Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Fast of Esther

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

The Fast of Esther is perhaps the least understood from among the annual public fast days, in terms of what it represents and why we actually fast.[1] Contrary to popular misconception, the "Fast of Esther" which we observe today, is not the anniversary of the original fast which was observed by Esther. In fact, Queen Esther’s original fast was actually a three-day affair that coincided with the start of Pesach.[2] That’s right – Esther had no Pesach Seder that year.[3] As such, there have been individuals in the past who observed a three day fast (though not consecutively) following Purim in order to better participate in the spirit of the original "Fast of Esther".[4] Today, however, this practice in no longer found.[5]

There are a number of opinions as to what the status of today’s Fast of Esther really is. According to one school of thought, we observe the fast in order to recall the fast that Queen Esther undertook on behalf of the Jewish people, notwithstanding that we observe it on a different day than she did.[6] According to this opinion, the observance the fast has the status of a rabbinical commandment.

Click here to read moreOthers are of the opinion that no, since the fast isn't even observed on its original date, it doesn’t earn the status of a rabbinical commandment, and rather, it is merely a custom. According to this school of thought, the fast is intended to commemorate the preparations that Esther made in advance of her meeting with King Achashverosh, where she was to plead that he save the Jewish people from Haman’s plot.[7]

Yet an alternative approach, one which would appear to be more timely and meaningful, is to teach us that when under attack, we are to join together and turn to God for our salvation through fasting and prayer. One will notice that the Fast of Esther takes place on the thirteenth of Adar, which was the day the Jews were permitted to take revenge upon their enemies. Everyone fasted and prayed for success in the battle that was about to be launched. Indeed, throughout history, we find that the Jewish people often fasted in war time.

It is noted, however, that there is no historical evidence to support the claim that the Jewish people actually fasted in the 13th of Adar - it is merely speculation.[8] Indeed, the Megillat Ta'anit actually forbids one to fast on the 13th of Adar, as it is a festive day known as "Yom Nikanor."[9] This seems to support the theory that Ta'anit Esther is actually of recent vintage, no earlier than the Geonic period. Curiously, the Fast of Esther isn't mentioned anywhere in the Talmud.[10]

It is suggested that the Fast of Esther may actually be none other than an exercise to secure atonement and make amends in advance of any excessive or inappropriate frivolity one may engage in over Purim.[11] When explaining the meaning of the nightly prayer "V'haser Satan Milfaneinu U'machareinu", Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev says that on the Fast of Esther, God remarks how pleased He is that His people are fasting and doing Teshuva, at which time the Satan hassles God to consider what will be tomorrow when the Jews will be acting with excessive lightheadedness. So too, on Yom Kippur, God remarks how pleased He is that His people do nothing but fast and sit in prayer the entire day, at which time Satan "reminds" God that the day before the Jews were engaged in nothing but filling their bellies.

The Kabbalists teach that the spiritual effects of Haman's evil decree were never completely eradicated. The purpose of the Fast of Esther, therefore, is in order to extinguish any harmful effects of Haman's decree that may still remain in the world.[12] Among the many parallels between Purim and Yom Kippur, it is noted that Purim is a holiday whose fasting component precedes the celebrations, while regarding Yom Kippur, the celebrations precede the fasting.[13]
Unlike other communal fast days, the Fast of Esther has both a mournful flavor as well as a festive one. It is mournful in that it recalls the near annihilation of the Jewish people at the hands of Haman and Co., yet at the same time, it is joyful in that it expresses our confidence that God will continue to save us from our enemies in the future, as He did in the days of Purim. It is taught that prayers recited on the Fast of Esther are known to be especially effective. Among the recommend prayers of the day is the recitation of Tehillim Chapter 22 followed by an outpouring of private, personal requests. We are told that one who does so will have all the gates of mercy opened for him.[14]

The Fast of Esther is unique among the other fast days in a number of ways. In the event that any of the other fast days fall out on Shabbat, they are postponed to Sunday. If, however, the Fast of Esther is to fall out on Shabbat, the fast is advanced to the preceding Thursday. The reason for this is because all the other fasts recall tragedies, the commemoration of which is never observed ahead of time. The theme of the Fast of Esther, however, is one of repentance, which poses no problem observing earlier rather than later.[15]

What if one is unable to fast due to illness, weakness, or the like? According to the Rema, the fast is actually not an obligation, but rather a custom.[16] Accordingly, he allows those pregnant, nursing, or otherwise ill to forego the fast. It goes without saying that those who do eat on a fast day should eat only the minimum and not indulge in delicacies.[17] There exists a custom of questionable authority for women not to ever fast on the Fast of Esther.[18] Some authorities permit one who feels that the fasting will harm him or negatively affect his Purim celebrations to forgo the fast.[19]

Torah classes should be limited on the Fast of Esther in order to allow for plenty of time to properly prepare for Purim.[20] The Machatzit Hashekel coins are best given at Mincha on the Fast of Esther.[21] It is interesting to note that Purim is one of the holidays that will continue to be observed in the messianic era. Whether this includes the Fast of Esther or not is a matter of dispute. We’ll just have to wait and see.

NEXT WEEK: "Purim on a Friday". Please send me your lesser-known and obscure sources as well as anecdotes for inclusion. I truly thank and appreciate all those who sent me tidbits in preparation for this article. rabbiari@hotmail.com


[1] “When a man fasts and he offers his heart and his will, he brings a perfect sacrifice, for it pleases the Holy One, blessed be He, that he should offer him his fat, his blood, and his body, and bring to Him the fire and the fragrance of his mouth. These diminish through fasting, and are like the fat, blood, and flesh of a sacrifice. The heat and odor of a fasting man’s breath stand for the fire of the altar and the fragrance of the sacrifice.” Zohar Chadash, Midrash Ruth, 79d–80a, Sefer Chassidim 171.
[2] Aruch Hashulchan 686:2. The record holder for the longest fast is Adam, who fasted for 130 years; see Eruvin 18b.
[3] Megilla 16.
[4] O.C. 286:3
[5] Aruch Hashulchan O.C. 286:6
[6] Rambam, Hilchot Ta’anit 5:5.
[7] Beit Yosef 686.
[8] Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 141:2
[9] 1 Maccabees 7:26-50, 2 Maccabees 15:36
[10] Maggid Mishna; Rambam, Hilchot Ta’anit 5:5.
[11] Kav Hayashar, cited in Piskei Teshuvot 686:2
[12] Shevet Hakehati 1:203
[13] For more on the festive nature of Erev Yom Kippur, see: Rabbeinu Yona;Sha'arei Teshuva 4:8
[14] Kav Hayashar 97
[15] Levush 550:3
[16] O.C. 686.
[17] Eishel Avraham - Botshatch
[18] Piskei Teshuvot 550:1
[19] Besamim Rosh 239
[20] Magen Avraham 686:13, Mishna Berura 686:17
[21] Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 141:5, Kaf Hachaim 694:25

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