The Fast Before Purim & Why We Fast Before The Happiest Day Of The Year
Taanit Esther 2022
Here we are, on the brink of Purim, everyone's favorite holiday. Time to start the party! Plan your feast, make your costume, and… fast? It’s kind of a weird way to get in the mood for such a fun, festive day.
So why do we observe Taanit Esther? To commemorate Esther’s fast that’s mentioned in the Megillah, right? But… do we really need to fast just because Esther did? We don’t reenact every little piece of this story. What is it about this particular part of the narrative that’s crucial to our Purim celebration experience?
This video explores these questions to uncover a deeper meaning of Taanit Esther. It sheds a new light on how this fast day helps us prepare for the holiday of Purim. Take a look, and your Taanit Esther – and Purim – will never be the same.
Purim's almost here! You probably have your costume all set, and your seudah all planned. But don't get too excited yet... because juuuuust before we dive into 24 hours of celebration and feasting, we're going to spend the day… fasting.
Yep because from sunrise to sunset on the day before Purim, it's Taanit Esther, the Fast of Esther.
Why Do We Fast on Taanit Esther?
Now, I like fasting as much as the next guy, but this seems like really bad timing. It's like: "Yaaay mishenichnas adar! Purim is coming!! It's the happiest day of the year!!! Ahh, NOT SO FAST! Let's be somber. No eating, drinking. OK! PURIM'S HERE! Get your costumes on!" The contrast is just so jarring!
And besides, fasting doesn't exactly help us get into the Purim spirit. It's not so easy to pack mishloach manot while you're fasting; or to stay focused on the megillah reading when all you can think about is what you're going to eat once shul is over. It's just weird to be fasting when we're getting ready for Purim, of all things.
So why do we fast on this day? Is Taanit Esther just a burden we need to get through before all the fun begins, or is there something more to it?
We're going to take a deeper look at this fast. Once we get to the roots of it, we'll see that there is deep meaning to this day that can actually connect us to the joy and celebration of Purim in a whole new way.
Uncovering the Meaning of Taanit Esther
If you read the Megillah, you'll see that we're actually not the first people who fasted before celebrating Purim. The Megillah records two different fasts that took place before the redemption occurred.
It all begins with the decree to wipe out the Jews in the Kingdom. The nation responds with collective fasting: In every country that the King's command reached, there was great mourning among the Jewish people – וְצוֹם וּבְכִי וּמִסְפֵּד – they were fasting, weeping, and wailing – שַׂק וָאֵפֶר, יֻצַּע לָרַבִּים – everybody lay in sackcloth and ashes.
To this day, we read these verses in a sad, dirge-like tune. It was a moment of unprecedented devastation in our nation's history. Just a few years earlier, the First Temple was destroyed and the majority of the nation was kicked out of Israel. This was the first national exile since the slavery in Egypt.
Now, the Jews found themselves in a foreign land, under a ruler who declares a national genocide against them. The situation seemed utterly hopeless. They turned to God in the hopes of somehow being saved.
All of the Jews took to the streets fasting, and wearing sackcloth and ashes… all, except for Esther. She's sitting inside the palace, seemingly oblivious to the death sentence looming over her people's heads. She's decked out in royal garments, being pampered by maidens who attend to her every need.
Mordechai shows up to the palace and pleads with Esther to intercede on the Jews' behalf. She hesitates to go into the King, and Mordechai delivers a chilling wake up call:
אַל-תְּדַמִּי בְנַפְשֵׁךְ, לְהִמָּלֵט בֵּית-הַמֶּלֶךְ מִכָּל-הַיְּהוּדִים. "Right now, Esther, you're sitting pretty in the palace while your people are suffering in the streets. כִּי אִם-הַחֲרֵשׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי בָּעֵת הַזֹּאת רֶוַח וְהַצָּלָה יַעֲמוֹד לַיְּהוּדִים מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר, וְאַתְּ וּבֵית-אָבִיךְ תֹּאבֵדוּ. But don't think that this is how it's going to end. The Jews – they'll be alright. One way or another, God will save them.
The question is, Esther, will you be part of it? Will you join your people in their time of need, or are you going to hide behind the palace doors? If you don't show up now, then mark my word, you won't be around to join in their salvation either. The choice is yours."
The Story Behind Taanit Esther
We all know what happened. Esther responded to the call. She decided to take her chances and confront Achashverosh. Her decision changed the fate of the Jewish people.
