Purim: Fasting, petition and perspective

Why do we observe the fast on the day before Purim?

Rabbanit Shira Smiles, | updated: 10:45

Young women study Torah
Young women study Torah
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Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

With the approach of every holiday, one should try to find the themes or major essence of the holiday and see that connection in the liturgy and in the laws and customs of that holiday. While Purim is a holiday of joy and redemption, what thread can tie those emotions to the themes associated with the observance of Purim?

Rabbi Bernstein in Removing the Mask cites Rav Mansa who stipulated that the verse in Devarim 4:7 encapsulated the entire Purim saga: “For which great nation has a God Who is close to it as is Hashem, our God, whenever we call to Him” In other words, the purpose of Purim and its accompanying observances is to reinforce the idea that Hashem is close to the Jewish people when we cry out to Him in prayer. In fact, the only mitzvah of Purim that one observes both at night and during the day is listening to the reading of the Megillah. Why? Because during that traumatically dangerous time Bnei Yisroel cried out to Hashem both night and day.

The centrality of tefillah to Purim can be illustrated through a discussion in Mishneh Berurah. The question arises of a prisoner whose guard offers him any one day of his choosing to pray with a minyan. The response is that he take the opportunity immediately and not wait until Yom Hakippurim or Purim. This response alludes to an equality of the power of our prayers on Yom Kippur, the day devoted to prayer, and Purim.

There is an anomaly in our observance of Purim to our observance of other holidays. Usually we wait until one observance is completed before beginning the second observance. [Think of the second day of yom tov outside Israel beginning so late because we must wait until the fist day has ended, or the Pesach Seder on Saturday night. CKS] On the day before Purim we observe the Fast of Esther. What is unusual is that we usually begin Purim by reading the Megillah at night before we break our fast, thereby extending the fast to overlap with Purim itself, notes Rabbi Rothberg in Moda Labinah. Further, as cited from Rambam, the original fast that Esther proclaimed at the time of the imminent tragedy was in Nissan, eleven months earlier. Why do we observe the fast on the day before Purim?

If we investigate the events of Purim, we will note that Bnei Yisroel were given the opportunity to fight their enemies, in essence to wage war. Our tradition was that the people would pray and fast, do teshuvah while engaging in battle. The Fast of Esther commemorates the fasting of the battle of Purim that resulted in our vanquishing our enemies. So today we must focus on preparing for Purim through our own prayers.

Taanit Esther, writes Chazon Lamoed, is a day characterized by the acceptance of our tefilot made more accessible in the merit of Mordechai and Esther. As part of our prayer on this day, many incorporate Psalm 22, “Lamnatzeach al yelet Hashachar/For the conductor on the brightening of the dawn...”, a psalm attributed to Esther as her prayer before approaching King Achashverosh on Mordechai’s instructions, while she and our entire nation were fasting. While she begins with “My Lord, My Lord, why have You forsaken me,” she ends with the strength of her faith in God’s salvation. This entire day leading up to Purim is a day of total prayer. 

In homiletic fashion, the Chazon Lamoed  cites the gemara, that interprets Mordechai's recorded genealogy as attesting to the prayerful character of Purim. Mordechai was ben Yair/the son of one who enlightened Bnei Yisroel with his prayers; ben Shimee/that Hashem listened to his prayers; ben Kish/who knocked down the door of mercy. Even the name Mordechai, derived from one of the spices in the incense offering, is connected to prayer. And Mordechai himself is intimately connected to the teshuvah movement, wearing sackcloth and ashes even after being triumphantly led around the capital in royal robes, and gathering the children together in prayer. In fact, Rabbi Biederman in Be’er Hachaim interprets Mordechai’s royal honor as Satan’s ploy to interrupt Mordechai’s prayers. Mordechai’s return to sackcloth and ashes, fasting and prayer teaches us that prayer must be consistent and constant. No sudden change should interrupt our prayers.

Rabbi Biederman quotes the Malbim who sees this same ploy in the response of Zeresh, Haman’s wife, when Haman laments his fate to honor Mordechai. She tells him, “If you have begun to fall before Mordechai, you will continue to fall...” The Malbim claims Zeresh was giving Haman advice, not reinforcing his sense of doom. If you’ve begun to fall, advises Zeresh, go and fall completely, act submissively, beg this Jew’s forgiveness. Then he’ll stop praying and you will regain the upper hand. That advice explains why Haman fell on Esther’s bed later, albeit he was tripped up and fell more fully upon Esther, enraging king Achashverosh.

In a similar vein, Haman wanted to confuse Bnei Yisroel and to annihilate them. By confusing Bnei Yisroel, they would stop praying, and then Haman would be able to annihilate them. 

Another accepted way to discover the essence of a Biblical book is to find the verse at the midpoint of the text, and even more telling, the word at the very center, writes Rabbi Avi Feiner in Purim Eternal, citing the Maharal. At the midpoint of the Megillah is the feast Queen Esther serves to Achashverosh and Haman. Achashverosh asks Esther, “What is your request … and what is your petition…?” Esther’s response includes the two words that constitute the very center of the Megillah, “If I have found favor in Your Majesty’s eyes and if it pleases the King...She’aylosi uvakashasi/My request and my petition” [5;7] Likewise, the central word of the Megillah, is she’aylosi that is found in the following verse.  As is a general understanding in our study of Megillat Esther, the King alluded to when not followed by the name Achashverosh is our King, the King of kings. Thus, the central theme of the Megillah is prayer, requests and petitions to Hakodosh Boruch Hu, not only from Queen Esther on that fateful day, but also on every subsequent Purim for all of Bnei Yisroel. Of further interest is that the numerical equivalency of PURIM is 336, the same as She’AyLaH. Just as we ask Hashem to respond to all our prayerful requests on this day, so too are we instructed to extend our hand to all who request our help on Purim. Just as we ask Hashem to grant our requests without scrutinizing us, so do we help anyone who approaches us without investigating his credentials. Hashem is close to us and wants us to call out to him every day, and especially on Purim.

