Thursday, March 13, 2014

TAANIT ESTHER: Why did Esther fast?

כל עבדי המלך ועם מדינות המלך יודעים אשר כל איש ואשה אשר יבוא אל המלך אל החצר הפנימית אשר לא יקרא אחת דתו להמית לבד מאשר יושיט לו המלך את שרביט הזהב וחיה ואני לא נקראתי לבוא אל המלך זה שלושים יום׃

When Queen Esther was informed of Haman's decree to eliminate the Jewish people, she decided to approach King Ahashverosh and persuade him to reverse the Royal edict. But the execution of her plan was not so simple. According to rabbi Moshe Almosnino (yede Moshe) Esther did not know if Ahashverosh and Haman were on the same page, or if the King was tricked by Haman to carry out the terrible edict. She planned to invite the King together with Haman to a feast (5:4) for intelligence gathering.  If she would find out that Ahashverosh was in complicity with Haman, she would try to dissuade Haman. If she would find out, however, that Ahashverosh was tricked by Haman, then she would expose Haman in front of Ahashverosh, hoping to gain the King's favor (7:4). As risky as this mission looks, there was one dangerous step Esther had to take before all these events. Esther had to talk to the King. We would probably think that talking with the King was the easiest part, especially for Queen Esther, who lived in the palace! But Esther knew that in the Kingdom of Ahashverosh things were different. By law, it was the King's exclusive prerogative to summon one of his subjects. And Esther was not called by the King in the last month (4:11). No one, even the Queen, had the right to ask for an audience with the King.   Unless, of course, one would trespass into the "King's security area" (hatser hapenimit), uninvited and at your own risk. Let me explain. The Persian Kings had guards to the sides of the throne, armed with long axes, and ready to execute on the spot any trespasser. Persian Emperors were obsessed with their personal security, and rightly so.  Ahashverosh himself was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards, Artabanus, in 465 BCE. The Persian law (dat) established that anyone entering Ahashverosh's restricted security zone should be immediately executed (4:11), unless the King himself stops the executioners and decides to pardon the trespasser, extending his scepter as a sign of Royal forgiveness.  Esther knew that this King had already caused the execution of his previous Queen, Vashty (1:19 ). She feared for her life but she had no choice. There was nothing anyone else was able to do to gain access to the King and do something to stop Haman's decree. Esther then decided to risk her life (4:16) embarking in her suicidal mission.

But before she approached the King she requested to gather all the Jews and fast with her and for her (tsumu 'alai, 4:16). Fasting, together with prayer, is what our Tora and our Rabbis instructed us to do in challenging circumstances. At the request of Esther, every Jew fasted for three consecutive days and prayed for Esther's success.

As we all know, with the help of HaShem, Esther's "Mission Impossible" succeeded. But we still remember those days of fast, when the Jews prayed to HaShem for His miraculous salvation.  In remembrance of that fast, the fast requested by Esther, we observe today Ta'anit Esther.

Normally, Ta'anit Ester takes place one day before Purim, on the 13th of Adar. However, when Purim falls on Saturday night/Sunday like this year, the fast day is observed the previous Thursday, i.e., today.
Ta'anit Ester is considered a minor fast. Pregnant and nursing women do not observe this fast. Also children, elders or anyone with even a minor medical issue is exempted from this fast, especially this year that the fast is moved to Thursday.
In NY the fast began today at 6:02 am,  and it ends at 7:20 pm. (In some communities they would finish the fast a few minutes later. See your community's calendar).