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Finding Meaning When Eating on Ta’anit Esther

This article is the second in a series from A Mitzvah To Eat. Please learn more about our work at the end of the article.

Of the many fast days in the Jewish tradition, Ta’anit Esther, the Fast of Esther, which we observe the day before Purim, is distinctive in its establishment, history and categorization. There has not always been agreement about how Ta’anit Esther should be observed. For example, not only is it not a Torah mandated (d’oraytah) fast, as Purim itself is a rabbinic holiday, but there is even a debate among scholars throughout the ages if Ta’anit Esther was more of a customary practice, a minhag, than a rabbinic one.

The date itself, the 13th of Adar, has also been disputed as it has no corollary in Megillat (Book of) Esther. When Esther in Chapter 4:16 tells Mordechai to gather all the Jews and fast for three days, it was actually in the month of Nissan. Interestingly, there is even a dispute among the rabbis (Babylonian Talmud Masechet Ta’anit 15b,Tosafot on Masechet Ta’anit 18a and Meiri on Ta’anit 18a) if the fast should occur at all, as regular practice prohibits fasting before a holiday. Yet despite all of these disagreements, the practice of fasting on Ta’anit Esther has come to be understood as a way to remember the fast that happened in the Megillah.

The unusual qualities of this fast led scholars to institute wider fast exemptions including those who are pregnant and nursing and those who are simply not feeling well. Unlike Yom Kippur, children under the age of bar/bat mitzvah do not practice fasting on Ta’anit Esther. These halakhic (Jewish legal) parameters make eating on Ta’anit Esther much easier, for lesser reasons, perhaps, than other fasts.

That said, on every fast day it is a mitzvah to eat when needed to save one’s life and preserve one’s health. On Ta’anit Esther, that eating can even be part of participating in the meaning of the fast itself. Fast Days, Ta’anit Esther included, have been designated as times for repentance. According to Maimonides, Hilkhot Ta’aniyot 5:1.
‘There are days that all people of Israel observe as fast as on account of the tragic events which occurred on them, the purpose being to appeal to the hearts and to lay open the paths of repentance…’

Ta’anit Esther, however, does not commemorate something evil that happened to the Jewish people, but rather the threatening possibility of such evil happening, the decree that all the Jews would be annihilated on the 14 of Adar. Mordechai comes to Esther and asks her to act on behalf of her people and if she doesn’t rise to the occasion, someone else will come and save the Jews. Esther responds and charges Mordechai, saying, “Go and gather all the Jews– לך כנוס את היהודים-of Shushan and fast on my behalf, do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish! “(Esther 4:16)

The fast as depicted in the Megillah is a means not only of prayer and repentance but also as a community building exercise. In coming together to pray for God to save the Jewish people from their future destruction, the Jews in Shushan were also preparing themselves to be fully together for the eventual celebration when the evil decree was rescinded. The fast, therefore, can be seen as a means of inclusion, to unify the Jewish community.

If you are required to eat on Ta’anit Esther, you can still join together in solidarity with fellow Jews. You can participate in the preparation of the Purim celebration in your community or begin giving your gifts to the poor early. You can simply join together in prayer, showing your loyalty to the Jewish people. You can also advocate for agunot (Jewish women trapped in marriages because their husbands have refused to grant a religious divorce) on Ta’anit Esther, which has also been designated as International Agunah Day. What better way to show your love for the Jewish community than supporting agunot who still cannot participate fully in Jewish life?

It is important to note that the celebration of Purim and its rituals enforces love of God and community through acts of kindness to our fellow Jews. We give Mishloach Manot (meals to our friends), gifts to the poor, and join together in a communal feast of celebration. Those eating on Ta’anit Esther have the opportunity to show their faith in God and the Jewish people perhaps a little bit earlier. Then, they can come into Purim with strength and support to enjoy the miracle that the holiday commemorates.

A Mitzvah to Eat is a gathering place for Jews who need to eat on fast days due to mental/physical health or underlying conditions. We create resources for fast days, engage in conversations about health/fasting, teach texts about pikuach nefesh (saving a life), build community, and offer support. Please find us on Facebook, Instagram and A Mitzvah To Eat.

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About the Author
Rabbi Marianne Novak recently received Semikha from Yeshivat Maharat. She lives in Skokie, IL with her husband Noam Stadlan. She is an educator for the Melton Adult Education Program and a Gabbait for the Skokie Women's Tefillah Group. She recently joined the Judaic studies faculty at Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Chicago, IL.
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