Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Origin of Ta'anit Esther

Guest post by R. Chaim Lindenblatt

The problem with Ta’anit Esther is that we shouldn’t celebrate it. The Tur (Orach Chaim 686) quotes the rule that before any holiday listed in Megillat Ta’anit, one should not fast or say eulogies. So why do we fast the day before Purim? The Rishonim say that it is because the Jews in Persia fasted that day of the battle. They state that it was a day of Selichot as well. The challenge to that approach is that there is no source for the claim. That may have been the case that year of the battle but there is no such reference of its significance for the future. In addition, Chazal prohibited fasting on that day. It also would seem more appropriate to call the fast by a different name, not that of Ta’anit Esther which is clearly a reference to the fast that Esther decreed 11 months before the 13th of Adar.

Click here to read moreThe Tur quotes a practice from Israel where righteous people fasted for three days (any three days) in Adar in commemoration of the three days that Esther asked the Jewish people to fast with her before she approached the king. They did not want to fast in Nissan because we were redeemed in that month and Nissan is the time when they dedicated the Temple.

It seems to me that the source of our fast is that of Esther. Probably there were individuals who were following the minhag of fasting for 3 days in Adar and some of them ended up behind. They had fasted two days and they needed one more fast day before the next day of Purim. They knew that they could not fast and they asked a question of what to do on the 13th. A talmid chacham at the time – a Gaon or a Rishon – ruled that it was permissible to fast. He probably reasoned that in truth Megillat Tannit did not apply anymore. Even though Purim and Chanukah are still around, the concept of not fasting the day before does not apply. Chanukah and Purim are holidays that have moved on from that category to something different.

He probably reasoned that it also is a memorial to the time of the battle when many did fast (there is a dispute whether the people at home fasted or even the soldiers). He may have ruled that this is only bedieved and that you should ideally not wait that long but make sure to fast before the 13th, or he may have ruled that it is okay nowadays to fast this day. This talmid chacham could have also said that it might be preferable to fast on the 13th based on these additional reasons.

In conclusion, individuals may have stopped fasting 3 days since it is very difficult to do so, and it moved to this one day of fasting right before Purim. It spread to the point that this fast has become so significant that one who does not fast is considered someone who removes himself from the congregation. That is why the name remains Ta’anit Esther. In the merit of Esther and those who fought on the 13th, may we all enjoy a wonderful Purim and may it lead to greater redemptions in our day.

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