We were on the verge of death, and Hashem in His great mercy saved us. That same mercy, writes Rabbi Pincus zt”l, is available to us on every Purim. The entire day is a day appropriate for prayer, but especially during the Megillah reading.  We end the Megillah with shoshanat yaa’kov whose very ending is a call for all of us to use the time at the conclusion of the Megillah to call out to Hashem in tefilla.  The other auspicious to daven is during our Purim feast, adds the Orchot Aharon citing the Kotsker Rebbe.  Note, the entire day of Purim has the power of kedusha of Yom Kippur notes R. Biderman.

While Hashem listens and responds to all our prayers, writes Rabbi Strickoff in Inside Purim, we must understand that Hashem always answers our prayers letovah/for the good. Therefore, if what we are requesting will be detrimental to us, Hashem saves the prayer and uses it at another time when we will benefit from it [even when we may be unaware of His help and response at that time]. 

Rabbi Wolfson brings a completely different perspective to our discussion. We tend to view the world in a linear fashion, but Hashem created the world in circular fashion, for like a circle, Hashem has no end and no beginning. This perspective allows us to see every Jew as equidistant from the center, from Hashem, rather than some further down the road and some closer to Him at the top. Time, then, can also be viewed as circular. The last month of the year, Adar, is not at the bottom of the year, but closest to the beginning. Haman who viewed the world linearly was ecstatic when his lottery designated Adar as the month for annihilating the Jews. Not only was this the last month, but it was also the month in which Moshe died. Haman assumed that with Moshe’s death, all his merits died with him albeit he was also born in Adar. What Haman failed to understand is that Adar is close to the rebirth of Nissan, the beginning of the year, and Moshe’s merits are reborn in each generation through the life of the tzadik of that generation. In this way, Mordechai, who was the gadol hador/the greatest [Rabbi] of his generation, and the merits of Moshe Rabbenu were now carried forward through Mordechai.

Perhaps Achashverosh was unconsciously emulating Hashem when he invited first those from distant lands to his party, and then those from closer provinces. According to Isaiah’s prophecy, Hashem also brings peace, peace, first to those far [from Him] and then to those closer. This is the gift Hashem brought to the world by creating it in circles.

The Shvilei Pinchas brings us back to the profound message of Megillat Esther, the very title alluding to its purpose, to reveal/legalotthat which is hidden/nistar. When we keep Hashem’s presence with us at all times, we are never lost. Hashem’s presence in this world is in the very month of Purim, Adar, Aleph[Alupho shel olam]/ The Master of the world dar/lives [in this world, with mankind]. The printed letter aleph is actually comprised of two yud’s one on top and one upside down on the bottom, connected by a diagonal vov. In their numerical equivalents, that adds up to 26, the same as the four lettered name of Hashem. When Yaakov fled Esau, he dreamed of the ladder with Hakodosh Boruch Hu atop it all, and carried that image of Hashem with him to support him in his challenges while living with Laban.

When Yaakov later returns, Esau comes out to greet him with 400 men. The last letter of the aleph bet is tuf, equal to 400. In a circular system, that tuf is closest to the Aleph again, so Yaakov did not despair, for he felt Hashem near him.

The Megillah records vaTichtov Esther/that Esther wrote… this second letter of Purim. That Tuf is written larger than all the other letters. Like our Patriarch Yaakov, Mordechai, Esther and Bnei Yisroel could have despaired when they faced annihilation, but they continued around the circle, knowing that the Alupho shel olam was hidden just around the bend. They were not at the end of the line, but at a point to close the circle.

The name Esther itself twice hints at Hashem’s hidden presence. Spelled more closely aligned to the Hebrew letters, we get AST”R/Aluph Sof Toch Rosh/God is always from the end to the beginning. No matter how far away from Hashem we feel, we must remember that we are always approaching Him. Often only in hindsight can we discern that His presence was with us throughout.

Megillat Esther teaches us something else, writes Rabbi Berkowitz in Six Constant Mitzvoth. It teaches us to examine the details of our lives, to see Hashem’s hand in the minutiae and “coincidences” that lead us along the path of our lives often even more that the major events of our lives. If we stop reading the Megillah in the middle, we would never connect the dots to see the pattern Hashem created for our salvation. This should be the mental attitude with which we approach viewing our lives. The saga is not yet finished, and Hashem is writing the script. We may not see the full picture and understand the significance of the details until we have left the stage and view our lives from the perspective of the next world.

No matter how far we think we are from Hashem, He is always near. Purim brings that reality to life, and so offers us the opportunity to approach Hashem in sincere prayer, knowing He will hear us. As we listen to the Megillah, we keep despair at bay, for the circle will close, and we will again recognize Hashem’s unique love for us.





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