Rav David Brofsky
other “minor” fasts, which are enumerated and discussed by the Talmud (Ta'anit
29a), Ta'anit Esther is not mentioned anywhere in the Mishna or Talmud. In fact,
the earliest reference to Ta'anit Esther appears in the eighth-century Geonic
work Sheiltot de-Rav Achai, authored by R. Achai Gaon. In any event, the
fast is discussed by the Rishonim, codified by the Shulchan Arukh
(O.C. 686) and universally observed.
What is the
source and nature of this fast, and how should we understand its relationship to
Shibolei Ha-leket (cited in the Beit Yosef, O.C. 686) cites Rashi as
explaining that Ta'anit Esther commemorates the three-day fast observed by the
Jews of Shushan at Esther’s behest during the month of Nissan (Megilla
15a), before she approached Achashverosh to invite him to the feast.
Recall from the Megilla that
Esther told Mordekhai before she approached the king:
together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast for me, and neither
eat nor drink, for three days, night and day; My maidens and I, too, will fast
in like manner; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the
law; and if I perish, I perish. (4:16)
describes this fast as a "mere custom" (minhag be-alma), and criticizes
those who treat it with unnecessary stringency.
on the other hand, as cited by the Rosh (Megilla 1:1), suggests that
Ta'anit Esther is a rabbinic obligation, alluded to by the Talmud (Megilla
2a), and commemorates the day upon which the Jews gathered to fight those who
sought to destroy them (the 13th of Adar). The Rosh writes:
“It is a day
of gathering for everyone” – that everyone gathers together for the Fast of
Esther. The rural population comes to the cities to recite Selichot and
supplications, just as on this day the Jews gathered together to defend
themselves and thus required Divine mercy. Likewise, we find that Moshe declared
a fast when they [Benei Yisrael] fought against Amalek, as it is
written, “And Moshe, Aharon and Chur ascended to the top of the mountain” (Shemot
17:10), and Masekhet Ta'anit derives from here that “three
[authorities] are required [to declare] a public fast.” Rabbeinu Tam brought
proof from here for our observance of Ta'anit Esther, which we commemorate as
they did in the days of Mordekhai and Esther, when the Jews gathered to defend
themselves. We find no other proof for [the practice of Ta'anit Esther] other
(cited by the Ran, Ta'anit 7a in the Rif)
offers yet a third explanation:
thirteenth isn't similar to the other fasts, as it commemorates the miracle
which occurred [on that day]. In addition, we have a written reference to it as
it says (Esther 9:31): "To confirm these days of Purim in their appointed times,
as Mordecai the Jew and Queen Esther had enjoined them, and as they had ordained
for themselves and for their seed, the matters of the FASTINGS and their cry…" –
in other words, to observe this fast each and every year.
the Ra'avad, the fast of Esther was actually instituted as part of the original
Purim edict. Our celebration includes
reenacting the fast which preceded the war, during which the Jewish people
experienced a miraculous redemption. Incidentally, the Rambam (Hilkhot
Ta'aniyot 5:5) also identifies this verse as the source for Ta'anit Esther,
though he does refer to it as just a “custom.”
We have thus
identified three possible sources for this fast, which reflect three different
levels of the obligation. Seemingly, the
lower the obligation of the fast, the more readily we will permit a person to
eat in certain situations. Indeed, the Shulchan Arukh (686:2) states,
"This fast is not an obligation; therefore, we may be lenient regarding the fast
in cases of need, such as a pregnant or nursing woman or a sick patient."
question that arises concerns the nature and character of this fast. While the
other fast days express our sorrow over the loss of the Beit Ha-mikdash,
it remains unclear whether Ta'anit Esther shares the mournful qualities of the
other fasts. Indeed, the Ra'avad cited
above describes the fast in almost festive terms.
