligation to becomes inebriated will cease being operative.

In many ways, this counters what one might expect from Charlap, who was adept in kabbalistic literature. One might say inebriation of Purim brings one to a messianic consciousness. Charlap says no. Once that future arrives (when the “emergency” ends), the need for the aveirah lishma (pure physicality to destroy the Amalekite evil in that physicality) will become unnecessary and the act of inebriation will return to its prohibitive state. Alternatively, aside from Purim as a temporary state of inversion, Jews do not have the requisite power to confront Amalek through transgression. The normative system remains intact. The “inebriated” state returns to its prohibitive nature. In the end time, inebriation won’t be necessary because evil will have been eradicated. In normal times inebriation is not permitted, simply because it won’t be effective. The necessity of inebriation is only obligatory in a temporary setting (hora’at shah) that permits it — that is, the day of Purim itself. Until that time when hora’at shah is lifted, however, the temporary state which requires aveirah lishma remains, becoming operative once a year, on Purim.

This approach offers an interesting rendering of Lichtenstein’s third category of aveirah lishma. “One can actually come to know divine will outside of halachah, but one is still forbidden to follow it since one’s primary responsibility is to the law, even though it may err.” According to Charlap, Purim is a temporary state whereby one’s general intuition of divine will would incline against hatred and rupturing the binary nature of halachah, and yet “the law” on that day commands acting against those inclinations by hating Amalek and getting to the place where there is no difference between “blessed Mordechai” and “cursed Haman.” The reason is that the day represents the persistence of evil, which would require frontal and proximate engagement to destroy its efficacy by means of what would normally be sinful acts. And yet the temporariness of the moment is reiterated by the fact that a specter of transgression remains precisely in those acts that the law commands. In this sense, Purim becomes the quintessence of aveirah lishma, albeit in reverse.

We are commanded on Purim to engage in transgressive acts, even, or precisely because, our inclination would be against doing them. But it is only through such transgressions that Purim can achieve its purpose: to enable us to believe evil can be destroyed through inversion. But let us not think that transgressive halachah can extend beyond the “temporary setting” of that day. It cannot. And thus, after Purim the very thing that was the law on Purim reverts to its prohibitive state. The sign of this, for Charlap and Kook, is that the inversion is never complete, the permissible-transgressive act never fully loses its prohibitive nature, even in the act of mitzvah. The sin that becomes the mitzvah still remains a sin, albeit one that we are commanded to do precisely in order to alleviate the “temporary setting” that requires its performance.


Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies at Indiana University and the Distinguished Fellow in Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College.