Taanit Esther- A Plea for Balance

Rabbi Yehoshua Grunstein, Director of Training and Placement for OTS’s Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel Emissary Programs[1]


It is a well-established custom[2] to fast on the 13th of Adar[3], usually one day before Purim [which is celebrated in most places on the 14th of Adar[4],] from Dawn to Dusk[5]. While we are used to this fast day being on the calendar before the days of feasting of Purim following, it seems rather radical to transition from fasting to feasting in such a short time period.  In the word of the Maharam from Rothenberg, when he opens the laws of the happy month[6] of Adar;

משנכנס אדר מרבי’ בשמח’, לבד מבערב פורים, [ש]נהגו להתענות בו, וקורין לו תענית אסתר, ובשחריתו נהגו לומר סליחות, ובתוך התפילה מעניין הפורענות שהיה, (ספר מנהגים דבי מהר”ם, סדר פורים)

 “From the time [the month of] Adar enters, we increase our joy”, except on the eve of Purim, where it’s customary to fast, and we call it “The Fast of Esther.” [Therefore] during Shacharit, the custom is to say “Slichot[7],” and in the prayer-service [to say things that are] from the topic of tragedy that was. (Sefer Minhagim from the Study Hall of the Maharam, Seder Purim.)

Indeed, one can see from his formulation that, though Adar is a month of happiness, this fast day seemed to be “inserted,” almost totally “out of place,” into it. In place of happiness and feasting for the entirety of the month, we say Slichot and fast! Moreover, it’s rather strange that this fast would take place…just one day prior to the one that we have both an obligation to feast[8], as well as to drink and get intoxicated[9].

What’s this fast all about? It’s surely not about mourning, per-se, as it’s not mentioned in the Bible as one of the four fast days that express it[10], nor do the Codes count it amongst them[11]. So what is the goal of fasting just moments before days of feasting? 

Two main reasons are offered by the various authorities, both saying that this fast re-enacts the fast the Jews fasted in the days that the events of Purim happened[12];

  • Re-enacting the 3-Day Fast recorded in the Megilla of Esther[13]– As we read twice every year on Purim[14], Esther told Mordechai to command all the Jews, living in the capital city of Shushan, to fast for 3 days prior to her entering King Achashverosh’s chambers, unannounced, and plead with him to annul the decree, initiated by Haman [and then sealed by the king,] to annihilate the Jews (Esther 4/16-17.) While this fast happened surrounding the Holiday of Pesach in the month of Nissan[15], and not in Adar, the month we actually fast this Fast-day[16], nevertheless, we fast in commemoration the above recorded fast of then.
  • To re-enact the fast that transpired on the 13th of Adar– In the story of the Megilla, we read that “נקהלו היהודים”/”the Jews came together on the 13th of Adar, and successfully destroyed [only] the enemies of the Jewish people in the Persian empire of Achashverosh that were planning to kill the Jews a day later on the 14th of Adar [Esther 9/1-12]. This “coming together” was not just in order to form the army that would do the necessary job above, but according to many, it was to fast in order to emanate victorious from this vital battle[17]. To recall their fast, we fast on the very same day, before feasting, as they did, a day later.

The common denominator of the above is re-enacting the fasts of then, either exactly on the same day [the latter position,] or as a remembrance for the three day fast a month later.

However, today, we are not in the danger they faced then: we are not about to walk into the chamber of the king unannounced [with death being the penalty], nor are we about to fight a war on the 13th. I can well understand adding certain elements to our re-enactment of these events. But to go the full nine yards’ and fast, just like them? Fasting then was an ad-hoc vitally needed tool in order to come out victorious. This “need” is no longer acute today?!

Therefore, I would like to suggest that the Fast of Esther is indeed a needed tool to complete the Purim experience each year;  only with this combination of Fast & Feast can we proportionally understand Purim, and the events that resulted in this minor rabbinic Holiday.

The Jews were living under a foreign kingdom in a foreign land, and even when saved from the evil decree of mass-annihilation at the hand of Haman & his cohorts, they still remained in the above situation. Thus, it was indeed a day worthy of both recognition and celebration [due to their acute salvation,] but as we will see in the next two chapters, this day was a “high”, a blip that was not eternal.