Soloveitchik, as quoted in Rav Michel Shurkin’s Harerei Kedem (188),
notes a number of practical ramifications of this question. For example, would
the Rambam’s ruling (Hilkhot Ta'aniyot 1:14) advocating that one refrain
from "idunim" (entertainment or physical delights) on fast days apply on
Ta'anit Esther? If we place Ta’anit Esther in a separate category from the other
fasts, as a festive, rather than mournful, occasion, then we would likely permit
such activities. Indeed, the work
Piskei Teshuvot (686:2) rules that on Ta’anit Esther one may listen to music
and prepare new clothing, activities which are generally discouraged on other
Rav Soloveitchik suggests that the Rambam's assertion that the fast days will
not be observed in the messianic era (Hilkhot Ta'aniyot 5:9) might not
apply to Ta'anit Esther, which is an integral part of the Purim celebration (see
Rambam, Hilkhot Megilla 2:18).
While questioning the character of the day, one might also explore
whether Ta'anit Esther constitutes a separate custom or obligation, or whether
it is integrally connected to the observance of Purim.
the Rambam (Hilkhot Megilla 5:5) and Shulchan Arukh (686:2) rule
that when Purim falls on Sunday, in which case we cannot fast on the day
immediately preceding Purim (Shabbat), we fast on the previous Thursday. The
Kolbo (R. Aaron b. Yaakov of Lunel), however, rules (in Siman 45) that one
should fast on Friday, so that the fast is juxtaposed to Purim as closely as
possible. (See Shibbolei Ha-leket, Purim, 194, who severely criticizes
this practice.) Apparently the Kolbo views the fast as an integral
part of Purim, which should be observed as close to Purim as possible, even at
the price of fasting on Friday, which we generally avoid.
I believe that there is a much deeper question that we must ask, as well,
concerning the observance of Ta’anit Esther: In what way, if at all, does
Ta’anit Esther contribute to the Purim celebration? Some of the aforementioned
sources indicate that while the fast may be commemorative, it is hardly integral
to the Purim celebration. Furthermore, a careful look at Ta'anit Esther reveals
that it does not, according to some views, accurately commemorate the events
portrayed by the Megilla. Moreover, it does not conform to the rules of
other fast days, as we demonstrated above! These discrepancies seem to indicate
that Ta'anit Esther might not commemorate a tragic event, or any event, at all.
Rather, it may simply be another day of Purim, yet one of a different character.
Soloveitchik zt"l (see Days of Deliverance, pp. 1-4) suggested
that Purim and Ta'anit Esther commemorate two distinct themes of Purim, which he
claimed may be rooted in the different themes of the Megilla itself.
He notes in
this context the Gemara’s discussion (Megilla 3b) concerning the
requirement to read the Megilla twice, both by night and during the day.
The Gemara cites two Scriptural sources for this halakha, two verses in
which man is commanded to repeat his call to God. The first source, "My God, I
call out to you during the day, but you do not answer, and in the night, as
well, I am not silent" (Tehillim 22:3), compares the Megilla
reading to a desperate cry for help. The second source, "So that my glory may
sing praise to you and not be silent, Hashem, my God, I continuously thank you"
(Tehillim 30:13), equates mikra Megilla with a song of praise for
Soloveitchik suggested that both themes accurately capture the nature of Purim.
During most of the Purim story, the Jewish people are threatened and pursued;
the redemption surfaces only towards the end of the Megilla. In other
words, the story of Purim, and, subsequently, its celebration, involves two
parts: an acknowledgement of the crisis and "what could have been," as well as
thanksgiving for the redemption.
Esther and Purim, therefore, reflect two aspects of the Purim celebration.
Each, without the other, is incomplete.
One cannot truly appreciate Purim without having fasted on Ta'anit Esther, and
Ta'anit Esther alone certainly doesn't capture the totality of the Purim story.
Interestingly, the Shibbolei Ha-leket cites R. Amaram Gaon as
recording the custom of the Tanna’im and Amora’im, as well as the
“house of the courts,” to recite supplications and solemn prayers on Purim day
itself! Apparently, this custom attempts to integrate both themes into the day
This dialectic, of course, not only portrays the different components of
the Purim story, but accurately reflects the precarious existence of the Jewish
people since the destruction of the Temples, during which time the story of