Jews praying at synagogue
Jews praying at synagogueIsrael news photo: Flash 90

The Fast of Esther began early Thursday morning. Jews around the world will abstain from eating or drinking during the day, in memory of the Jewish nation’s desperate appeal against annihilation in ancient Persia.

The fast differs from most other fasts in the Jewish year in that it is not linked to mourning for the Temple and the destruction of Jerusalem.

Instead, its roots are in the Purim story, in the biblical Queen Esther’s request to her Jewish brethren to fast and pray in advance of her appeal to the king to save her people.

The Fast of Esther normally takes place the day before Purim. This year the fast has been moved forward so as not to coincide with the Sabbath, when fasting is prohibited except on the holy day of Yom Kippur.

Due to the nature of the fast, there are added leniencies in Jewish law (halakha) for those who find it difficult to fast. Women who are pregnant, nursing, or physically weak are not expected to observe the fast; as a general rule, neither are men who are physically weak or elderly.

However, those who are unable to fast are expected to abstain from sweets or other treats, and to eat only the food they need to sustain themselves.

On Sunday, Jews worldwide will celebrate Purim – the day on which the Jewish nation was rescued from its enemies – with festive meals, gifts to the poor, readings of the megillah (Purim story), and more.

The Crypto-Jews (or knows as conversos or "New Christians"), forced to convert during the 14th and 15th century Spanish Inquisition, paid special attention to the Fast of Esther,  raising it to the level of importance of  Yom Kippur.

"It is easy to understand why this was so", writes Prof. Moshe Orfali of Bar Ilan University."Esther did not reveal 'her people or her kindred,' [a reference to the Jewish queen keeping her Jewish identity secret for years - ed.] but nevertheless remained true to the faith of her forefathers in a foreign environment - closely paralleling their position."