Today, Thursday, is the pre-Purim Fast of Esther.
Purim occurs on Sunday this year – Monday in Jerusalem – and the pre-Purim Fast of Esther is advanced to Thursday; this is because neither Sabbath nor the day of Sabbath preparations are appropriate for fasting.
The fast commemorates Queen Esther’s fast before she dared to approach Persian King Ahasuerus (Xerxes, according to most indications) and plead for the rescinding, in whatever manner, of the royal decree initiated by the wicked viscount Haman mandating the destruction of the Jewish People.
Unlike other Rabbinic fasts in the Jewish calendar – Tisha B’Av, the Fast of Gedaliah, the Tenth of Tevet and the 17th of Tammuz – the Fast of Esther was not enacted for the purpose of mourning the Holy Temple’s destruction, but rather in memory of a specific fast that was held for a specific purpose. In the middle ages, the conversos, Jews who converted to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition but kept Jewish laws in secret, held this fast to be especially significant. They related to Queen Esther, who kept her religion a secret from the king, just as they did. Her heroism gave them courage, her salvation gave them hope in those dark times of torture and burning at the stake.
For the above reason, and because it is not written specifically in Scriptures, the laws of this fast are more lenient than others: Not only are pregnant and nursing women exempt, but also others who feel weak. However, Jewish Law states that even one who may eat should not eat more than is necessary, “but one who is healthy should not remove himself from the community, but should rather fast, and whoever takes part in the public’s sorrow, will merit sharing in the public’s consolation.”
The fast began in Jerusalem at dawn, 4:59 AM, and ends at 5:58 PM. In New York, where the sun rises and sets slightly later, it runs from 5:15 AM until 6:09 PM, and in Los Angeles, it’s from 5:12 AM until 6:10 PM. London, England: 5:15 AM until 6:06 PM, and Melbourne – 5:38 AM until 8:34 PM.
The fast usually ends after the joyous public reading of the Book of Esther (Megillat Esther) to mark the onset of Purim. However, this year the Megillah will be read in most places on Saturday night, after the Maariv prayer and before the Havdalah blessings, and Purim will end Sunday evening. In Jerusalem, because it was walled during the period of Joshua bin Nun, and in accordance with Rabbinic rulings based on Esther 9:18,19, Purim begins on Sunday night and ends Monday night.
In addition to the reading of the Book of Esther, the day’s special commandments also include the giving of charity to at least two poor people, sharing food portions (Mishloach Manot) with at least one person, a festive meal, and in general being happy.