This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

A Dinner Fit for a Queen *

When Esther applied for the position of Queen of Persia and Media, Mordecai advised her not to divulge the fact that she was Jewish. The biblical story does not concern itself with all the details of how she was able to uphold Jewish religious observances without revealing her origins. The fundamental fact of her being married to the heathen Ahasuerus was in itself a glaring violation of Jewish law that later interpreters had to grapple with in various ways.

For the moment, let us focus on a more concrete question: what did Esther eat while she was residing in the royal palace? In her determination to conceal her nationality, did she simply forgo any attempts to maintain a kosher diet, or did she find some way to avoid transgressing the dietary restrictions without blowing her cover?

The Bible's reticence about these questions provoked a great deal of exegetical discourse among Jewish commentators in ancient and medieval times. The classic talmudic discussion took its cue from the obscure wording of Esther 2:9, which speaks of her introduction to the harem stating that she and her maids were provided with “the good thing of the house of the women." The Talmud reasonably asks what exactly was this “good thing” that they gave her? To this question the Babylonian sage Rav replied that they fed her "Jewish food."

The belief that Esther kept the kosher rules while in Ahasuerus’ palace might also have been shared by the author of the ancient Greek version of Esther, which contains a prayer (subsequently preserved in the Apocrypha) in which she claims merit for the fact that "your maidservant has not sat at table in Haman's house, nor graced by her presence the banquet of the king."

While Rav's explanation may allay some of our trepidations about Esther's ritual observances, it opens up a veritable can of worms with regards to the logic of the plot. If "Jewish food" is the same as kosher food, then wouldn't that have given away the secret of her Jewish identity? Or are we to imagine that she somehow managed to express her gastronomic requirements as an innocuous preference for ethnic cuisine ("I'm tired of Cushite take-out, how about ordering some Jewish tonight?"). Some commentators suggest that the offer of Jewish food originated from the Persian authorities and was part of a stratagem for revealing the mystery of her nationality.

A similar approach to the question was taken by Rabbi Yoḥanan in the Talmud. He explained that the food served to Esther consisted of "pulse"; that is: the seeds of legumes like beans or lentils. He inferred this from a comparison with the tale of Daniel and his companions who found themselves in a similar situation in the imperial court of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia. Those pious Jews refused to partake of the delicacies provided by the king and restricted their diet to pulse and water. It should be noted, however, that unlike Esther, Daniel was not trying to conceal his Jewishness, and therefore he had the option of openly declining the non-kosher dishes on religious grounds.

Rabbi Solomon Alkabetz of sixteenth-century Safed suggested a number of other possible reasons why Esther might have chosen to eat pulse. For one thing, it was likely to induce bad breath and thereby discourage Ahasuerus’ unwanted romantic advances.

Whatever objections might have been sparked by Rav's assertion that Esther ate Jewish food, there was even greater discomfiture with the comment of his colleague Samuel who claimed that Esther was given swine meat to eat. The early commentators go into considerable detail in their attempts to determine the correct reading of the relevant talmudic text and to define exactly which cuts of the prohibited animal were being offered to her. Most probably, the reference was to pork necks. Rabbi Nathan ben Jehiel of Rome in his dictionary the Arukh interpreted it as bacon, and also cited (evidently in the name of an unnamed Babylonian Ga’on) a recipe for preparing a kind of pork schnitzel!

Indeed, Rashi accepted Samuel's comment at face value, observing that under the circumstances, given that Esther had no alternative and was involved in a mission to save the Jewish people, it was permissible to violate the dietary rituals for the sake of the greater good. In this connection, some commentators invoked a remarkable statement from the Talmud to the effect that the Israelite soldiers who conquered Canaan in the days of Joshua were permitted to eat the bacon that they found in houses of the previous inhabitants.

That talmudic law was in fact a topic of heated controversy among medieval authorities. Maimonides understood that this was simply an application of the well-established principle that ritual prohibitions are set aside in order to preserve lives; and hence it only referred to cases where the soldiers were starving and had access to no other sources of nourishment. Naḥmanides, on the other hand, argued that this law constituted a unique exemption from the Torah’s dietary restrictions, and as such it applied even if the soldiers were able to procure food from elsewhere.

At any rate, the application of this principle to Esther’s situation is not without its own difficulties. After all, at this stage of the Purim story Haman has not yet made his appearance and there is no clear and present danger confronting the Jews that would provide an obvious justification for disregarding ritual precepts. Mordecai's encouraging Esther to apply for the office of Queen of Persia appears to be based on nothing more than an intuition that it might come in useful some day, or (as argued by some commentators) on the premise that Esther and Mordecai were gifted with prophetic insights into the future that allowed them to appreciate the crucial importance of planting a Jewish mole in the highest echelons of the Iranian government.

Several other authors tried to mitigate the problem by proposing alternative translations for the Aramaic term that is usually understood as "pork necks" or "bacon strips." Some suggested that Samuel was not referring to ḥazir (swine), but that the problematic word ought instead to be derived from a homonymous lexical root referring to a head of lettuce, or even an apple. (Given the current rabbinic horror of microscopic bugs in green vegetables, I’m not certain that this would now be considered a satisfactory solution.)

An ancient Aramaic translation of Esther, cited with approval by some later interpreters, claimed that while it is true that Esther’s hosts offered her bacon, she discretely passed it on to her maidservants.

And in a similar spirit, the medieval Tosafot retorted succinctly and categorically—whatever the Talmud might suggest to the contrary—that "God forbid! She never ate it!"

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, March 2, 2012, p. 13.
  • For further reading:
    • Ehtentreu, Chanoch. “Ḥaluṣei Ṣava Mutar Lahem Le’ekhol Neveilot.” In Talmudic Studies, 253-255. Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1997.
    • Segal, Eliezer. The Babylonian Esther Midrash: A Critical Commentary. Vol. 2. 3 vols. Brown Judaic Studies no. 291-293. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994.