Question & Answer With Chabakuk Elisha - Alcohol & Chassidus
A Simple Jew asks:
The second will and testament of Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk contains these items:
Never drink during the week, neither spirits nor wine, whatsoever - only do so when you have a guest or if there is a specific reason, then you should only drink one cup. On Shabbos it is permitted to drink an ounce of Arak, and two or three ounces of wine - not more.
Never become intoxicated, even on Purim or Simchas Torah - drink only two or three cups of wine.
Why do you think that drinking alcohol was something that was singled out by Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk?
Chabakuk Elisha answers:
There are differing views on alcohol, and indeed, alcohol has a positive a negative side. Like many things, the "dark side" – which comes easier – can easily become the norm, even if the original intent was quite different. In hard times, alcohol can be an escape from trouble, in good times it can be an escape from boredom into fun and frivolity. Alcohol in small doses is healthy and has great benefits, and of course, excessive alcohol is decidedly unhealthy and can cause great damage. How do we insure that proper care is taken with so potent a substance?
Intoxication is a certain freedom. It frees us up to speak or act without inhibitions and without self-consciousness – and as such, there are times when a little intoxication may be viewed as a positive: For a truly refined person, a little alcohol will perhaps allow them to shine forth and their refined inner-self will come out, whereas, for the average person, the result may be a little embarrassing or even destructive. The question is, however, is that a reason to take a no-tolerance attitude? Was R' Mendele's son not especially refined? Isn't R' Mendele being a little extreme here? After all, the problem is only excessive drinking and only if the drinker is of low character, right?
I don't know what R' Mendele had in mind, but in my opinion it comes down to three things: 1. Alcohol, when it comes down to it, is the opposite of self-control. 2. Alcohol is addictive. 3. Alcohol is a short cut.
1. These three points fly in the face of the foundations of derech hachassidus. It is often said that a chossid must be a mesudar; hefkeirus undermines avoda and progress. Self-control is a foundation stone upon which Yiddishkeit in general (and Chassidus specifically) emphasizes: A Jew is obligated to control his desires – be it food, time, speech, interaction, taharas hamishpocha, you name it – self-control is a virtue that we promote very highly, and this is especially discussed in chassidishe seforim. Alchohol runs contrary to that ideal.
2. Addiction. Is there anything sadder than a human slave? Should we enslave ourselves, even if only a little bit, to a bottle? Can a chossid, who seeks to serve Hashem in all his ways, be a slave to OLD No.7?
3. A Chassid doesn't take short cuts. The advantages of a little alcohol can be gained through hard work as well, and that's the optimal way. There are quick-fixes and "kuntzen" (tricks) for all kinds of things, but derech hachassidus looks askance at the short cuts; do-it-right-and-do-it-real is the way of Chassidus. As such, what possible point is left for drinking mashke?
Of course, we do see that many Chassidim do have the minhag to drink, and although I haven't made a study of this, I suspect that R' Mendele's statement is unusual. In Lubavitch, for example, the attitude is quite the opposite:
"On the 24th Teves, 5663, the Rebbe Rashab gave three reasons as to why chassidim drink mashkeh (1. I t is a mitzvah to offer from the "hedyot" (Eruvin 63a, Yoma 21b) 2. "one gives the animal to drink before shechitah" (Baitzah 40a) 3."one waters the correct place."), and he said, "We need to be careful about drinking mashkeh. I say "we" as an heir to my holy fathers. My father taught me how to take mashkeh. When I was Bar Mitzvah he gave me a cup of mashkeh to say lechaim on. Those present protested that I was still too young. My father then answered: "The reason I am giving him mashkeh is so he stop being a naar (a child). It was then that my father explained to me the well-known tune, Nee Zshuritshi Chloptzi."
I'm not equipped to resolve to explain the differences in approach, but I once asked a respected Lubavitcher about this apparent difference in approach from R' Mendele, and he said:
"The position in Lubavitch is that we look at people based on their potential. We have the highest expectations for each human, and by expecting so much we hope they will strive constantly higher than they ever thought possible. Other tzaddikim were perhaps more realistic and less idealistic, and wanted to emphasize safer approaches – knowing that people have a tendency to come-up-short of expectations. Perhaps R' Mendele felt that the risk was too great, while in Lubavitch the Rabbeim felt that Chassidim, if they only learn to drink mashkeh properly, could benefit from it, and therefore didn't take that approach."
However, it has been my experience that very little (if any) visible good has come from drinking mashkeh; and as to the negatives, were better off not elaborating on them…