In a word, Purim is a day worth celebrating, but the celebration is one that is subdued by the fact that, when all the dust settled, we went back to being a nation, living in an exiled land, far more vulnerable than the ideal/proper “redemption,” as defined by the Ramban:

…כשיצאו ממצרים, אף על פי שיצאו מבית עבדים, עדיין יחשבו “גולים,” כי היו בארץ לא להם, נבוכים במדבר. וכשבאו אל הר סיני, ועשו המשכן, ושב הקדוש ברוך הוא והשרה שכינתו ביניהם, אז שבו אל מעלות אבותם … ואז נחשבו גאולים. ולכן, נשלם הספר הזה בהשלימו ענין המשכן, ובהיות כבוד ה’ מלא אותו תמיד (רמב”ן, שמות, הקדמה)

…when [the Jew] left Egypt, even though they left the house of bondage, they still were considered “exiled” because they were in a land that was not theirs, bewildered in the desert. But, when then came to Mount Sinai, and made the Tabranacle, and God returned and his holy presence dwelt upon them, then they returned to the level of their forebears….and then, they were considered “redeemed.Therefore, this book [of Shemot] ends with the Tabranacle, and the presence of God filling it forever. (Ramban, Intruduction to the Book of Shemot.)

The Jews didn’t come out of the “bondage” of Haman’s decree, as described in the Megilla, to building the second Temple, or returning to the land of Israel. Indeed, as opposed to the end of the Book of Shemot, the ending of the Megilla is rather non-eventful:

וישם המלך אחשוורוש מס על הארץ ואיי הים: וכל מעשה תקפו וגבורתו ופרשת גדלת מרדכי אשר גדלו המלך הלוא הם כתובים על  ספר דברי הימים למלכי מדי ופרס: כי מרדכי היהודי משנה למלך אחשוורוש וגדול ליהודים ורצוי לרב אחיו דרש טוב לעמו ודבר שלום לכל זרעו: (אסתר פרק י/א-ג)

And King Achashverosh imposed a tax on the land and on the isles of the sea. And all the acts of his power and his might and the full account of Mordecai’s greatness, and how the king advanced him-are written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia. For Mordechai the Jew was the assistant to King Achashverosh, and great among the Jews and accepted by most of his brethren; seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all their seed. (Esther 10/1-3.)

No mention of God’s name even once in the Megilla, no second Temple built, and no presence of God’s holiness “filling” the Jewish encampment The above quoted passages wouldn’t make any of us just merely…clap! It’s no wonder that our sages state that the “hint” of the Purim story in the written-Torah is God “hiding” himself from the Jewish people:

אסתר מן התורה מנין? [דברים ל”א/י”ח] “ואנכי הסתר אסתיר [פני ביום ההוא”] (מסכת חולין, קל”ט עמוד ב’)

Esther, where do you find [a hint] of her in the [written] Torah? [Devarim 31/18]- “And I will surely HIDE [my face on that day] (Tractate, Chullin 139b.)

The most “suitable” passage in the Torah for this hint is the very opposite of the definition of “redemption,” as defined by the Ramban above: God not having his presence amongst us, but rather hiding it!

Therefore, we can’t celebrate this holiday like others that had a full-fledged “redemption,” as this wasn’t the case: it was a temporary savior, but not a “redemption.” Therefore, in order to, after all, still recognize and be happy [as commanded] on this day[18], as we will see in the following chapters, we go to extreme & radical measures, as this brief, yet noticeable, “ray of light” in the darkness of the exile, was very much like putting on a light after spending a significant time in a very dark room. Just look at the contrast of the way we eat/drink on a major Holidays, versus the way it’s facilitated on Purim:

כיצד חובת סעודה זו? שיאכל בשר ויתקן סעודה נאה כפי אשר תמצא ידו, ושותה יין עד שישתכר וירדם בשכרות. (רמב”ם, הלכות מגילה וחנוכה, ב/ט”ו)

What is the nature of our obligation for this feast [of Purim?] A person should eat meat and prepare as attractive a feast as his means permit. He should drink wine until he becomes intoxicated and falls asleep in a stupor. (Rambam’s Code, Laws of Megilla & Chanukah 2/15[19])

