Taanit Esther: Why Fast Before Our Happiest Holiday?
Taanit Esther: Why Fast Before Our Happiest Holiday?
Purim is coming, the most joyous Jewish holiday of the year! But wait – let's fast first. Why the stark contrast between Purim's revelry and the sombre mood of Taanit Esther?
What Is the Origin Of Esther's Fast?
Towards the end of Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther) we find that, in addition to establishing Purim as an official holiday, Queen Esther ordered the Jews to commemorate their prayerful fasting and crying out to God during those days (Esther 9:31).
Thus, to this very day, we observe Taanit Esther, or the Fast of Esther, on the day before Purim – the 13th of Adar.
As this is a Jewish custom, there are a variety of opinions about what exactly this fast day commemorates.
Esther’s 3 Days Of Fasting & Prayer
The fourth chapter of Megillat Esther recounts a pivotal exchange between Mordechai and Esther. The King and Haman have just issued a decree to wipe out all of the Jews, and the nation is engaged in a collective fast. Mordechai informs Esther about the decree and tells her that she must go to the King and beg for his mercy for her people.
The thing is, walking into the King’s court unannounced is no simple task... it can be grounds for execution.
In order to build up her confidence and strength, Esther asks the Jewish people to fast for three days and nights on her behalf. Come what may, she will go to the King and try to intercede for her people.
These three days of fasting were a national rallying cry for salvation. The whole nation was united behind Esther, and God indeed answered their prayers. Achashverosh happily welcomed Esther when she appeared before him, and this set into motion the events that would bring down Haman and thwart his evil plot against the Jews.
Many Rabbinic authorities maintain that the fast of Taanit Esther is a tribute to the fast that Esther declared as she prepared to confront the King Achashverosh. It kind of makes sense that our fast of Esther is in remembrance of the original fast of Esther.
But… there’s another side to the story.
Why Do We Fast: Esther – Or The War?
While Esther’s fast in the Megillah was certainly an inspiring turning point in the story, other Rabbinic commentators argue that it isn’t actually the fast that we commemorate today.
This is for a very simple reasons: Esther’s fast in the Megillah didn’t take place on the 13th of Adar! It happened almost an entire year before the Jews’ redemption in Adar. According to these Rabbis, it just wouldn’t make sense to commemorate Esther’s fast in the Megillah on the wrong day of the year. So, there are Rabbis who maintain that the fast on the 13th of Adar is tied to a different event that did take place on that very day… the war.
You see, when Haman hatched his plot against the Jews, he drew lots to decide which day would be earmarked for the Jews’ annihilation. He came up with the 13th day of Adar. And although Haman was hanged on the gallows before that fateful day came around, the King couldn’t undo the decree that he’d already signed, sealed and delivered. The best he could do was issue a new decree, stating that the Jews could defend themselves against their enemies. So while the 13th of Adar was still a day of battle, instead of resulting in genocide for the Jews, it became a day of triumph and victory for them. We break down the Purim story here.
What does this have to do with fasting?
The Rabbis say that when Jews went to war in the Bible, it was never only a battle of military strength and strategy. There was a spiritual war being waged as well. They needed God to be on their side to guide them to victory. So, as crazy as it sounds, the custom was to fast on the day of the battle. The soldiers who went out to war were simultaneously holding their spears in their hands and turning their hearts to God in fasting and repentance.
So some authorities say that Taanit Esther is a commemoration of the fast that accompanied the Jews as they fought for their lives on the 13th of Adar.
Understanding Esther's Fast Today
Whether this fast honors Esther’s fast in the Megillah or the fast on the day the Jews went to war, Taanit Esther commemorates a time of national unity when all of the hearts and prayers of the Jewish people were directed toward a common goal. The Talmud itself refers to the 13th of Adar as “a time of communal gathering for all” (Megilla 2b). This sense of togetherness seems to have played an important – if not instrumental – role in the Jews’ path towards redemption.
In addition to the collective concern and identity that this day evokes, it also points to the possibility of personal salvation. Esther put her life on the line for her people. Her success would mean protection and survival for all of them; her failure would take her own life.
And Esther prevailed. Her prayer, and the prayers of her people, were heard on high. Not only was her life spared; she became the vehicle of redemption for her people.
Taanit Esther carries with it an added layer of hope: that an individual can find redemption even in the face of terrible, threatening circumstances. In the words of the Mishneh Berurah (Laws of Megillah, 686:2):
This day is called the Fast of Esther to remind us that God sees and hears each person in their time of distress when they fast and return to God wholeheartedly, as He did in those days.
Esther Fast Guidelines
Esther's Fast in 2020 will begin on March 9th (Adar 13, 5780). The Fast of Esther starts at dawn (alot hashachar), and end at nightfall of that same day. There are special prayers added in the morning, called selichot.
Like other Jewish fast days, Taanit Esther is observed by refraining from eating and drinking for the duration of the fast – from dawn until nightfall.
However, unlike other fasts that are obligatory, Taanit Esther is considered to be a custom and therefore there is more leniency regarding conditions under which people may be exempt from fasting, such as pregnancy, nursing, or someone who is ill even if it is not life threatening (for more on this, see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 686:2).
From Esther's Fast To Purim
As we break the fast at sundown, preparation for Purim begins. At first glance, Purim might appear as just a fun holiday for children, full of revelry and festivities. But when you strip away the costumes and noisemakers, what is this holiday really about? What is the meaning of Purim, as adults?
Whether you're familiar or new to celebrating Purim, there are many deeper meanings to discover. We remove the layer of revelry, to take a real look at what this holidays means. Learn about the basic concepts in our Purim 101 guide and Mishloach Manot guide, or dig deeper in our thought-provoking Purim videos.
If you really want to dive into the riveting story of Esther, don't miss Rabbi Fohrman's book "The Queen You Thought You Knew." Rabbi Fohrman inspects each twist and turn in the story, uncovering a richer, deeper narrative more suited to the eyes of an adult than to a child. As layers of meaning are unraveled, Esther's hidden story comes alive in a vibrant, unexpected way. You can download the first chapter for free.
Getting to Know Queen Esther