Queen Esther the Vegetarian?

In this week’s Jerusalem Post, Dr. Richard Schwartz writes: “Queen Esther, the heroine of the Purim story, was a vegetarian while she lived in the palace of King Achashverosh. She was thus able to avoid violating the kosher dietary laws while keeping her Jewish identity secret.”

Well, sort of. As a vegetarian and a woman, I find Dr. Schwartz’s line of logic tempting. Hooray! Queen Esther, the sassy savior of the Jewish people, loved tofu! But he has the midrash backwards. There are actually conflicting opinions about what Esther chose to eat and refuse in the palace (one commentator suggests that she was actually served pork!). But the midrash that stuck is that she ate beans and legumes. If this was the case, then Queen Esther avoided meat so as to not violate the kosher laws in her non-Jewish surroundings. Her intention would not have been to eschew all flesh, as Dr. Schwartz suggests, just the non-kosher kind.

Esther’s diet gives us a glimpse into the strength of her character. She maintained her sense of self, even within a palace that was undoubtedly
filled with temptations. The lesson to take away from Esther’s diaspora diet, then, is not that all Jews should be vegetarians (though many could benefit from eating less meat!), but that defending one’s core values is the deepest form of heroism.

In honor of Esther, here’s a Persian recipe by Chef and Rabbi Gil Marks, author of a mind-bogglingly comprehensive book of vegetarian Jewish recipes, Olive Trees & Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World:

Dolma Pilpel Sabz – Persian Stuffed Peppers
This recipe is a delicious addition to a Purim meal, made with or without meat.
(8 servings)

½ cup yellow split peas
1½ pounds ground beef or veal (or Quorn meatless grounds)
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
About 1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon turmeric
¼ cup chopped fresh dill or 1 teaspoon dried mint (optional)

8 medium bell peppers
About 2 cups boiling water, chicken broth, or veggie broth

1. To make the stuffing: Cook the split peas in water until soft (about 30 minutes). Combine the peas with the remaining stuffing ingredients.
2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (175 C).
3. Slice ½ inch from the tops of the peppers, reserving the tops. Remove the core and seeds. If the peppers do not stand up, cut a small slice from the bottom, without cutting through.
4. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add about 2 teaspoons salt. Add the peppers and blanch for 3 minutes. Remove the peppers, place cut side down, and let drain.
5. Stuff the meat mixture into the peppers. Place the peppers closely together in a large pot or casserole and replace the tops. Pour the liquid around the peppers to reach halfway up the sides.
6. Cover and place in oven or simmer over a low heat until tender (at least 1 hour and up to 5 hours.)

–Leah Koenig

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