…שבעת ימי הפסח ושמונת ימי החג עם שאר ימים טובים כולם אסורים בהספד ותענית, וחייב אדם להיות בהן שמח וטוב לב…שנאמר ושמחת בחגך וגו’, אף על פי שהשמחה האמורה כאן היא קרבן שלמים כמו שאנו מבארין בהלכות חגיגה יש בכלל אותה שמחה לשמוח הוא ובניו ובני ביתו כל אחד ואחד כראוי לו …והאנשים אוכלין בשר ושותין יין שאין שמחה אלא בבשר ואין שמחה אלא ביין…כשאדם אוכל ושותה ושמח ברגל לא ימשך ביין ובשחוק ובקלות ראש ויאמר שכל מי שיוסיף בזה ירבה במצות שמחה, שהשכרות והשחוק הרבה וקלות הראש אינה שמחה אלא הוללות וסכלות ולא נצטוינו על ההוללות והסכלות אלא על השמחה שיש בה עבודת יוצר… (רמב”ם, הלכות שביתת יום טוב ו/י”ז-כ)

…On the seven days of Pesach, the eight days of Sukkot, and the other holidays, a person is obligated to be happy and in good spirits; as [Devarim 16/14] states: “And you shall be happy in your festivals;” even thought the “happiness” mentioned in the verse refers to sacrificing Shelamim offerings, as will be explained in Hilchot Chaggigah, nevertheless, included in [this charge to be] happy, that he, his children, and the members of his household should rejoice, each one in a manner appropriate for him….Men should eat meat and drink wine, for there is no happiness without partaking of meat, nor is there happiness without partaking of wine….When a person eats, drinks, and celebrates on a festival, he should not let himself become overly drawn to drinking wine, mirth, and levity, saying, “whoever indulges in these activities more is increasing [his observance of] the mitzvah of rejoicing.” For drunkenness profuse mirth, and levity are not happiness; they are frivolity and foolishness. And we were not commanded to indulge in frivolity or foolishness, but rather in rejoicing that involves the service of the Creator (Rambam’s Code, Law of Yom Tov 6/17-20[20])

While the Holiday meals are balanced, with a lavish meal in a controlled environment, the meal of Purim is rather “out of control” with much eating and intoxicating drinking!

Therefore, it’s only natural for there to be a fast day prior, in order to insure that things remain balanced. When the car is veering too far to the left, one has to swing the steering-wheel all the way to the right in order to return to the middle of the lane! When your boat is facing the wrong direction, one must go to the opposite extreme to get it back to the middle. In the words of the Rambam:

וכיצד היא רפואתם? מי שהוא בעל חמה, אומרים לו להנהיג עצמו, שאם הוכה וקולל לא ירגיש כלל, וילך בדרך זו זמן מרובה עד שיתעקר החמה מלבו. ואם היה גבה לב, ינהיג עצמו בבזיון הרבה וישב למטה מן הכל וילבש בלויי סחבות המבזות את לובשיהם, וכיוצא בדברים אלו, עד שיעקור גובה הלב ממנו, ויחזור לדרך האמצעית שהוא דרך הטובה, ולכשיחזור לדרך האמצעית ילך בה כל ימיו, ועל קו זה יעשה בשאר כל הדעות אם היה רחוק לקצה האחד ירחיק עצמו לקצה השני וינהוג בו זמן רב עד שיחזור בו לדרך הטובה והיא מדה בינונית שבכל דעה ודעה. (רמב”ם, הלכות דעות, ב/ב )

How are they to be healed? We tell the wrathful man to train himself to feel no reaction even if he is beaten or cursed. He should follow this course of behavior for a while, until the anger is uprooted from his heart. The man who is full of pride should cause himself to experience much disgrace. He should sit in the lowliest of places, dress in tattered rags which shame the wearer, and the like, until the arrogance is uprooted from his heart and he returns to the middle path, which is the proper path. When he returns to this middle path, he should walk in it for the rest of his life. One should take a similar course with each of the other traits; A person who swayed in the direction of one of the extremes should move in the direction of the opposite extreme, and accustom himself to that for a long time, until he has returned to the proper path, which is the midpoint for each and every temperament.  (Rambam’s Code, Hilchot De’ot 2/2.)

The Purim festivities, especially the meal, are all about an “extreme” of eating & drinking. Thus, the day before, when we know that we will be “swayed in the direction of one of the extremes,” naturally, we have to go to the opposite direction of fasting.

Indeed, the above is EXACTLY reminiscent of the events of Purim, upon which the Megilla states:

כימים אשר נחו בהם היהודים מאויביהם, והחדש אשר נהפך להם מיגון לשמחה ומאבל ליום טוב (אסתר פרק ט/כ”ב)

As the days when the Jews rested from their enemies, and the month that was reversed for them from grief to joy, and from mourning to a festive day (Esther 9/22.)

