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Getting drunk at shul – a communal problem

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From hosting l’chaim clubs to promoting the availability of free alcohol, some shuls are becoming increasingly complicit in the problem of excessive drinking on Shabbos mornings.

With wives bemoaning their husbands’ behaviour, to parents worried about their kids’ alcohol consumption, it’s time to act, say community leaders.

As Purim – a festival traditionally associated with drinking – approaches, the growing relationship between overindulging in alcohol and shul has come under the spotlight. Yet it’s a problem that goes far beyond the chaggim.

“The association between excessive alcohol consumption and shul is most regrettable,” says Rabbi Yossi Chaikin of Oxford Shul and the chairperson of the South African Rabbinical Association. “A l’chaim or two at the brocha is in keeping with the spirit of Shabbos. Getting drunk isn’t in keeping with Judaism. Anytime. Anywhere.”

Speaking of the halacha surrounding alcohol, Rabbi Ron Hendler, the head of the Conversion Programme at the South African Beth Din and rabbi at Northfield Avenue Shul, says that Judaism’s view of alcohol consumption depends on the context.

“Alcohol is neither good nor bad, but it can be used in a positive way, such as for kiddush or drinking four cups of wine on Pesach. It is, in fact, a mitzvah to drink wine at all of one’s Shabbos meals. So, there’s definitely room for alcohol on Shabbos when it enhances your Shabbos experience, but one should consider the honour of the Torah and family.”

The problem arises when people drink excessively, and it becomes a way of being “one of the boys”, he says. “There may be social circles where you are almost ostracised if you don’t participate in having many drinks.”

In such cases – where one encourages someone else to drink to the point that they become ill – says Rabbi Mendel Rabinowitz of Greenside Shul, both parties are guilty of violating Torah law. “The Torah says we’re obligated to look after our bodies that were given to us by Hashem. One of the 613 commandments is that a person has to look after themselves.”

Yet, excessive drinking at shul has become a worldwide problem, says Chaikin. “In many shuls, l’chaim or haftorah clubs are the vogue. This may well violate halacha, as it’s prohibited to walk out of shul at certain points during the service, in particular when the Torah is out of the ark.”

Hendler raises similar concerns. “Shabbos definitely wasn’t created as a drinking holiday with your friends,” he says. “In some communities, it has become common for people to leave shul during Torah reading to drink a l’chaim together. This is a tremendous disgrace to the Torah.”

Rabinowitz agrees, calling such behaviour “atrocious”. He also points to the problem of shuls that use alcohol as a means of attracting people to their services. “Some shuls welcome you at the door with shots of vodka. It’s outrageous,” he says.

Hendler also discusses this trend. “It’s problematic,” he says. “Alcohol is an easy sell, and very tempting to use as a kiruv [the act of bringing secular Jews closer to Judaism] tool.”

Though shuls aren’t in the business of promoting abstention, says Rabinowitz, it’s about managing the role alcohol plays there. “The problem comes when people major in the minor, when the focus of the whole experience of Shabbos morning is how much whiskey you can drink.”

Social worker Tova Goldstein says that one of the positives of being part of a community and going to shul is the wonderful social environment it provides, yet this can have its pitfalls. “In some communities – not all – it seems that alcohol has become a prevailing part of the social aspect of shul,” she says.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a reasonable amount of alcohol at a brocha. Yet, the fact that groups of men leave shul to go and drink and then continue to drink during the brocha, get drunk, and go home drunk, and the fact that this has become the norm, is accepted and even expected, is a huge problem.”

Whether this adversely affects the behaviour of these men at home or they’re simply too tired to give their wife and children attention, shalom bayit (peace in the home) issues often result, says Hendler.

“When men come home from shul drunk, and the wives are left to host a meal with guests, put on a brave face, and pretend that they find it amusing, the use of alcohol in shul needs to be stopped or minimised greatly,” says Goldstein. “Shuls need to take responsibility for the pain caused in marriages due to drunk husbands and unhappy wives every Shabbos.”

Rabinowitz says that in such cases, wives should insist that if the pattern continues, their husbands must either find a new shul or daven at home. “It’s better to daven at home without a minyan in your dining room than to go to shul and daven with one, but create havoc at home,” he says. “What’s more, drinking on Shabbos isn’t an obligation. You don’t have to feel like you can’t enjoy Shabbos without alcohol.”

And what of drinking on Purim? “The famous dictum that we should no longer be able to distinguish between ‘Blessed be Mordechai and cursed be Haman’ is interpreted by halachic authorities in a range of ways – from minimal alcoholic consumption to the extent that we’re not as sharp as we would normally be, to a short wine-induced snooze, during which time we’re not in full control of our mind,” says Chaikin. “None of the interpretations are that we should get paralytically drunk.”

So, what needs to be done to address trends of excessive alcohol consumption at shul? It starts with openly acknowledging the problem, and getting buy-in from the rabbis, experts say.

“As rabbis, we need to deal with these challenges,” says Chaikin. “This means leading by example, and ensuring that consumption at shul events is controlled. Particular care must be taken to keep alcohol away from minors. If they see parents consuming without restriction, this is behaviour they are almost certain to emulate.”

Though parents should undoubtedly be good role models for their children, shuls also need to examine their values and objectives, experts say.

“If family togetherness is a value, if cultivating healthy teenagers is a value, then shuls need to remove things in their community that may get in the way of these values, and create healthy boundaries,” says Goldstein.

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  1. cliff livingstone

    March 14, 2024 at 2:53 pm

    Why no comment from the Rabbi’s of Shuls wher this is happening. Greenside hardly get a Minyan on Shabbat. Opinion needed from Rabbi Katz at Chabad Illovo or Rabbi Masinter from Chabad River Club ?

    Also, when the Rabbi uses a full glass of Vodka to make Kiddish….is that not setting the example ?

  2. Abegail Joffe

    March 26, 2024 at 9:04 am

    Also congregants who are on meds for any form of mental illness, having a “le chaim”when going to shul on Shabbat.

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