It’s Purim; Let’s Party
Purim is a topsy-turvy holiday. By encouraging us to invert the norms of communal behavior, Purim teaches us the boundaries of those norms.
Take the example of שְׁתִיָה (shetiyyah), drinking. The rabbis tell us that on Purim, contrary to normative Jewish behavior, we are supposed to get so שָׁתוּי (shatui), drunk, that we bless evil
Haman and curse heroic Mordecai. This example of rabbinic thinking is more nuanced in the Purim story itself, recounted in the Book of Esther. There the Hebrew root ש-ת-ה(shin, tav, heh), to drink, plays a starring role.
This is so in the word מִשְׁתֶּה (mishteh), drinking party or banquet. The Book of Esther begins with a gala mishteh given by the king, followed by a מִשְׁתֵּה נָשִׁים (mishteh nashim), “women’s party” offered by the queen. Some grammarians suggest that the lack of a preposition between these two Hebrew nouns means that the party was particularly “womanly” in style and content. When Esther later accedes to Vashti’s throne, she hosts not one mishteh but two מִשׁתָּאת (mishta’ot) or מִשׁתִּים (mishtim), parties—neither of these masculine plural words is found in Scripture—dramatizing her goal of unmasking Haman’s evil plot against the Jews.
Among other mishteh hosts in the Torah are Abraham, on the day Isaac is weaned; and Laban, to celebrate the marriage he engineers between his elder daughter, Leah, and Jacob. Today’s custom of celebrating a marriage with sheva brakhot, seven parties, literally, seven blessings, is attributed to Samson’s שִׁבְעַת יְמֵי הַמִּשְׁתֶּה (shiv’at yemei ha-mishteh), seven feast days, rejoicing at his ill-fated marriage to a Philistine woman. Maybe that’s why Ecclesiastes declares that it is better to frequent a house of mourning than a בֵּית מִשְׁתֶּה (beit mishteh), house of feasting.
The root for לִשְׁתּת (lishtot), to drink, appears more than 200 times in Scripture, most movingly in the story of Abraham’s servant, sent to secure a wife for his master’s son. The servant recognizes that Rebecca is appropriate when, at a well, she says to him, שְׁתֵה (sheteh), drink, “and I will also draw water for your camels.” The rabbis of Pirke Avot use the root metaphorically when they advise לִשְׁתּת בְּצָמָא דִבְרֵיהֶם (lishtot be-tsama divreihem), “to drink the words of the Sages thirstily.”
Today, at the office, one proffers a שְׁתִיָה (shetiyyah), toast, a modest drinking ceremony to celebrate a successful team job. When a task is handled foolishly the boss may ask מַה שָׁתִיתָ (mah shatitah), what have you been drinking? On Purim, of course, it’s always the opposite.