And therefore, this is EXACTLY the two reasons for this fast:

  • Re-enacting the 3 day Fast– From the decree to anilate every Jew, with Haman being the highest deputy to the king, and Esther terrified not just for her life [entering the King’s chambers unannounced-Esther 4/7-16] but for the life of her fellow Jews [Esther 7/4-6] to the very opposite extreme of Haman being Hung to death [ibid 9-10,] the Jews turned to joyful [ibid 8/16-17] rather then their former state of mourning [ibid 4/3,] and Mordechai promoted from a mere pesent, sitting at the outer gate of the king’s palace [ibid 2/11, 4/2,] to taking over Haman’s place [ ibid 8/2.]
  • Re-enacting the 1 day fast– From the decree, still being intact despite all the above [8/3-8,] to a day [13th of Adar] given to the Jews to destroy all their enemies, exactly 1 day prior to the day the annihilation of the Jews was to be permitted [ibid 11-12,] being successful [ibid 9/1-2,] and thus naturally celebrating this vast evolution of events [8/19-32.]

This holiday is one of extreme turnovers, and thus, when we re-enact it, we do so exactly in the very same manner: From FASTING TO FEASTING, in order to eventually get back to a proper balance.

This is the common Jewish practice to both re-enact extremes and get back to a balance:

  • On the eve of Pesach, the Jews, even after 9 hard plagues that hit Egypt, were not yet freed from Egypt, with Pharaoh consistently refusing to let them go free despite it all. God informs Moshe that, at Midnight, he will kill all the first-borns in Egypt [Shemot 11/4-5,] while not one first-born Jew would be killed [ibid 7.] From being slaves, with the above consistent refusal, the Jews were totally freed within hours [ibid 12/31,41, 51.] This vast & fast extreme change of events is commemorated each year with the Fast of the Firstborn on the eve of Pesach [Code, OC 429/1] which ultimately leads to the Seder-night, when we embark in one of the most lavish and royal meals of the year[21], and even at the meal, from eating Matza, bread of redemption [see chapter below] to eating, right afterwards, Maror/the bitter herbs [Code ibid 475/1.]
  • After the happy and long Holidays of Pesach and Sukkot, there is an ancient custom to fast בה”ב / Monday-Thursday-Monday [3 days, in this interval-Code, OC 492/1] as we may have gone too extreme [and thus perhaps sinned] during those meals over the Holidays, and thus, go to the opposite extreme to get back to the middle [Mishna Berura, ibid 1.]
  • In modern-day Israel, the solemn and sad Day of Remembrance for Fallen Soldiers is just 1 day before the happy and joyous Yom Haatzmaut/Israel’s Independence day.

Thus, on a Holiday with such an extreme turnover of events, we go from the extreme of fasting to feasting, and if you celebrate Purim on the 14th, you actually come to the onset of the Holiday fasting [Code, ibid, 692/4], and end it in a state of intoxication with a full stomach [Code, ibid, Rama,695/2 states that Mincha is davened early, so that the meal is the last thing we do.]

[1] Dedicated in memory of my father, צבי מאיר בן משה יהונתן הכ”מ/Harry Grunstein, whose demise just one month ago was a true call for balance between the happiness of Adar and Purim, together with the mourning of his passing.

[2]  While the Code [see next footnote] seems to bring this law as an “obligation” [as seems to be the opinon of the Raavad, brought in the interpertation to the Ran, Tractate Taanit 7a and others,] the Rama [ibid,] states that this fast is not an obligation, but rather a custom, and thus, unlike the other “minor fast days” [i.e.- those that begin at Dawn and end at Dusk,] there are many leniencies that are utilized regarding this fast [and not the other minor fast days.] We will be assuming the majority view [Ran (ibid) against the Raavad ibid, Rambam’s Code, Hilchot Taaniyot 5/5 and more,] that it is a custom, as the Abudraham (Sefer Abudraham, Seder Tefillot HaTaaniyot, d”h “Veata Afaresh”) states: עוד מתענין בי”ג באדר …ואינו מפורש בכתוב, ולא בתלמוד, אלא החכמים האחרונים תקנוהו אחר חתימת התלמוד./”We also fast on the 13th of Adar… and it is not sourced neither in the scripture, nor in the Talmud, but rather the later sages ordained it after the sealing of the Talmud.” As it was “ordained” after the Talmud was sealed, it’s can’t carry the same level of obligation as those enactment condifed in the Talmud itself.

