Food traditions are inseparable from most Jewish holidays, and Purim is no exception—what would the celebration be without iconic cookies (not just hamantaschen) and dishes from around the Jewish world, many symbolizing the story’s miracles and its notorious villain? But the act of feasting itself plays a unique role in the story of Esther, a tale famous for blurring the lines between good and evil and inverting expectations, conveying to us the perspective we can gain when we experiment with turning the status quo upside-down. In a time when many of us feast regularly and comfortably, this aspect of Purim holds important lessons about what it means to responsibly manage the blessings of abundance.
Megillat Esther recounts no fewer than ten feasts throughout its narrative, and each contains a crucial inflection point that moves the story forward. In the opening chapter of Purim’s primary text, feasting signifies the negligence and danger of overindulgent and unchecked royal power: King Achashverosh’s lavish coronation celebration entertaining all provincial ministers and servants lasts a full six months, and the second one, intended only for the people of Shushan and lasting seven days, results in the brutal sentencing of Queen Vashti. The Jewish people weren’t left out here; in fact, some commentators say that the Shushan Jewish community’s participation in this hedonistic gathering sets in motion the plot by Haman to destroy them.
Over food, and wine, the kingdom celebrates its new monarchs and deliberates over the main drama of the story—whether or not to carry out Haman’s genocidal decree targeting the Jews of the land. Once the king overturns the decree thanks to Queen Esther’s savvy diplomacy, the Jews celebrate their survival with—what else—a feast for the Jews of both Shushan and all surrounding provinces, seemingly parallel to the royal parties that open the megillah. What separates these two feasts from the palace’s drunken celebrations? Unlike in King Achashverosh’s feasts, joy is a key component in the Jews’ festivities: “Joy and celebration for the Jews, feasting and holiday” (8:17); “And rested on the fourteenth day thereof, and made it a day of feasting and joy” (9:17); “and rested on the fifteenth day thereof, and made it a day of feasting and joy” (9:18). In perhaps another “v’nahafoch hu” moment in the Purim story—a precedent turned on its head, just like the terrible decree—it is the near-death experience of the Jewish community that makes merriment meaningful. From that place of reverence, rather than revelry, Jewish tradition establishes a holiday that reminds us about the importance of conscious consumption and sharing of abundance: “they make the fourteenth day of the month of Adar a day of joy and feasting and holiday” (9:19); “to make them days of feasting and joy and sending portions to one another and gifts to the poor” (9:22).
This holiday, then, is perhaps a good reminder that ethical eating—and equitable distribution of food, as Purim encourages us to practice—is just as consequential for our survival today as any other social or political activity to protect Jews and the whole of humanity. The way we produce food, and particularly how we raise animals for food, is bound up in so much injustice that we’re seeing calls for sweeping legislation that would place a moratorium on how most animals are farmed. Dismantling the tyranny of an unjust food system, however, isn’t straightforward, and it requires us to act on all fronts, including changing our habits as consumers. Like those who follow the talmudic charge to become so inebriated on Purim that they can’t tell the difference between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai,” most of us are utterly confounded by what’s good or evil on the market. The plethora of claims, labels, and marketing tools that seem to satisfy our moral principles often serve to entrench a system that’s threatening our planet and public health.
When it comes to feasting, however, our choices don’t have to be binary. Hasidic thinkers imagined Purim as an opportunity for us to see the spectrum of good and evil as present in all of us, and harness the power of our higher-minded inclinations to make better choices for ourselves and for our communities. One way this is already happening is through a ‘v’nahafoch hu’ phenomenon: the act of flipping food norms to make food defaults more sustainable for people, animals, and the environment we share. Though not a silver bullet for solving all food injustices, serving plant-based foods as the default, rather than dairy and meat-heavy dishes typical of the standard American diet, has the potential to avoid many of the deeply harmful practices associated with industrial agriculture, including the worst abuses of animals, workers, farmers, and ecosystems. When we turn the way we typically think about food on its head against our industrialized backdrop, we not only see with greater clarity the evils we’ve come to accept as normal—we also inch our way towards a world with less hunger and greater food resiliency.
Not only have Jewish organizations and communities embraced serving plant-based food by default (a practice that gives diners the option to add animal products to their meals, resulting in far fewer being consumed), but this trend is gaining momentum in larger secular spaces—including cafes, hospitals, and even city offices. Imagine if every gathering that served food followed suit, potentially cutting emissions and water consumption by two thirds. This Purim, we can start by incorporating a ‘default veg’ practice into our se’udah (festive meal) and food-based gifts. What better way to celebrate blessings of abundance than by sharing more with others, and leaving more for future generations? In that kind of feasting, we can all find great joy.