Today’s daf (Nedarim 49b) relates how a certain Roman noblewoman who saw Rabbi Yehuda with such a radiant face that she erroneously drew the conclusion that he must have been drunk, critically retorted to him, “How can a rabbi who makes religious decisions be someone who is drunk?!”. To this, Rabbi Yehuda replied that he never drinks any alcohol aside from when he makes kiddush, Havdalah and during Seder night, and that when he does drink the four cups of wine on Seder night he suffers from a horrific headache that lasts for many weeks. Instead, as the Gemara then adds, Rabbi Yehuda’s face was not shining due to him being inebriated. Instead, it was because, as we are taught in Kohelet 8:1, ‘wisdom brightens the face’.
Personally, while I do not claim to have the kind of wisdom that brightens the face, where I am similar to Rabbi Yehuda is the fact that I too, with the rarest of exceptions, don’t drink wines or spirits. Like him, the primary reason for this is simply because these don’t really agree with me. But also like him, a further reason is because the one thing I try to maintain, wherever possible, is a clarity of mind which, at least for me, is dulled when one drinks.
However, this choice makes me somewhat of an anomaly, because drinking seems – at least in certain communities – to be synonymous with attending smachot, kiddushim, oneg shabbats, shalom zachars, fabrengens etc. In fact, notwithstanding the very respectful manner with which I say ‘thanks but no thanks’ to hosts who wish to pour me a whiskey, a vodka etc., there can be those who perceive my personal choice as a form of insult– notwithstanding the fact that my reasons for declining are what I’d like to think to be relatively noble i.e. so that I can learn Torah with clarity, and be totally present for my wife and children.
Naturally, my remarks are in no way meant to criticize those who have the occasional drink. Furthermore, different people react differently to wines and spirits – which means that my reaction to consuming alcohol is likely different to others. However, the social pressure to drink is significant, and beyond the very serious risks that this brings when young people try to emulate their parents (see this incredibly powerful video produced by Amudim titled ‘The Kiddush Club’ – https://youtu.be/TYbQ19I455Y ), there are many adults who are cajoled into drinking even when they’d rather not or when it is not good for them or their families.
Overall, what is clear from today’s daf is that the image of a religious Jew who is drunk is not a favourable image in the eyes and minds of others. That there is a very real cost to drinking beyond whatever you pay for the bottle in a store. That while there are the rare occasions when wine is drunk for ritual purposes, drinking isn’t and shouldn’t be considered synonymous with Orthodox Jewish life. And that there are many ways, other than through drinking alcohol, to have a face that radiates.