[3] Code, OC 686/2, unless the 13th of Adar comes out on Shabbat, in which case we push the fast back to Thursday prior [ibid.]

[4]  i.e.- all except cities that were surrounded by a wall during the time Yehoshua entered Israel [ibid 688/1, 3.]

[5]Although not commonly followed, see Magen Avraham, ibid, 686/2 in the name of כ”ה, that some fast from the night before.

[6]  Tractate Taanit 29a.

[7] i.e. – as is done on every Fast-Day [Code, OC, 566/4,] with the exception of Tisha Bav [Rama, ibid, 559/4.]

[8] Code, ibid, 691/1

[9] Ibid 2.

[10] Zecharya 8/19, and Tractate Rosh Hashana 18b.

[11] See Rambam’s Code, Hilchot Taaniyot 5/1-4 where he speaks about the mournfall fast-days, and only in law # 5 he mentions the Fast of Esther, separate from the list of the others, as a custom distinct from the first four. In addition, see the Code [OC, 549/1] where he lists the fast days that we commerate “מפני דברים הרעים שאירעו בהם” /”because of the bad things that transpired on them” not including the Fast of Esther. Also, see Code, OC, 580, where he lists all the fast days [some obligatory and some customary,] that are; “הימים שאירעו בהם צרות לאבותינו וראוי להתענות”  /”are days that tragedy struck our forebears and it’s recommended to fast on them” not including the Fast of Esther in this list.

[12] Rambams Code, Hilchot Taanit 5/5.

[13]Amongst others, Rashi’s view, as recorded in a Responsa by the Machzor Vitri, # 245. Rashi makes it very clear that it’s a custom to recall the events of then, and not an edict recorded in the words of the Megilla [i.e.-Esther 9/31-   “לקים את ימי הפרים האלה בזמניהם כאשר קים עליהם מרדכי היהודי ואסתר המלכה וכאשר קימו על נפשם ועל זרעם דברי הצמות וזעקתם”:/” To confirm these days of Purim in their appointed times, as Mordecai the Jew and Esther the queen had enjoined them, and as they had ordained for themselves and for their seed, the matters of the fasts and their cry.”]

[14]  Code, OC, 687/7.

[15] Tractate Megilla 16a. According to the Talmud, the first day of Pesach was a fast day that year, which, according to another source, [Pirkei Derabi Eliezer, Chorev edition, chapter 49, d”h “Ish Yehudi Haya”] the 3rd day of fasting was that day, despite the prohibition to fast on a Holiday (as we are obligated toeat at least two meals with bread-Code ibid 529/1, and not fast, even just from Dawn past miday like on Shabbat –Code, ibid, 288/1.) Obviously, it was permitted and even obligatory then, due to the dire circumstances of literal life-endangerment of every Jew living in Achashverosh’s kingdom. In the words of the aftermentioned Pirkei Derabi Eliezer, while Mordechai was reluctant to have the first day of Pesach be a fast-day, Esther responded; “אם אין ישראל, למי הפסח? מיד שמע מרדכי והורה לדבריה”/”If there isn’t a nation of Israel, who will [celebrate] Pesach? Mordechai immediately adhered to her words and so told people to do!” See also a similar description in the Yalkut Shimoni (Esther, 247/800-256.) Today, as there is no clear-and-present danger, we uphold the custom not to fast in the month of Nissan (Code, ibid, Rama’s Glosses 429/2,) and of course, it forbidden to fast on the very the Holiday of Pesach itself [as noted above.]

[16]  See Tractate Sofrim 17/3 and 21/1 that brings the custom to fast for 3 days just like then, but in the month of Adar, with various ways to do this in intervals. This is no longer the wide-spread custom.

[17]  Rosh, Tractate Megilla 1/1 in the name of Rabeinu Tam, Levush, OC, 686.

[18] Esther 9/19-23, Tractate Megilla 5b.

[19]  In a similar vein, see Code, OC, 695/2 regarding drinking, and see ibid 1 in the Rama’s Glosses, where he states that it’s obligatory to have a lavish, increased meal of eating.

[20] In the same vein, see Code, OC, 529.

[21] See Code, OC, 472/2, where it states that one should set the table for the Seder night with very nice dishes. See Mishna Berura [ibid 6] that even though we diminish our table-setting the entire year to recall the destruction of the Temple, on the Seder night, we do not, as we must show and express freedom.


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