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The Fast of Esther: What, Why and How

The Fast of Esther: What, Why and How


The Fast of Esther is a dawn-to-nightfall fast held on the day before the jolly holiday of Purim. It commemorates the fasting of our ancestors in response to the dramatic chain of events that occurred during their exile in the Persian empire. These events are recorded in the Book of Esther, and the salvation that came about at that time is celebrated on the holiday of Purim. (Click here to find out what times the Fast of Esther starts and ends in your location.)

This year the Fast of Esther is held on March 9, 2017, and Purim is celebrated from the evening of March 11 through March 12 (March 12-13 in Jerusalem). While the fast is generally celebrated on the day before Purim, when Purim is on Sunday, the fast is moved from Shabbat to the preceding Thursday.1

The Fast of Esther, or Ta’anit Esther, is not one of the four public fasts that was ordained by the prophets. Consequently, we are more lenient in its observance, particularly when it comes to pregnant women, nursing mothers and others who are weak.2

Click here for basic fast-day information.

What It Commemorates

Fasting is associated with some pivotal moments in the Purim narrative. One such moment is when Esther approached King Ahasuerus without permission in an effort to intercede on behalf of the Jewish people. Before she went to the king, she fasted for three days, and asked that all the Jews fast as well.

Another dramatic turnaround occurred on Adar 13 (the default date for the Fast of Esther), the date that Haman had set aside for killing the Jews. Instead the Jewish people soundly trounced their enemies. This triumph was accomplished while the Jews were fasting, as they prayed to G‑d that they be successful.3

Click here for more on why this fast is named for Esther.

Extra Prayers

As on other fast days, we make the following changes to the daily prayer routine:

● During the morning prayers we recite selichot (penitential prayers), which are printed in the back of the prayerbook. The “long Avinu Malkeinu” is recited during the morning prayers (and the afternoon prayers, if the fast is not on the day before Purim) .

● The Torah is read during the morning and afternoon prayers. The reading—the same for both morning and afternoon—is Exodus 32:11–14 and 34:1–10, which discusses the aftermath of the Golden Calf incident, how Moses successfully interceded on the Israelites’ behalf and obtained forgiveness for their sin. After the afternoon Torah reading, the special fast-day haftarah, Isaiah 55:6–56:8, is read.

● During the Amidah prayer of the afternoon service (Minchah), those who are fasting add the paragraph Aneinu in the Shema Koleinu blessing. (It is also added in the cantor’s repetition of the Amidah in both the morning and afternoon services as its own blessing between the blessings of Re’eh and Refa’einu.) Additionally, the priestly blessing is added in the repetition of the Amidah in the afternoon service.

● If the fast is on the day before Purim, we do not say Tachanun (prayers of supplication) or Avinu Malkeinu at Minchah, since the joy of the holiday is already upon us.

Machatzit Hashekel

In commemoration of the half-shekel contributed by each Jew to the Holy Temple—which the Talmud says counteracted the 10,000 silver talents Haman gave to King Ahasuerus to obtain the royal decree calling for the extermination of the Jewish people—it is customary to give three coins in “half” denominations (e.g., half-dollar coins) to charity on the afternoon of the Fast of Esther before Minchah. The three half-dollars given for every member of the family commemorate the three contributions the Jews gave for the building of the Tabernacle and for its sacrifices.

In many synagogues, plates are set out with silver half-dollars so that all can purchase them to use in observance of this custom.

If you didn’t manage to give machatzit hashekel before Minchah, you can do so afterwards, or before the Megillah reading on Purim night or morning.

Click here to learn more about machatzit hashekel.

Onward to Purim

Now that we’ve got the Fast of Esther settled, let’s focus on Purim, the joyous holiday that comes next.

If you’re looking for the basics, we suggest you start with What Is Purim?

You can then check out the How-to Guide to learn more about the day’s four special observances.

Since a big part of Purim is reading the Megillah (Book of Esther), you may want print one out so you can follow along with the reader.

And in case you’ve been invited to a Purim celebration, you can prep with our What to Expect page.

Oh, and in case you were worried, we got you covered with Purim stories, Purim videos, Purim recipes, and lots of Purim learning!

Normally, when a fast falls on Shabbat, we delay the fast until Sunday, but because Purim is meant to be a festive day, we fast on the preceding Thursday. In honor of the Shabbat, we even refrain from fasting on Friday. (If, however, you forget to fast on Thursday, you should fast on Friday.)
Generally, we do not eat until after Megillah reading. If you find yourself in extenuating circumstances, consult with a rabbi to find out whether you can eat after nightfall but before the Megillah reading.
Presumably the Jews who were fighting did not fast, since they needed their strength to defend themselves. Since Esther, safe in the palace, was the only one not in danger, she was the only one to fast on this day. Based on the Rebbe’s talk on Purim 5730 (1970). See also Likkutei Sichot, vol. 6, pp. 371–372.
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Yisroel Cotlar Cary, NC via March 24, 2016

Women do fast Taanis Esther. But because It is considered the most lenient of the fasts and someone ill or weak need not fast, women who are pregnant or nursing often do not fast. In some communities that is extended to women who have young children to take care, etc.

Parpar1836 Rochester, NY via March 23, 2016

Elective fasting If Queen Esther instituted this fast, why are women not obligated to participate? Don't virtually all Jewish women fast anyway? Reply

Lawrence Iowa March 23, 2016

First Purim 12(Adar)/13/562; Feb 23/562

Two weeks later Jeconiah released.

Do you know who King Ahasuerus was? Is there a secular history for him? Reply

Marc Sout h Florida February 21, 2013

Giving Shekels We are coin dealers and have Israeli coins, I managed to pull what appears to be 1/2 shekels out of our collection and now we just have to find the appropriate charity, we probably will end up donating them and the silver to our local Lubovich Temple ! It was fun and educational to enjoy this little observed Holiday, now the fasting, that's going to be a little tougher... Reply

Anonymous istanbul February 21, 2013

I forgot the fast on I forgot to fast on Thusday, I will do it tomorrow. Thanks for you clarification about this. Reply

Daniel Israel March 7, 2012

Great information I turn to you guys! Thank you for this resource. The HTML is pure mitzvah. Reply

Yisroel Cotlar Cary, NC March 21, 2011

Half Shekel Women are not obligated in this Mitzvah.

There are some with the custom of a husband also giving on behalf of a wife, but an unmarried women need not do this. Reply

Anonymous Cincinnati, Ohio March 17, 2011

Question I learned that the reason we fast as stated in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch is not because of the three days the Jews fasted for Esther. He says that the real reason that the we fast on Tanit Esther is because on that day the Jews fasted and did teshuva for the impending battle with the Amalikim and their supporters. Reply

Suzanne Larrison St. Petersburg, Florida via March 17, 2011

Chabad Thank you for this web site. So informative and educational in every aspect. Like Bob I don't know what I would and should do without Chabad :)

Thank you to Rabbi and Chaya Korf for all you do for your community. You both give and add so much to each and every one of us. For this I am so greatfull ! Reply

Anonymous Charlotte, NC March 17, 2011

Women and the Half Shekel In the Torah only men over 20 gave the half shekel. Should an unmarried woman give this donation now? Reply

bob wittenberg March 9, 2009

Purim I don't know what I would do, if was not here.
Thanks from a bright guy, but a little lacking on knowledge on Judaism Reply

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