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The Purim Feast

As with many other Jewish holidays, food and observance are closely intertwined in the celebration of Purim. The intrigue-filled drama behind the holiday reads like a medieval tabloid story, complete with a cast of characters that's by turns conniving, vengeful, loyal and heroic. Esther, our humble but beautiful heroine, married the king of Persia, Ahasuerous, after securing first place in a beauty pageant sponsored by the king to fill a vacancy in the queenship.

From her new palatial digs, Esther learned of a plot with dire consequences for her Jewish brethren: Haman, the king's villainous advisor, planned to rid the city of its Jewish inhabitants. While the Jews fasted and bedecked themselves in sackcloth and ashes after hearing the news of their imminent demise, Esther (who also fasted--hence the Fast of Esther) and her heroic uncle Mordechai managed to subvert Haman's diabolical plot, and the story ends with everybody getting their just desserts. Especially Haman, who lives on in infamy through the ubiquitous hamantaschen, or "Haman's pockets" that are emblematic of the holiday.

Hamantaschen can be stuffed with a variety of fillings, including levkar (prune filling), fruit jam, poppy seeds, or, the perennial favorite with kids, chocolate chips. Use your imagination and improvise.

Haman's other incarnation is kreplach, the savory "Jewish tortellini" that can often be found floating in one of the best known-comfort classic foods in Jewish cuisine, chicken soup.

Other customary Purim culinary traditions include foods containing seeds, such as sesame seed cookies, and nuts, such as ma'amoul, a cookie usually eaten in Middle Eastern countries like Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. These dishes remind us of Esther's attempts to keep kosher by maintaining a strictly vegetarian diet while in Ahashverous' palace.

The Purim Meal is a mitzvah - that is, when we partake of it, we are fulfilling a positive commandment. Our Purim Seuda is in some way a parallel to the orgiastic feast hosted by the king Achashverosh in the beginning of the Purim story. There, the physical world was revered as an end unto itself. In the Jewish Purim Seuda, the physical pleasure reflects our spiritual joy - a joy at simply being rescued, and a deeper joy at seeing God's hand at work when things appear most bleak for us.

The Purim meal is eaten on Purim afternoon. Bread is broken, and the Grace After Meals contains a special paragraph, Al HaNissim, commemorating Purim. Many traditional foods are enjoyed at the feast, including turkey, kreplach, and the ubiquitous hamantashen.

The Talmud - which normally presents a particularly severe view of intemperance - features a strange statement about Purim: "drink until you can't tell the difference between 'Cursed is Haman, Blessed is Mordechai'" - to get so drunk that you can no longer tell the difference between the hero Mordechai and the arch villain Haman. Purim drunkenness extends beyond debauchery, however; it is supposed to dissolve the differences between us and encourage unity.

In Judaism, alcohol is a sober pleasure (pardon the pun). We appreciate the fact that it gladdens the heart, and include it in all our festive occasions. What would Pesach be without the four cups? Or Shabbat without kiddush? Every holiday, and personal occasions like weddings and Britot (circumcisions) include a kiddush (glass of wine). Yet to get drunk is "not Jewish" at all, and is condemned strongly by the Sages.

In a certain sense, Purim is greater than Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur we fast and it is easy for our soul to have dominance over the body. Purim is the epitome of integrating the physical and the spiritual towards realizing that the Almighty loves us. The only thing that stands between you and the Almighty -- is you. The wine and the spirit of the day help us get beyond the barrier -- to realize that everything comes from the Almighty and is ultimately for our good!

Throughout the Purim story, wine is a key factor in the drama. It's Achashverosh's drunken demand that Vashti show off that brings her downfall and clears the way for Esther to become queen. It's again a wine feast that Esther invites Haman and the king to - which results in Haman's downfall.

In the great party thrown by Achashverosh in the beginning of the Megilla, drinking played a key role. The Sages say that because the Jewish community attended and enjoyed this bacchanalian feast, God sent a punishment in the form of Haman. The Jews' subsequent repentance corrected this mistake, and now we can feast with the correct attitude - rather than reveling in a lustful orgy of eating and drinking, we eat and drink to praise God for our salvation.

Opinions differ as to whether the Talmidic dictum above really means drink to incoherence. The sources stress that Purim is a holiday to bring out what's hidden within - but this should only be undertaken by those whose insides bear inspection - As long as drinking brings a person to happiness and to sweeten their behavior, it's positive. If drinking brings out aggression or offensiveness, it's no good. The injunction to drink doesn't apply.

The time and place for drinking is the festive meal, one of the four observances of Purim. Each observance, or mitzvah, is designed to increase feelings of unity amongst the Jewish nation. After the other three have been fulfilled, the Jew sits down at his meal and drinks. The last barriers break down and a feeling of unity and connection prevails.

The Purim feast is unlike any other in the Jewish year. In addition to good food and lots of alcohol, the meal is characterized by its zany raucous atmosphere - trombones blare, silly string flies, and grown men dance together for hours on end.

But for the Jew, there is always a deeper side to the party. The antics are often connected to philosophical topics. Jokes and riddles may even take on a halachic flavor:

Q: I come from a kosher animal, but I cannot be eaten because I am both milk and meat. What am I?

A: The udder of a cow.










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