Judaism: Laws of the Fast of Esther
The Fast of Esther
All Jews have a custom, originating in the Gaonic period (589-1038 C.E.), to fast on the thirteenth of Adar in commemoration of the fasts that Esther observed before approaching King Akhashverosh (Ahasuerus) to annul the decree (Esther 4:16) and the fast that the Jews observed on the thirteenth of Adar of that year. The wicked Haman decreed that all Jews – young and old, men, women, and children – be destroyed, killed, annihilated, and plundered on the thirteenth of Adar. Thanks to the Purim miracle, the hanging of Haman and the rise of Mordechai and Esther, King Akhashverosh issued a second letter allowing the Jews to defend themselves and kill their enemies on that same day. The original decree, however, was not rescinded, because any decree written and signed by the king could not be annulled. Therefore, the enemies of Israel also had permission to kill the Jews. In other words, the kingdom established the thirteenth of Adar as the day on which the anti-Semites could destroy the Jews, but the Jews were permitted to fight back.
And although Mordechai was the king’s viceroy, the Jews were still in grave danger and in need of divine mercy to help them overcome and kill their enemies. Therefore, those Jews who did not engage in the fighting were inspired to repent and fasted that day, as is Israel’s practice in times of trouble. And there is no greater penitence than that achieved by way of fasting, which purifies man’s material side, and restores his spirituality to its central role.
In commemoration of this fast, the Jewish people traditionally fast on the thirteenth of Adar every year. And since we still have enemies who wish to destroy us, we still need to fast and repent every year anew.
When the thirteenth of Adar falls out on Shabbat, as this year, the fast is observed on the preceding Thursday, and not on the eve of Purim.
Exemptions from the Fast
In general, the laws of Ta’anit Esther (the ‘Fast of Esther’) are more lenient than those of the other Minor Fasts, namely, the Tenth of Tevet, the Seventeenth of Tamuz, and the Fast of Gedaliah, because these fasts were instituted by the Rabbis, whereas the ‘Fast of Esther’ was established according to Jewish custom. In practice, though, there are no significant differences between them, and all those exempt from the Minor Fasts – including the ill, pregnant women, and women after giving birth – are exempt from Ta’anit Esther, and all those required to fast on the Minor Fast days, are also obligated to fast on Ta’anit Esther.
Nevertheless, seeing as the ‘Fast of Esther’ is based on custom, we are more lenient in cases of doubt. Consequently, although a bride and groom during the seven-day period of joy after their wedding must observe the other Minor Fasts, they are exempt from fasting on Ta’anit Esther.
This is also the case regarding ‘ba’alei brit milah’ (the three people closely associated with the circumcision) i.e., the father, mohel, and sandek, who, according to the opinion of most poskim (Jewish law arbiters) must observe the other Minor Fasts, but are exempt from fasting on Ta’anit Esther (Sha’ar HaTziyun 686:16, Kaf HaChayim 686:16, 28, and Yechaveh Da’at 2:78). And although some authorities are stringent, requiring the ‘ba’alei brit milah’ to fast on Ta’anit Esther (Rama, 686:2), the custom is to be lenient.
Must a Woman after Giving Birth Fast?
As is well-known, a nursing woman is exempt from the Minor Fasts as long as she is nursing. According to the opinion of most poskim, she is exempt from fasting as long as she continues to nurse her baby – even if the child receives additional nourishment. Some poskim are lenient and exempt all women from fasting for 24 months after giving birth, because in their opinion, the exemption does not depend on nursing, but on the hardships of childbirth, from which it takes 24 months to recover.
Concerning the Minor Fasts, since most poskim rule strictly, the prevalent custom is that only a nursing woman is exempt from fasting. A woman who finds it difficult to fast is permitted to rely on the lenient poskim for the duration of 24 months after giving birth, even if she has stopped nursing.
However, in regards to Ta’anit Esther, whose ruling is even more lenient, ‘lechatchila’ (from the outset) it is permitted to rely on the opinion of the lenient poskim, and all women within 24 months of giving birth are exempt from fasting (Pininei Halacha: Z’manim 7:8; 14:9).
