The Curious Case of Esther and the Chickpeas
I do not think it is a coincidence that International Women’s Day occurs during the same time as the Jewish holiday that is most closely associated with a strong female leader. The holiday of Purim celebrates rags to riches story of a beautiful young Jewish woman named Esther that rose to the position of a Queen, and due to her bravery and cunning, saved all the Jews in Persia from genocide. Although Esther is most known for foiling the plans of Haman, she is also known for the adherence to her faith. While living in the royal court, to keep kosher (and not disclose that she was Jewish), she dined on beans and chickpeas for most of her meals. While hamantaschen (SPPPPP) are, hands down, the food most associated with celebrating the Purim holiday, beans and chickpeas are also associated with the holiday.
Story of Esther
We learn of Esther through the Megilla, a book read during the Jewish holiday of Purim [Fast Fact: The fastest recitation of the Megilla is 14 minutes flat.]. The story is set during the 4th Century BCE, with King Ahasuerus, head of the Persian Empire, throwing a celebratory party (allegedly to last 180 days in length). About a week after the party began, the King asked his current wife Vashti to strip and show off her body to the men [Fast Fact: In a twist of fate, Vashti is believed to be the great-granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar, the Emperor that destroyed the first Holy Temple]. She refused (some scholars believe due to a skin disease), and was executed. Ahasuerus wanted a new queen, and held a beauty contest. Esther was taken into the King’s Harem, and forced to be in the content, and although she wore no makeup, or tried to pretty herself up, due to her natural beauty and sensuality, she won. Esther, by the way, was an orphan whom was adopted by one of the Jewish leaders named Mordecai. [Fast Fact: According to the various sources I have researched, Esther was either the niece or cousin of Mordecai, and according to one source, may have even been his wife (it was okay at that time to marry one’s niece under to Jewish law). A second interesting fact is that Mordecai was the first person in the bible to be called a “Jew.” Up until this time, all he term Israelites or Hebrews was used.] Mordecai was also her mentor, and told her not to divulge her Jewish identity or her relationship to him.
While in the palace, Esther still tried to show devotion to her faith by praying in private, and keeping kosher. In order to do so, Esther told the royal chef that she was a vegetarian, and was served mostly beans and chickpeas. Although some may place Esther on a pedestal as a famous biblical vegetarian character, it is unclear if she was (or was not) a vegetarian prior to her arriving at the royal court, or remained so once she declared her religion.
Mordecai kept watch over Esther, often visiting her in the palace. On one occasion, he overheard two men plotting to kill the king. Mordecai told the king what he had overheard. The two men were hanged, and Mordecai was placed in high esteem in the royal court. At some point afterwards, Haman, the Prime Minister of Persia, decreed that everyone must bow to him when he walked by. One day, while walking around the palace, he came past Mordecai, who refused to bow down, even after he was ordered to do so, because he was a Jew. [Fast Fact: Mordecai is believed to be the descendent of Benjamin (Jacob’s son), who was the only one of his brothers not to bow to Esau, who is believed to be the ancestor of Haman.]. Haman was infuriated, and decided to take it out on all the Jews throughout Persia (this was, done with the acquiescence of the king, which is remarkable, when you look back at the end of the story). He drew lots as to what day he would cause genocide of the Jewish people throughout his realm (it is believe that every Jew in the world lived within the 127 lands controlled by Persian Empire of that time), and 13th of Adar (in the Jewish calendar) was chosen. [Fast Fact: The Hebrew translation of “lots” is purim, and that is where the holiday derived its name.]
Mordecai sent a message to Esther that the time for her to reveal her religion and ask for the king to save the Jewish people had come. Esther was at first reluctant; anyone that approached the king without first being summoned would be put to death, and the king had not called for her for the past month. She eventually responded that she would approach the king, regardless of her fate, if Mordecai and the Jews of the city fasted for three days (to be remembered as the Fast of Esther, still followed to this day). After the three days Esther went to approach the king, who instead of calling for execution, extended his scepter and allowed her to approach him. She asked that the king and Haman have a feast with her and he accepted her invitation. [Note: There were actually two feasts, but I will skip to the second for the sake of brevity.] At the feast, Esther asked that she and her people be spared. The king asked, “What people”? She confessed to being a Jew, then to show justice, Ahasuerus made a royal order, and Haman was hanged in the gallows he had made to hang Mordecai, who appointed as the new Prime Minister. In addition, Esther was given all the lands previously owned by Haman.
The story actually does not end there. According to Syrian law at the time, once a king makes a decree, it cannot be reversed, and the Jews were still in trouble. Although reversal was not an option, Mordecai, with the okay of the king, made another decree that said that the Jewish people could defend themselves against their enemies (the Amelekites).
