Why Was the Fast Instituted?

Rambam writes:1

The entire Jewish people follow the custom of fasting . . . on the thirteenth of Adar, in commemoration of the fast undertaken at the time of Haman, as it is written,2 “[To establish for themselves . . .] the matter of the fasts and their outcries.’”3

From Rambam’s use of a prooftext which employs the plural “fasts,” several of the classic commentaries deduce that he is referring to the three successive days of fasting4 which Esther asked Mordechai to have the people observe on her behalf before approaching King Achashverosh.5

R. David Avudraham, one of the foremost authorities on the prayer service, differs. He writes:6

Even HaYarchi [R. Avraham HaYarchi, Provence, 12th century] writes that these fasts are not a commemoration of the fasts of Esther, for we do not fast for three consecutive days, day and night, [as Esther did]. Moreover, her fasts were held on Pesach. . . . Rather, these fasts were instituted because of the verse,7 “And the Jews . . . congregated on the thirteenth”; [this gathering] was for the purpose of fasting [together].

According to this view, the Jews fasted on the thirteenth of Adar to arouse divine mercy before waging war against their enemies. There are precedents for this in our history. For example, when Yehoshua led the Jews in battle against Amalek, Moshe, Aharon and Chur fasted.8

The difficulties raised by Even HaYarchi are easily dealt with from Rambam’s position.9 It has been argued, for example, that although the sages wished to commemorate the fasts observed in the time of Esther, they did not want to impose a fast of three days—an extremely difficult undertaking—on the Jewish people. They chose to assign the fast to Adar rather than to Nissan, because Nissan is the festive “season of redemption,” and is also the joyous time of the dedication of the Sanctuary. Fasting in Nissan would, therefore, be inappropriate.

Furthermore, it would be difficult to maintain that the fast we observe commemorates the fast observed by the Jews on the thirteenth of Adar, since there is no explicit mention of such a fast in the megillah. One might even argue that since the Jews were about to wage war to defend themselves on that day, it would be forbidden for them to fast, lest the fasting weaken them and expose them to danger.10

Why is the Fast Called the Fast of Esther?

The name of the fast would also appear to be meaningful only if it commemorates the fasts requested by Queen Esther. If it commemorates the fast undertaken by the Jews before the battle, the association with Esther is problematic.

This difficulty can be resolved, from the position of Avudraham, by postulating that although in principle the Jewish people wished to fast on the thirteenth of Adar in order to arouse divine mercy, they were not allowed to do so because it would sap their strength. Instead, they vowed to fast on a later date.11 Esther, who spent the thirteenth of Adar in the royal palace, was not in danger,12 and she actually fasted on this day. For this reason, the fast is called “the Fast of Esther,” because among all of the Jewish people, she was the only one who actually fasted on this date.

The Effects Our Fasts Produce

The positions of both Rambam and Avudraham can lend us guidance in our own divine service. The Torah tells us13 that “G‑d shall bless you in all that you do,” implying that success involves two elements: “all that you do” (i.e., man’s endeavors within the material world), and G‑d’s blessing. The fasts undertaken by the Jewish people were intended to arouse G‑d’s blessing and bring success to their physical efforts.

According to the view of Avudraham, the Fast of Esther highlights the importance of seeking G‑d’s blessings even under favorable circumstances. All of the king’s officials were supporting the Jews in battle, and “no man could withstand them, for the fear of [the Jews] had fallen upon all the peoples.”14 Nonetheless, recognizing that they needed G‑d’s assistance, the Jews took vows to fast before going out to battle.

According to the view of Rambam, the fast teaches that we can arouse unlimited divine blessings and transform the very circumstances in which we find ourselves. Haman’s plan to annihilate the Jewish people was a reflection of a heavenly decree against them.15 However, despite the apparent hopelessness of the situation, after Esther and the Jewish people undertook these fasts, she was willing to risk her life in the hope of saving her people.

Women and Redemption

The name “Fast of Esther” highlights the role of women in the dynamic of redemption. Our sages16 teach that “in the merit of righteous women, the Jews were redeemed from Egypt,” and indeed from later exiles as well.17 We have been promised,18 “As in the days of your exodus from Egypt, I will show you wonders.” Since Arizal 19 teaches that the generation that will experience the ultimate redemption are reincarnations of those who experienced the exodus from Egypt, it follows that the future redemption will reflect the pattern of that archetypal redemption, and so we may assume that it will also come as a result of the merit of righteous women.20 May this take place in the immediate future.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, vol. 6, pp. 371–372;
sichah of Taanis Esther 5740.