The fast of Esther is the most anticlimactic part of the Jewish calendar. Even as we prepare our Mishloach Manot bags, finalize our costume decisions, make sure we know who we will be having our festive Purim meal with, and preparing for a Megilah reading, comes a fast—the fast of Esther. Why? Why place a fast— often associated with sadness and mourning—right before the celebrations? Furthermore, what are we fasting for? Usually, fasts are yearning for something. Most fasts are associated with the destruction of the Temple and expulsion from Israel. We ask God to forgive our sins, rebuild the Temple, and return us to Jerusalem. What are we fasting for on the fast of Esther?
Finding out answers for these questions is an especially hard task since the fast of Esther is not mentioned in the Mishna or the Talmud. The fast is mentioned in early 8th century Geonic and Midrashic literature. Interestingly, there are two episodes in the book of Esther, which can be seen as the source for the custom to fast on the 13the of Adar, the day before Purim.
The more well-known explanation for the fast of Esther given in Masechet Sofrim (17:4) is based on the story of Esther’s fast. After being asked by Mordechai to speak to Achashverosh despite not being summoned, Queen Esther finally agrees to break the rules and talk to Achashverosh unannounced. Yet Esther makes one request from Mordechai:
“Then Esther ordered to reply to Mordecai: “Go, assemble all the Jews who are present in Shushan and fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, day and night; also I and my maidens will fast in a like manner; then I will go to the king contrary to the law, and if I perish, I perish.” So Mordecai passed and did according to all that Esther had commanded him. (Esther chapter 4)
Despite the fact that this three-day fast took place in the month of Nissan, we fast nowadays right before Purim in remembrance of Esther and Mordechai’s fast. This reason is the one given by Moses Maimonides (Hilchot Ta’aniyot 5:5) when sharing the history of the Fast of Esther. Still, the goal of the fast and what we are asking for are still uncertain. Fasts are not just commemorative; they are ways of yearning and asking God for more.
A less known reason for the fast of Esther relates to events that took place much later in the book of Esther. As Haman’s decree of destruction against the Jews was set to take effect, the Jews got together to defend themselves:
“The Jews assembled in their cities, in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, to lay hand on those who sought to harm them, and no one stood up before them, for their fear had fallen upon all the peoples…. And the Jews who were in Shushan assembled on the thirteenth thereof and on the fourteenth thereof, and rested on the fifteenth thereof, and made it a day of feasting and joy. “(Esther, chapter 9)
Self-defense was not something the Jews were able to do alone; we needed to get together to do it. Since traditionally, Jewish days of fast were also days of gathering and coming together, the Sages instituted a fast so that we come together for good, that we fast and come closer to God on this day.
This opinion of Rabbi Achai Gaon (Babylon, 8th century) and Rabbeinu Tam (France 1100-1171) maintains that we must fast on the 13th of Adar in memory of Jews coming together to defend themselves in the times of Mordechai and Esther.
Whether you see the source for the fast of Esther in the fast the Esther, Mordechai, and the Jews of Shushan fasted prior to Esther meeting the king, or whether you see the source the Jews coming together to defend themselves on their own D-Day, the fast of Esther is unlike any other fast. On the fast of Esther, we fast so that we can come together. It is a reminder to us that if we are going to achieve anything, we must do so together. As we fast on repent on other fast days, on the fast of Esther, we also fast and repent—we repent for our lack of togetherness. We ask God to see our coming together as one and to deliver us from the hands of whatever modern-day Haman-like threat we may be facing today.
It is therefore highly appropriate for this day to also be the day on which everyone donates half a shekel to charity, in memory of the half a silver shekel coin given to the Temple from the days of Moses and on. The reason we gave a half a shekel and not a complete one was to remind ourselves we are never complete without one another.
The purpose of the fast of Esther is to characterize the entire holiday of Purim; do not think for a moment the miracle of Purim was a sheet act of Providence. Purim was possible because we came together as a nation. Purim is the ultimate answer to Haman’s saying of the Jewish people: “There is a certain people scattered and separate among the peoples.” On the fast of Esther, we remind ourselves that we were able to overcome our divisions. We remind ourselves that whether fasting and praying together—or by waging a war of self-defense together—unity is the only way we can survive. The fast of Esther is meant to color the entire holiday of Purim with the colors of unity. Happy Purim!