Protecting our Planet: Purim Edition

I remember as a young child being told that I couldn’t fulfill my mitzvah (commandment) of a Purim seudah (festive meal) without eating meat. However, as a vegetarian, I found myself very conflicted between my religious and personal ideals. Vegetarianism has been shown to require less energy, land, and water than meat.[1] Therefore, my intention is to reduce my environmental impact. However, I don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to do a mitzvah due to my vegetarianism. Is eating meat an essential component of the mitzvah? I decided to investigate this question.

 

Rambam (Maimonides) writes that the meal should consist of meat and wine (Megillah 2:15). The Magen Avraham 696:15 questions the need for meat. Still, many authorities agree that one should have meat, including the Shulchan Aruch, who states it’s an obligation. According to the Talmud, after the destruction of the Temple, Jews are not required to eat meat on Shabbat or Yom Tov (Pesachim 109a). However, Purim is not necessarily in the same category as yom tov and shabbat, because there is a separate obligation of “mishteh,” which includes the obligation to eat meat, according to many. However, the entire goal of the Purim Seudah is to feel joyful: The Rema writes that it is a mitzvah to be joyful at the Purim feast (695:1). Although Rabbis may have equated meat with celebration and joy, it would be impossible for a vegetarian to be joyful while consuming meat.

 

Therefore, in modern times, many rabbis agree that as long as the food is special and celebratory, it does not need to be meat. Rabbi Herschel Welcher was asked whether meat was required for Purim Seudah. He responded that the meal should be whatever you consider festive; for many this means meat; but for those who do not want to consume meat, dairy can count as as well. The Orthodox Union’s guide to Purim states “The minimum amount to eat for a Purim meal is at least 1.3 fl. oz. (39 ml, or 1/6 cup) of bread, any amount of meat (if you enjoy meat)[2]”.  So, although there is a strong basis for eating meat if it brings you joy, it appears you do not need to eat meat if this is not the case.

 

 After digging through the sources, there does appear to be a strong halachic basis for seeing eating meat as a requirement. Although many contemporary rabbis say it’s not an obligation, I still feel conflicted. However, a detail from the talmud about Esther added another layer of complexity to this debate. The Talmud tells us that Esther was likely a vegetarian in the palace (Megillah 13b). If Esther herself was a vegetarian, then eating a vegetarian seudah may actually be honoring Esther herself. Esther’s reason for vegetarianism would have been about keeping kosher rather than the environment, it is still fascinating to ponder over.

 

Exploring these sources have led me to think critically about my choices. On the one hand, there are many mitzvot, commandments, in the Torah that rely on animal products. On the other hand, there is a strong case for vegetarianism in the Torah as well. In the Garden of Eden, humans were intended to only eat plant based food. In addition, consumption of meat is seen as uncontrolled lust in the book of Devarim (Devarim 12:20). Rabbi Kook believed regulations of keep kosher are designed to give humans a sense of respect for life, with the eventual goal of leading people back to vegetarian diets[3]. These are just some of the many lines of reasoning that lead vegetarianism to be so popular among Jews. Although we no longer have sacrifices, there are still many traditions such as wearing tefillin (phylacteries), writing Torah scrolls, and Seudahs that involve the consumption of animal goods. I have to acknowledge that animals are needed for Torah scrolls and Tefillin. Luckily, these are long lasting and can be passed down for generations. I still imagine that it’s difficult for my brother to put on tefillin, but this is a compromise. However, I think it’s possible to fulfill the Seuah mitzvah while still being a vegetarian, if I celebrate with joy. Individuals going by Rabbi Herschel Welcher’s opinion do not need to eat meat to fulfill my obligation. In addition, this year I am going to be thinking of Esther, who herself may have very well been a vegetarian.

 

 

 

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[1] David Pimentel, Marcia Pimentel; Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 78, Issue 3, 1 September 2003, Pages 660S–663S.

 

[2]Aiken, Richard B. “Purim.” OU Torah, Orthodox Union, 2015, www.ou.org/torah/halacha/halacha-lmaaseh/hilchos-purim/.

 

[3] Schwartz, Richard. “Jewish Dietary Laws (Kashrut).” The Vegetarian Teachings of Rav Kook, Jewish Virtual Library.

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