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Rebbe for a Day

Aharon Rubin

Think a Purim Rav is just a tipsy badchan or jokester? They’re actually respected Torah scholars and community leaders, but once a year, they don the rebbe’s garb and — following in the footsteps of their holy predecessors — bring down an abundance of blessing for Klal Yisrael on this most auspicious day when all requests are granted.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

“Purim Rav.”The phrase connotes both humor and halachah, reverence and revelry, symbolizing Purim’s holy moments of solemnity intertwined with joyous celebration. Some people assume a Purim Rav is just another part of the day’s merrymaking spirit of “v’nahafoch hu,” but this little-understood minhag actually originated for a practical reason: Since it is forbidden to issue a halachic ruling while one is intoxicated, the rav of a community would not be able to fulfill the mitzvah of becoming drunk on Purim as long as he retained the responsibility of answering the community’s halachic queries. As a result, a policy developed for the rav to select another talmid chacham to be available to answer questions in his stead. This talmid chacham would refrain from becoming inebriated on Purim, or would at least sober up in time to trade off with the rav. It was only in later years that the institution of Purim Rav lent itself to frivolity — but a Purim Rav is not necessarily a Purim shpiel, and in the holy chassidic courts, the Purim Rav was a vessel for breaking decrees, not people. In fact, the Shpoler Zeideh used to appoint not only a rav, but a king, a judge, sextons, and community leaders on Purim, and use them all to implement judgments and rescind decrees that would benefit other Jews who were in distress.

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