Beans & Chickpeas
In order to follow her Jewish beliefs, she had to feign being a vegetarian in order to avoid non-kosher meats. In remembrance of her religious devotion, beans and chickpeas are foods associated with celebrating the holiday of Purim (more so with the vegetarian/vegan movement over the past two decades). Beans and chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans) are plants that are related as far as their biological hierarchy is concerned; both legumes of the subfamily of Faboideae within the family Fabaceae.
Beans have been cultivated for eons, and are one of the longest cultivated plants known to man. There is evidence of cultivation of beans in Thailand dating from around 7000 BC and evidence of the use of chickpeas have been found in the Middle East dating from over 7500 years ago. They were used by early man, and even left in the tombs of ancient Egyptians. Beans and chickpeas were even mentioned by Homer in the Iliad in the 8th century BCE.
Beans were domesticated by 2000 BCE, as provided by evidence discovered in a cave I Peru, which also provides evidence of beans being available to ancient civilizations throughout the world. In fact, the beans most of us commonly eat today probably derived from similar crops in South America. Although there are only a few varieties of beans mass produced for mass consumption (~18.7 million tons), there are almost 40,000 varieties of beans in the world. That’s a lot of beans; if you ate one bean a day for 100 years, you will not have tried all the varieties.
Hummus and Falafel
Hummas, which is primarily made of chickpeas, may be one of the first foods to have ever been prepared. Although the true origins of this dish is hard to establish, it is fair to say that our early ancestors picked the chickpeas from its plant, and may have mashed the beans up and possibly added a spice to it; an easy dish that was made with an abundant food.
Another dish which contains chickpeas as its main ingredient is falafel. Falafel is a dish where chickpeas are boiled, crushed, spiced, and molded into patties (or little balls), then cooked. It may have been originated in Egypt during the early reign of the Pharaohs. The name may have been derived from the Egyptian word for spicy, mefelfel. One thought is that it did originate near the port of Alexandria, and that is how it spread around to other areas bordering the Mediterranean Sea. However, the chickpea being so common in the region it could have originated almost anywhere. The falafel was originally served/eaten solo, or placed in salad. During the mid 20th century Yemenite immigrants in Israel began opening up small shops selling falafel in pita as a street food; the idea took off and has become a national food now being enjoyed around the globe.
Now, when you imagine Esther sitting at the Royal table dining, hopefully you no longer picture her with a pile of beans and chickpeas set out on a plate before her. The palace chefs most likely prepared various dishes containing these ingredients, but transformed them into palatable dishes such as a hummus or falafel.
Other Female Jewish Leaders
Esther is the heroin of the Purim story, but there are many other female leaders throughout the history of the Jewish People. To celebrate International Woman’s Day this month, I thought it would be fitting to honor some of these women in this article by providing short summaries of their influence on Judaism and Jewish history. For this month I am going to set aside the more well known women, such as the Jewish matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel) or other women that are discussed throughout the year like Judith, Miriam, or Rahab [two of three have already been discussed by me in previous articles]; they get most of the air play, so I would rather place the spotlight on some of the lesser known women that have played a large role in shaping, maintaining, and defending Judaism. Below are three leaders of note that come to mind:
- Deborah – One of the Judges (and prophet) that helped lead great military victories. She is also sometimes called the “woman of the torches” because of how she illuminated the need to study Torah, and would personally made the wicks for the torches in the Temple. However, she thought the greatest role that she, or any woman, can perform is that of a mother.
- Huldah – A prophet of ancient Israel during the reign of Josiah (the last “good king” of Isreal before it was torn apart from within and by the Babylonians. She fortold the destruction of Israel, but also was able to authenticate that scrolls that had been recently discovered was the Torah (and thought to be the version used for subsequent generations of Jews and Christians). Although there were a number of other prophets at the time (and mostly men), she was called upon because she was the most renowned of the time.
- Queen Shlomzion (also known as Queen Salome Alexandria) – She known as one of the most wise and pious leaders of the Jewish people, and reinforced the guidance of the Sanhedrin (lead by her brother Rabin Shimon ben Shetach and Rabbi Joshua ben Gamla). One day, in a future article, I will focus on her leadership and legacy.
There are many other female leaders both from biblical times (e.g. Abagail (wife of David) or post-biblical (e.g., Sarah Schenirer (pioneer of Jewish education), Elana Kagan (Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, etc.), amongst others that I have not listed. Eventually their stories will be told in future articles.
