Esther in front of Ahasuerus, oil on canvas by Konrad Witz [Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons]
Ta’anit Ester or the Fast of Esther is a fast from sunrise to sunset on Purim eve which commemorates the pre-war fast that the Jews of Persia observed on the 13th day of the Hebrew month of Adar in preparation for their defense against Haman’s decree.
The story of Purim starts in the aftermath of the destruction of the first Holy Jerusalem Temple (587 BCE) by the Babylonians. The Jewish people had been exiled from their homeland in Israel to Babylonia, by the wicked Babylonian King Nebuchadnezer II. In 486 BCE, King Ahasuerus ascended the throne of Persia. He was one of the most powerful men in the civilized world at that time. In circa 480 CE, King Ahasuerus decided to make a 180-day party for the people of his kingdom. One of the main functions of the party was the celebration of what he had mistakenly thought was the end of a seventy year period of the Jewish people’s exile from Israel – during which a prophecy was told of the Jewish people’s subsequent return to Israel. After the conclusion of the 70-year period that he had calculated – that did not result in the redemption of the Jewish people – Ahasuerus became jubilant, believing that now the Jews would remain his subjects, without ever regaining power and independence. At his grandiose 3-month long party, the king had his tables adorned with the precious and sacred vessels of the Holy Temple, which had been captured by the wicked King Nebuchadnezzar II.
At the large party that the King threw for his subjects, he became drunk and, in a fit of rage over what he perceived to be a lack of respect given to him by his queen, he killed Vashti. (Vashti was the daughter of the Babylonian King, Belshazzar, and the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar II, the powerful world ruler.)
In a search to find a new wife, the king scoured the land for a suitable spouse. After months of searching for a suitable wife, he met Esther and she found favor in the King’s eyes. She was crowned his new queen. Despite the king’s insistence and her marriage to the king, she did not reveal her Jewish heritage.
At this time, Haman, one of the closest advisors to the king, suggested and persuaded King Ahasuerus to allow him to make a decree, in the king’s name, for the annihilation of the Jewish people. The king agreed to the wicked plot. Haman did not waste time in hatching his evil plot to destroy the Jewish people that resided the Persian kingdom. He drew purim or lots to determine the day which would be most suitable for the Jewish people were to be destroyed. The lots he drew fell out on the 13th of the Hebrew month of Adar. His plan was set. Haman then had the royal decree written and stamped with the seal of the king. The Jews of Persia were in mortal danger and were fearful for their lives.
Queen Esther, at the risk of tremendous peril, decided to intervene on behalf of her people, but not before asking her friend and colleague Mordecai to first intervene with the Jewish people on her behalf. Esther asked Mordecai to issue a decree to the Jewish people, on her behalf, for them to fast for 3 days, over the Passover holiday. Esther told Mordecai (Megillat Esther), “gather all the Jews of Shushan, young and old alike, and fast and pray on my behalf for three days until their pleas will reach Heaven and G‑d will have mercy on us. Here in the palace, I and my maidens will fast and pray likewise, for nothing but a miracle of G‑d can save our people. After the three days, I will go to the King despite the law, and if I perish, I perish.”
The Jewish people indeed fasted and prayed for the success of Queen Esther. In the end, Esther was successful in persuading the king to reverse the previous decision to eradicate the Jews. In a dramatic turn of events, Haman and his 10 sons were hung, the Jewish people fought a successful battle (during which they fasted) against their enemies that were in the Persian kingdom and Mordecai became the trusted advisor to the king, in place of Haman.
To commemorate the fast that was issued on behalf of Queen Esther and her successful role in saving the Jewish people from their enemies, the Rabbi’s instituted a commemorative fast on the eve of the holiday of Purim. The holiday of Purim immediately follows the fast of Esther in most areas, with Jerusalem being the most significant exception. In Jerusalem, the holiday of Purim is celebrated on the second day following the fast of Esther.
This year, the fast of Esther will be observed today, Wednesday, from sunrise to sunset.