In Commemoration of the ‘Half-Shekel’
People customarily give charity in the month of Adar in commemoration of the ‘half-shekel’ that the Jews used to donate to the Temple for the purpose of buying communal offerings. The best time to give this charity is immediately before Minchah on Ta’anit Esther, so that the merit of giving charity can also combine with the atonement of the fast (M.B. 694:4, K.H.C. 25).
Some have a custom to give a coin equivalent of half of the local currency [e.g., half a dollar, half a pound, etc.], while others give three such coins, corresponding to the three times the word “terumah” (donation) is mentioned in Parashat Shekalim (Rema 694:1). The common coin in Israel today is the shekel, therefore, according to this custom one should donate three half-shekel coins.
Some are accustomed to give the equivalent of the original ‘half-shekel’, which is approximately ten grams of pure silver (K.H.C. 694:20). Actually, the exact weight of a ‘half-shekel’ is 7.5 grams, and its current price is approximately 30 NIS.
All of the customs are valid, and the more charity one gives, the more blessing he receives.
Who is obligated to give the ‘Half-Shekel’?
Some poskim are of the opinion that this custom applies only to men above the age of twenty, because they were the ones required to give the ‘half-shekel’ in the times of the Temple (Rema). Others say that boys above the age of thirteen must uphold this custom, as well (Tosafot Yom Tov). A third opinion holds that one should give a donation in commemoration of the ‘half-shekel’ on behalf of young children as well (Eliyah Rabbah, M.B. 694:5). Still others maintain that even women should give the ‘half-shekel’ donation (K.H.C. 694:27). The current practice is to donate at least one half-shekel for every member of the house, even for an unborn fetus.
A good suggestion might be to give the equivalent price of the original ‘half-shekel’ (i.e., 30 NIS) for men over the age of twenty, and a regular half a shekel for the others.
One should not use ma’aser kesafim money (one-tenth of one’s earnings set aside for charity) for this donation, for one is not allowed to fulfill an obligatory mitzvah or custom using ma’aser kesafim funds.
Women and the Megillah Reading
Q: Lately, some women have shown an interest in reading the Megillah, whereas others seek to promote the role of women. They wish to organize a minyan (quorum) of women to read the Megillah. Is this permitted, and is it appropriate?
A: A woman may absolve other women of their obligation to hear the reading of the Megillah. Indeed, there are a few poskim who say that a woman may not read on behalf of several women, because the law of reading the Megillah for a group of people is like that of reading the Torah, and just as women do not read from the Torah, they should also not read the Megillah for a group of women. Some poskim say that according to the opinion which states that a blessing is recited over the reading of the Megillah only when there is a minyan, a woman who reads for other women should not recite the blessing, because there is no din (law) concerning a minyan for women (Ben Ish Chai, Shana Aleph, Tetzaveh 1; Kaf HaChaim, 689:19).
However, the halachah follows the vast majority of poskim who maintain that a woman may read the Megillah on behalf of other women, reciting the same blessing a man recites. And if ten women are present, she also recites the blessing of “Harav et riveinu” after the reading.
But if they wish to fulfill their obligation according to all opinions, it is preferable to hear the Megillah read by a man, and the best way to fulfill the mitzvah is to hear the Megillah reading ‘b’rov am’ (part of a large gathering), i.e., at the same time as the men, in the synagogue.
However, women who wish to hear the Megillah from a woman are permitted, ‘lechatchilla’, to rely on the opinion of the vast majority of poskim, and assemble a reading for themselves (see further, Pininei Halacha: Z’manim 15:7, and the footnotes).
Examining the Intention
Nevertheless, one should make sure the intention is ‘l’Shem Shamayim’ (for the sake of Heaven).
Quite often, we encounter a peculiar equation: ‘davka’ (precisely) women who wish to read the Megillah for themselves, to learn Gemara (Talmud), and to wear tzitzit (tassels), are less meticulous when it comes to observing the laws of tzniyut (modest dress) and kashrut (dietary laws). Influenced by Western culture, they are inclined to foster their personal careers at the expense of traditional family values, and for some strange reason, tend to adopt left-wing views in regards to the sanctity of settling the Land of Israel! Although infuriated by people who pass judgment on them, they allow themselves to be judgmental, harshly condemning women who, in their opinion, have too many children.
Nevertheless, according to halacha, they are permitted to read the Megillah. Perhaps a spark of holiness exists in their actions which, in the future, will bring blessing to the people of Israel.