Rather than being a passive bystander, she became the vehicle for her people's redemption. But how did she do this? What did she do to make this all happen? Her first step was to declare a fast… her own fast.
This fast was Esther's moment of transformation. Initially, Modichai told her she can't escape the fate of all of the Jewish people. She responds by saying: לֵךְ כְּנוֹס אֶת כָּל הַיְּהוּדִים – go and gather all of the Jewish people. I won't remain separate from my people anymore. Esther understands that they're all in this together.
Until this moment, the fast was only taking place outside the palace. Now Esther brings it inside her royal chamber. She says צוּמוּ עָלַי – fast on my behalf – גַּם אֲנִי וְנַעֲרֹתַי אָצוּם כֵּן – me and my maidens will do the same. We're laying down our palm fronds and fruit platters, and getting down into the trenches with you.
כַאֲשֶׁר אָבַדְתִּי, אָבָדְתִּי – if I am going to be lost, then let me be lost. But let it be for the right reasons… let it be with my people, for my people… not separate from them.
The Power of Esther's Fast
Esther's fast was much more than a show of solidarity. In this moment, she chose to take on the burdens of her people. צוּמוּ עָלַי – it's on me now. Your fast is my fast; your fears are my fears. Esther now faces potential death, her life is hanging in the balance, and her salvation will be her people's salvation too.
The Jewish people kept fasting for three more days. From the outside, it looked like nothing changed. But this second fast – Esther's fast – transformed their mourning and despair into a rallying cry full of hope.
It was a collective prayer for Esther's salvation – and by extension, their own. The decree still loomed, but the seeds of redemption had already been planted.
Esther's fast is what made her into the heroine that we know her as today. But, the question remains, why do we need to fast, just because Esther did? There are lots of achievements in the Tanach that we don't reenact today.
What Is Taanit Esther Really About?
So the truth is, if Purim were just celebrating a happy ending to a terrible story of threat and persecution, these would be valid questions. It wouldn't make sense to commemorate the fast anymore, after the amazing victory. But Purim is not just a celebration of what happened after the long journey from tragedy to joy.
The Megillah describes it as a time – אֲשֶׁר֩ נֶהְפַּ֨ךְ לָהֶ֤ם מִיָּגוֹן֙ לְשִׂמְחָ֔ה וּמֵאֵ֖בֶל לְי֣וֹם ט֑וֹב. The situation totally turned upside down. The threat of annihilation was transformed into a holiday of redemption; the date that was set for a national holocaust became a day of national euphoria.
In order to truly tap into the joy of Purim, it's not enough to just celebrate the end of the story. We need to feel the contrast. We need to connect with the pain and fear that came before the salvation.
What Does Esther's Fast Mean to Us Today?
So on Taanit Esther, we remember the terror and panic the Jews felt as they encountered their fragile existence on foreign soil. We fast and pray on this day, we remember these events with our own bodies. We enter Megillah reading still engaged in fasting, and we emerge redeemed. We, too, can taste the ecstasy of being miraculously saved.
The Sages placed Esther's fast on the 13th of Adar, even though it didn't take place then, to preserve the נהפוך הוא – topsy turvy experience of this holiday. In truth, Taanit Esther isn't a contrast to the joy of Purim – it's the perfect way to enter into it.
But there's another layer of meaning to this day, a deeper message that the fast carries. Because remember, there were two fasts in the Megillah.
The one that we observe today is Taanit Esther – not the "fast of the Jewish people." Because although that first fast was important, and showed the people's total dependence on God, it didn't carry this lesson that we needed to remember.
The Deeper Meaning Behind Taanit Esther
What we need to preserve and remember to this day, is Esther's willingness to take a stand and put herself on the line for her people. It's very nice to get all religious during a time of need and say with full conviction, "I believe that God will figure this one out." But it's something else entirely to take a risk, and make myself God's partner in that moment.
Esther showed us that there are times when we must choose our conscience over comfort, times when we're called upon to fill a role that nobody else can. God may hold the power to bring salvation, but we are tasked with being His partners in it.
This is what Taanit Esther commemorates… and it's what Purim is really about too. Because even on the next day, look at what we do. We give matanot la'evyonim, tzedakah to people in need. We send mishloach manot, we share gifts to show our love and care for one another. We read the megillah, and eat and drink together in community with friends and loved ones.
The celebration recognizes that God really does work in amazing ways, that despite our deepest troubles, the promise of hope is real. And, that each one of us has a unique role to play in this remarkable story. Have an easy and meaningful fast.