History of International Women’s Day
The official website for International Women’s Day (IWD) states that its purpose is to “Celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievement of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.” The year associated with the holiday’s beginning is 1909 when 15,000 women marched in New York City in remembrance of the ILGWU strike a year earlier [Fast fact: the march was organized by the Socialist Party of America.] A year later an International Women’s Conference was held and 100 women from 17 countries voted to hold an International Women’s Day (IWD). On March, 19, 1911, over one million women (mostly in Europe) celebrated IWD. Today, the holiday is officially recognized and celebrated in many of countries all over the world. The United States (where the movement began over 100 years ago) does not officially recognize IWD, and it was killed in Congress the last time it came up as a referendum in 1984, but it died without a vote in either house of Congress.
When is Purim Celebrated
As mentioned above, International Woman’s Day usually falls out during the same month of the Gregorian calendar as does Purim. However, figuring out exactly when to celebrate the holiday is sometimes not straight forward. As we know, the holiday is named after the day Haman picked the lots, which is the 13th of Adar. However, we do not celebrate that day. Instead, we celebrate it on the day after we overcame our enemies. This, intuitively, looks like it should be the 14th of Adar. For most Jews in the Diaspora, it is celebrated on that date. However, in the city of Shushan, it was not until the 15th of Adar that the Jews were able to celebrate their victory. Since Shushan was a walled city, it became customary to celebrate the victory on the same day as Shushan in other walled cities (or had walls during the time of Joshua). In Israel, since most cities at one time were walled, and associate more closely with Shushan, they celebrate the holiday on the 15th (called Shushan Purim).
To summarize the celebration schedule so far, it is not celebrated on the 13th of Adar, although the holiday is named after the events of that day; it is celebrated in the Diaspora on the 14th, and on the 15th in Israel. To make things more interesting, Purim is celebrated during Adar II (an extra month is added to the Hebrew calendar during lead years instead of the extra day added during Gregorian leap years). However, a new holiday called Purim Katan (the “little Purim”) has become celebrated over the years in towns/communities that have overcome an antisemitic aggressor in the past.
As you have read, the chickpea, although small in stature, holds a large place in Jewish laws and customs. Like the chickpea, the Jewish women, who may not always be large in physical stature, have shown great power of intelligence, wisdom, and moral fortitude to overcome even the greatest of enemies.
For this month, let’s do a simple chickpea salad that not only tastes great, also does not require any cooking.
1 lb Chickpeas
1 sml tomato (fc)
1 sml onion (fc)
1 sml red bell pepper (fc)
1 tbs red wine vinegar
3 tbs olive oil
1 clove garlic (minced)
Salt & pepper to taste
fc = finely chopped
Add all of the above ingredients into a bowl, mix, then add salt and pepper to taste.
- “A History of the Mideast In the Humble Chickpea” (Jodi Kantor: NTimes.com: 2002) @ http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/10/dining/a-history-of-the-mideast-in-the-humble-chickpea.html?pagewanted=all
- “The Basic Purim Story” (Chabad.org) @ http://www.chabad.org/holidays/purim/article_cdo/aid/645995/jewish/The-Basic-Purim-Story.htm
- “Domestication of the Common Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris L) (K. Kris Hirst: About.com: 2014) @ http://archaeology.about.com/od/bcthroughbl/qt/Bean-History.htm
- “History of Falafel” (world-foodhistory.com: 2014) @ http://www.world-foodhistory.com/2014/03/history-of-falafel.html
- “Hummas, Chickpeas 7,500 Years Oldest Veggie Found . . . .” (Danny Dean: DannyDeanRocks: 2008) @ http://www.sparkpeople.com/mypage_public_journal_individual.asp?blog_id=1108814
- “International Women’s Day” (Wikipedia) @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Women%27s_Day
- “International Women’s Day 2006” (InternationalWomensDay.com) @ http://www.internationalwomensday.com/
- “Our (More or Less) Four Matriarchs” (David H. Aaron: ReformJudaism.org) @ http://www.reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/vayeitzei/our-more-or-less-four-matriarchs
- “Purim” (JewishVirtualLibrary) @ https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/holiday9.html
- “Purim (Feast of Lots): Celebrating Our Deliverance” (John J. Parsons: Hebrew4Christians.com) @
- “Queen Esther and Purim: Female Leadership in Jewish National History” (Rabbi Carlos A. Tapiero: Maccabi GB: 2014) @ http://www.maccabigb.org/news/queen-esther-and-purim-female-leadership-in-jewish-national-history/
- “Queen Salame Alexandria” (Nissan Mindel: Chabad.org) @ http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/112049/jewish/Queen-Salome-Alexandra.htm
- “The Small, But Mighty Chickpea” (Susan Bell: Phys.org: 2014) @ http://phys.org/news/2014-03-small-mighty-chickpea.html
- “What Is Shushan Purim?” (AskMoses.com) @ http://www.askmoses.com/en/article/99,56435/What-is-Shushan-Purim.html