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Seedy Delicacies: Esther the Secret Vegan

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If you’ve ever attended a lavish banquet, especially in a culture other than your own, you’ve probably been offered an unfamiliar delicacy.

Now imagine that the delicacy offered to you is actually pig skins. And since you’re Jewish, you don’t eat pork. Maybe you’re used to lamb or some other animals, but there’s no way you’re going to consume those pork skins unless your life depends on it.

Babylonian Talmud Megillah 13a

ושמואל אמר שהאכילה קדלי דחזירי 

And Shmuel said that he fed her pig hinds…

Oh, so also, the reason you’re at this banquet in the first place is that your uncle Mordecai entered you in a beauty contest in order to be chosen as the next queen. As it turns out, if anyone finds out you’re Jewish along the way, you are very unlikely to be chosen, no matter how beautiful you are.

That’s right – your name is Esther and you have one job: do not reveal your Jewish ancestry.

Book of Esther 2:10

לֹא־הִגִּ֣ידָה אֶסְתֵּ֔ר אֶת־עַמָּ֖הּ וְאֶת־מֽוֹלַדְתָּ֑הּ כִּ֧י מָרְדֳּכַ֛י צִוָּ֥ה עָלֶ֖יהָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא־תַגִּֽיד׃

Esther did not reveal her people or her kindred, for Mordecai had told her not to reveal it.

We’ve all been there – how to honor your host while rejecting the delicacy?

Here are three strategies for vegans – or really, any picky eaters – that we can learn from Queen Esther:

1. Bring a wingman to the party, or befriend one early: Hegai, the guardian of the woman, took a liking to Esther early on.

Book of Esther 2:9

וַתִּיטַ֨ב הַנַּעֲרָ֣ה בְעֵינָיו֮ וַתִּשָּׂ֣א חֶ֣סֶד לְפָנָיו֒ וַ֠יְבַהֵל אֶת־תַּמְרוּקֶ֤יהָ וְאֶת־מָנוֹתֶ֙הָ֙ לָתֵ֣ת לָ֔הּ וְאֵת֙ שֶׁ֣בַע הַנְּעָר֔וֹת הָרְאֻי֥וֹת לָֽתֶת־לָ֖הּ מִבֵּ֣ית הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וַיְשַׁנֶּ֧הָ וְאֶת־נַעֲרוֹתֶ֛יהָ לְט֖וֹב בֵּ֥ית הַנָּשִֽׁים׃

The girl pleased him and won his favor, and he hastened to furnish her with her cosmetics and her rations, as well as with the seven maids who were her due from the king’s palace; and he treated her and her maids with special kindness in the harem.

Though at first he’s the one offering her the local delicacies, he’s also the one who makes sure she gets her own team of handmaids. Since Hegai is rooting for Esther, she doesn’t have to fret about whether the king notices she’s choosing the fruits and vegetables instead of the meat. She can count on Hegai (and her appointed handmaids) to bring her plant-based dishes, feeling empowered to make personal decisions without always being watched by the big judge.

    • Last resort: befriend a waiter who will remember you don’t want raw egg in your cocktails.

Babylonian Talmud Megillah 13a

 ור’ יוחנן אמר זרעונים וכן הוא אומר (דניאל א, טז) וַיְהִ֣י הַמֶּלְצַ֗ר נֹשֵׂא֙ אֶת־פַּתְבָּגָ֔ם וְיֵ֖ין מִשְׁתֵּיהֶ֑ם וְנֹתֵ֥ן לָהֶ֖ם זֵרְעֹנִֽים׃

And Rabbi Yoḥanan said vegetables, And so it states “So the steward took away their food and wine and gave them vegetables” (Daniel 1:16).

2. Accustom yourself to the plants of the region or culture that are already high in fat and protein. According to legend, after Queen Esther was selected by King Ahasuerus to be queen, she maintained a vegetarian diet as her method of hiding her Jewishness. Rather than risk breaking the rules of kashrut (which include separating milk and meat and only eating certain animals that were slaughtered in a particular way), she subsisted on only eating “zeronim” (literally “seeds” but also translated as vegetables or legumes).

Babylonian Talmud Megillah 13a

אמר רב שהאכילה מאכל יהודי

Rav said: that he fed her food of Jews [i.e., kosher food]

    • Last resort: Bring your own stash of nuts and seed for snacking politely between drinks.

3. Start a new tradition – Queen Esther had to hide her Jewish identity in order to infiltrate the king’s castle. She didn’t know it at the time, but her custom of eating seeds (that she copied from the prophet Daniel) is still practiced today. The most popular food for the Jewish holiday of Purim, hamentashen, features poppy seeds. 

Shulchan aruch, Orach Chayim 695 (15th Century) – Kol Bo

יש אומרים שיש לאכול מאכל זרעונים בפורים זכר לזרעונים שאכל דניאל וחביריו בבבל (כל בו)

Some say that there is [significance] to eating seeds on Purim as a remembrance for the seeds that Daniel and his friends ate in Babylonia.