Judaism: Fast of Esther: Prelude to Purim and Redemption
In most years, the day before Purim is Ta’anit Esther, the Fast of Esther: “We fast on the 13th of Adar” (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 686:1).
The Rambam and the Mishnah Berurah give different reasons for this fast.
The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Fasts 5:5) writes: “All Israel have the custom to fast…on the 13th of Adar in memory of the fast which they fasted in the days of Haman, as it says ‘…they accepted for themselves and for their descendants the matters of the fasts and their outcries’ (Esther 9:32)”.
That is to say, according to the Rambam, Ta’anit Esther recalls the three-day fast which Esther called upon all the Jews in Shushan to undertake before risking her life by going to her husband the king to petition him (Esther 4:15-17).
The Mishnah Berurah (686:1) gives a very different reason: “Because in the days of Mordechai and Esther the Jews assembled on the 13th of Adar to fight for their lives . They had to pray for mercy, they pleaded to G-d to help them to avenge themselves on their enemies. Now we find that on the day of battle they would fast: the Rabbis said that Moshe fasted on the day that he battled Amalek, and so too in the days of Mordechai they surely fasted on that day. Therefore all Israel have the custom to fast on the 13th of Adar, which is called Ta’anit Esther [the Fast of Esther], to remind us that G-d sees and hears every person at the time of his distress when he fasts and repents with all his heart, as happened in those days”.
(The reference to Moshe fasting on the day he battled Amalek is in Targum Yonatan, Exodus 17:12; Mechilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay 17; Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Beshallach, Masechta Amalek 1; Yalkut Shimoni, Beshallach 265.)
That is to say, according to the Mishnah Berurah, Ta’anit Esther recalls the fast which the Jews underwent when they battled their Persian enemies, and falls on the same date. This is also the rationale of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (141:2).
Hebrew has two words for “fast”: “ta’anit” and “tzom” which, though technically the same, have different connotations. “Ta’anit” is from the root ayin-nun-heh, which root has three additional meanings: “innuiy”, suffering; “anav”, humble; and “oneh”, answer. The purpose of a “ta’anit” is that through our suffering we should come to humility, and thus G-d should answer our prayers.
“Tzom”, by contrast, is related to “tzomet”, a gathering or convergence (hence a junction or crossroads, the place where different paths converge).
Most of the annual fast-days (Fast of Gedaliah, Yom Kippur, 10th of Tevet, 17th of Tammuz, and 9th of Av) are called “tzom”.
“Ta’anit” is reserved for two annual fasts: Ta’anit Esther, the day before Purim; and Ta’anit Bechorot (the Fast of the First-Born), the day before Pesach. Also, private or public fasts which are declared as and when appropriate to beseech G-d’s mercy (such as a communal fast to pray for rain during a drought, or an individual’s fast to pray for forgiveness).
It is significant that both the fast before Purim and the fast before Pesach are called “ta’anit”, because Purim and Pesach have a lot in common. They are both festivals which celebrate redemption, which is why in a leap year Purim is celebrated in the second Adar “to celebrate redemption close to redemption” (Megillah 6b, Yerushalmi Megillah 1:5). They both fall on the same day, forty-five days after Rosh Chodesh Adar (in a leap year Purim falls forty-five days after Rosh Chodesh Adar, in a non-leap year Pesach falls forty-five days after Rosh Chodesh Adar). There is a custom to start studying the laws of any Festival thirty days in advance, and Purim falls thirty days before Pesach (Tosafot, Bechorot 57b). The pivotal day of the Megillat Esther was when Esther went to Achashverosh and invited him and Haman to her wine-feast later that day, the same day that Haman built the gallows that he planned to hang Mordechai on (Esther 5), which was the first day of Pesach.
There is much more linking the two Festivals, but we have established the principle.
Each of the two Festivals of redemption is preceded by a “ta’anit” – suffering we undergo to learn humility, and thus merit for G-d to answer our prayers.
It seems to me that this teaches a great lesson: in order to achieve redemption, we first have to go through a measure of suffering. And indeed, Jewish history amply bears witness to this principle. Before the first redemption, the Exodus from Egypt, we underwent slavery, including an unspecified length of time during which all our newborn baby boys were thrown into the River Nile.
Before the second redemption – the return from Babylon and Persia – we went through the threat of extermination at Haman’s hands.
And before the final redemption – the beginnings of which we are living through today – we went through the most vicious and successful attempt at total extermination in our history.
Indeed, redemption never comes cheap.
We began by citing the Shulchan Aruch that “in most years, the day before Purim is Ta’anit Esther”. But there is an exception, which applies this year: “If Purim falls on Sunday, then we advance the fast to the previous Thursday” (Shulchan Aruch, ibid.; Rambam, ibid.).
The reason is simple: the day before Purim is Shabbat, and the only fast which takes precedence over Shabbat is the only fast commanded by the Torah, Yom Kippur. Since Ta’anit Esther has to be advanced, we advance it by an extra day so as not to enter Shabbat fasting.
This leads to a strange situation, but one from which we can learn yet more about the process of redemption. We usually go from Ta’anit Esther directly into Purim – so to speak, from suffering directly into redemption without a break. The connection is obvious.
But Purim is the story of the unobvious, the story of the hidden connexions between events, the story of G-d’s hidden providence. Indeed the very name “Megillat Esther” (“the Scroll of Esther”) connotes “megalleh et ha-seter” (“revealing the hidden”). In one year in three on average, Purim falls on Sunday and we have this long break between Ta’anit Esther and Purim – between suffering and redemption.
We can learn from this that cause and effect are not always immediately consecutive. Sometimes there is a break from one to the next. The events of the Megillat Esther – from the half-year long party that Achashverosh held with which the Megillat Esther begins to the Jews’ victory over their Persian enemies – spanned ten years.
The story of Megillat Esther, like the story of Ta’anit Esther this year, is the story of events which do not follow immediately, and which do not at first appear to have any direct connection. And it is the story which teaches us that often consequences are not immediate. Both punishment and reward can be – indeed often are – deferred.
Megillat Esther concludes with the Jews safe throughout the Persian Empire, Queen Esther openly Jewish on the royal throne, Mordechai the Jew second-in-command to King Achashverosh, “popular with the multitude of his brethren, working for the benefit of his nation, and concerned with the welfare of the coming generations” (Esther 10:3).
(If only we could say even a tenth of this about any of our national leaders today!)
However, it is crucial to understand that even that idyllic situation was but the prelude to the real continuation of the story. Fifteen years later Achashverosh died and his son Daryavesh (Darius) II allowed the Jews to rebuild the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (Daniel 9:1-3, Ezra 4:6-24). Then came the second redemption – then Jewish history began again in a semi-independent Israel.
And even that second redemption was but the prelude to the exile that would follow 420 years later at the hands of the Romans – the exile which only in our generation is finally drawing to its oh-so-painful end.
And all that we have gone through in our most punished and most blessed of generations has been but the prelude to the final redemption – the redemption that will come “today – if you hearken to His voice” (Psalms 95:7, Sanhedrin 98a).