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Ilana Fodiman-Silverman
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Purim’s other half begins today

The Fast of Esther adds introspection and mindfulness in the range of emotion of the holiday, as we face the nation’s profound needs
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As Jewish holidays go, Purim is unique. The jovial frivolity is often compared to the Carnival of Venice marked by masks, revelry, and inebriation. A festive exhale from a miraculously averted tyrannical threat to our nation. But that is only half of the ritual experience.

This year, amidst the depth of the pain of our nation, it is the Ta’anit Esther dimension, the Fast of Esther, from dawn until dusk, that captivates.

The fast is rooted in the biblical narrative of Esther. When Queen Esther is informed by Mordechai that Haman has received permission to annihilate the Jews, she is cajoled to intercede. However, it has been 30 days since Queen Esther was last welcomed into the king’s inner chamber. Her choice to initiate a meeting is at odds with the established law that anyone who approaches the king uninvited is sentenced to death. Undeterred, Esther asks Mordechai to “Go and gather all of the Jews, fast on my behalf for three days,” (Esther 4:16) after which she will assume her mission.

The tension is captured in this dramatic moment, where the fate of the Jewish people balances in the hands of one woman’s choice to act.

The rabbis (Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer 50) were struck by a buried detail in the narrative. The text explicitly reveals that Haman’s edict for the destruction of the Jews was dispatched on the 13th of Nisan (Esther 3:12), a full 11 months before the decree was to be carried out.

Esther’s call for an immediate fast in the middle of the month of Nisan would prescribe the fast to overlap with Passover. The rabbinic text imagines a pivotal conversation between Queen Esther and Mordechai. Casting Mordechai as the head of the Sanhedrin (supreme rabbinic council), he balks at Esther’s demands that he galvanize the people for an immediate fast on her behalf. Her brazen insistence would essentially annul the Passover seder that year. Out of all of the days in the Jewish year, insisting on declaring a fast just then would eliminate a foundational ritual and clash with the only biblical command requiring the entire nation to eat!

Esther rebukes Mordechai, challenging him to assume the destiny of his role as the supreme rabbinic authority. It is time to take responsibility and boldly guide the nation in the face of its current crisis. Esther challenges Mordechai, “If there is no Jewish people, there is no Passover to preserve!” The story concludes with Mordechai conceding to Esther, stepping into the capacity of his role and courageously launching into the unchartered waters of the moment. An act of valiant flexibility that proved vital to saving the nation.

The original fast of Esther trumped the seder, however the Ta’anit Esther that we mark today was fixed for the day before Purim, assigned to buddy and lead into the Purim holiday. This year, with Purim coming out on Sunday, the date of Ta’anit Esther is the subject of curious deliberation. Where should it go?

Yom Kippur is the only fast to be observed on Shabbat, so the idea to commemorate Ta’anit Esther early, on Friday, might make sense, but it is also rejected, and the rabbinic authorities settled on Thursday. This placement is explained by one source: in order to protect the Fast of Esther from Friday’s competing need to prepare for Shabbat. (Tur Shulchan Arukh, OH 686)

But what is expected on the Fast of Esther? Beyond a passive abstinence from food and drink, in what way would it overwhelm one’s ability to adequately prepare for Shabbat?

One of the earliest sources to reference the day refers to Ta’anit Esther as “the day of community for all” (Sheiltot of Rav Ahai Gaon, 67). Another describes “the countryfolk converging into the cities to join together and cry out, modeled on the days of Esther when the Jews gathered to face an existential threat needing mercy” (Rabbenu Asher, Megillah 4a).

These descriptions paint the Fast of Esther as inspired by the biblical fast in history, yet not an arm’s length commemoration of a far-off moment in our past. The essence of the day of the fast is an active gathering and confrontation with the challenges of today. It has the malleability to be assigned a variety of calendar dates depending on the year’s needs — and it always requires a day of its own. Queen Esther’s biblical fast is a training ground for developing muscle memory for spiritual activism today, for it succeeded in uniting the people and overturning the harsh decree.

Aptly paired with Purim’s day of masks, the Fast of Esther expands the range of emotion of the holiday. A day of introspection, reflection and mindfulness to face the raw unfiltered depths of our nation’s needs.

We are living through a gut-wrenching war, mourning over 1,200 murdered souls, grappling with thousands wounded, 134 people trapped in a hell on earth, hundreds of thousands of citizens having donned battle dress and tens of thousands of our citizens uprooted from their homes with no clear sense as to when this will end. We are all struggling — politicians, parents, volunteers, neighbors, friends, and family members — to imagine which precise actions will address our acute existential needs and objectives.

Who knows if it is for this moment indeed, that the Fast of Esther was established.

About the Author
Ilana Fodiman-Silverman is Director of Moed, a community organization in Zichron Yaakov, Israel that brings together secular and religious Israelis in Torah study and innovative social action programing to create vibrant and compelling Jewish lives together.
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