Taanit Esther and the Message of Purim
By Rabbi David Brofsky
Unlike the other “minor” fasts that are enumerated and discussed by the Talmud (Taanit 29a), Taanit Esther is not mentioned anywhere in the Mishna or Talmud. In fact, the earliest reference to Taanit Esther appears in the eighth-century geonic work Sheiltot DeRav Aḥai (Parashat Vayak’hel 67), authored by Rabbi Aḥai Gaon. Nevertheless, the fast is discussed by the Rishonim, codified by the Shulḥan Arukh, and universally observed.
What is the Source and Nature of Taanit Esther?
How Should We Understand its Relationship to Purim? The Shibbolei HaLeket cites Rashi as explaining that Taanit Esther commemorates the three-day fast observed by the Jews of Shushan at Esther’s behest during the month of Nisan, before she approached Aḥashveirosh to invite him to the feast. Before approaching the king, Esther told Mordekhai:
“Go, gather 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.” (Est. 4:16)
Rashi describes this fast as a “mere custom” (minhag be’alma), and criticizes those who treat it with unnecessary stringency.
Rabbeinu Tam, on the other hand, as cited by Rosh, suggests that Taanit Esther is a rabbinic obligation alluded to in the Talmud (Megilla 2a), and it commemorates the day upon which the Jews gathered to fight those who sought to destroy them (the thirteenth of Adar). 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 Seliḥot 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 fought against Amalek, as it is written, “And Moshe, Aharon, and Ḥur ascended to the top of the mountain” , and Tractate Taanit derives from here that “three are required a public fast.”
Rabbeinu Tam brought proof from here for our observance of Taanit 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 other than here.
Raavad (cited by Ran, Ta’anit 7a.) offers yet a third explanation:
The thirteenth is not similar to the other fasts, as it commemorates the miracle that occurred . In addition, we have a written reference to it, as it says : “To confirm these days of Purim in their appointed times, as Mordekhai 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.”
According to Raavad, the Fast of Esther was actually instituted as part of the original Purim edict. Our celebration includes reenacting the fast that preceded the war, during which the Jewish people experienced a miraculous redemption. Incidentally, Rambam also identifies this verse as the source for Taanit Esther, although he refers to it as simply a “custom.”
We have thus identified three possible sources for this fast, which reflect three different levels of possible obligation. It would seem that the lower the obligation entailed by the fast, the more readily we will permit a person to eat in certain situations. Indeed, the Shulḥan 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.
What is the Nature and Character of Taanit Esther?
A second 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 HaMikdash, it remains unclear whether Taanit Esther shares the mournful qualities of the other fasts. Indeed, the quotation from Raavad cited above describes the fast in almost festive terms.
Rabbi Soloveitchik noted a number of practical ramifications of this question. For example, would Rambam’s ruling advocating that one refrain from “idunim” (entertainment or physical delights) on fast days apply on Taanit Esther as well? If we place Taanit Esther in a separate category from the other fasts and consider it a festive, rather than mournful, occasion, then we would likely permit such activities. Indeed, Piskei Teshuvot rules that on Taanit Esther, one may listen to music and prepare new clothing, activities that are generally discouraged on other fast days. Furthermore, Rabbi Soloveitchik suggested that Rambam’s assertion that the fast days will not be observed in the messianic era might not apply to Taanit Esther, which is an integral part of the Purim celebration.
While questioning the character of the day, one might also explore whether Taanit Esther is a separate custom or obligation, or whether it is integrally connected to the observance of Purim. For example, Rambam (Hilkhot Megilla 5:5.) and Shulḥan Arukh (Shulḥan 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. However, Rabbi Aaron ben Yaakov of Lunel rules in his Kolbo (45) that one should fast on Friday, a practice that we generally avoid, so that the fast is juxtaposed to Purim as closely as possible. He apparently views the fast as an integral part of Purim, which should, therefore, be observed as close to Purim as possible, even at the price of fasting on Friday.
Based on what we have seen, we must ask a deeper question regarding the nature of Taanit Esther:
In what way, if at all, does the fast 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, according to some views, Taanit Esther does not even 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 Taanit Esther does not commemorate a tragic event – or any event – at all. Rather, it may simply be another, yet different, day of Purim.
Rabbi Soloveitchik (Shiurei HaRav, pp. 175–80) suggested that Purim and Taanit Esther commemorate two distinct themes of Purim, which are rooted in the different themes of the Megilla itself. In this context, he notes the Gemara’s discussion concerning the requirement to read the Megilla twice, both by night and during the day (Megilla 3b). The Gemara cites two scriptural sources for this halakha. In both verses, 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” (Ps. 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” (Ps. 30:13), equates mikra Megilla with a song of praise for God.
Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that both themes accurately capture the nature of Purim. During most of the Purim story, the Jewish people were threatened and pursued; the redemption surfaces only toward the end of the Megilla. In other words, the story of Purim and its subsequent celebration involves two parts: an acknowledgment of the crisis and “what could have been” as well as thanksgiving for the redemption.
Taanit Esther and Purim, therefore, reflect two aspects of the Purim celebration, and each is incomplete without the other. One cannot truly appreciate Purim without having fasted on Taanit Esther, and Taanit Esther alone certainly does not capture the totality of the Purim story. Interestingly, Shibbolei HaLeket (194) cites Rav 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! This custom attempts to integrate both themes into the day of Purim.
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 Purim occurred. Each year we recall that in some ways, our situation has not changed and that we are still “servants of Achashveirosh”, as we turn to God, and stand up to those who seek to destroy us. We pray that the words of the Megilla will once again be true: “And the Jews had light, gladness, joy, and honor…” (Esther 8:16).
Rav David Brofsky is a senior faculty member at Midreshet Lindenbaum, a member of Beit Hillel and the contributor of a weekly halakha shiur for the Virtual Beit Midrash (VBM). He is the author of Hilchot Tefilla: A Comprehensive Guide to the Laws of Daily Prayer (KTAV, 2010), Hilkhot Moadim: Understanding the Jewish Festivals (Koren, 2013). and the recently published Hilkhot Avelut: Understanding the Laws of Mourning (koren, 2019)