This week we shall analyze the character of Taanit Esther. We will begin with a discussion of the dispute among the Rishonim regarding the source of the obligation to fast and the nature of the obligation. Then we will discuss five implications of the dispute among the Rishonim regarding the source and nature of Taanit Esther. Our discussion will be based on Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s analysis of Taanit Esther as recorded in Harerei Kedem (pp. 316-317).
The Source for Taanit Esther – Raavad, Rashi, and Rabbeinu Tam
The Raavad (cited by the Ran, Taanit 7a in the pages of the Rif, s.v. Aval) asserts that the source for Taanit Esther is found in Megilat Esther. The Megila (9:31) relates that Esther and Mordechai sent letters to the Jews throughout the world to observe Purim and “the matter of the fasts.” The Raavad believes that “the matter of the fasts” refers to Taanit Esther. According to this approach, our observance of Taanit Esther is not a mere custom; rather, it is a rabbinical obligation based on a source in biblical writings (Divrei Kabbala). Moreover, the Raavad states that Taanit Esther is an integral component of the enactment to observe Purim. The Rambam (Hilchot Taaniot 5:5) also cites Esther 9:31 as the source for observing Taanit Esther.
The Bait Yosef (Orach Chaim 686 s.v. Katuv B’Shibolei Haleket) cites the Shibolei Haleket, citing Rashi, who disagrees with the Raavad. Rashi asserts that our observance of Taanit Esther is neither a biblical nor a rabbinical obligation: it is merely a custom. He explains that Esther 9:31 refers to the fasts that the Jews engaged in the wake of Haman’s decrees. Rashi (unlike Rabbeinu Tam, as discussed in the next paragraph) seems to imply that Taanit Esther commemorates the fasting of the Jewish People in preparation for Esther’s speaking to King Achashveirosh about saving the Jews.
Rabbeinu Tam (cited by the Rosh, Megila 1:1) adopts a middle approach. He believes that Taanit Esther is a rabbinical obligation. He believes that the source for Taanit Esther is the Gemara (Megila 2a), which describes the thirteenth of Adar as “a time for all to gather.” Rashi interprets this phrase as referring to the historical event of the Jews gathering to defend themselves from those expected to implement Haman’s decree. Rabbeinu Tam, on the other hand, interprets the Gemara that all gather to observe Taanit Esther to commemorate the fast that the Jews engaged in before the battle against those who were prepared to implement Haman’s decree. Rabbeinu Tam writes that the Gemara in Megila is the sole source for Taanit Esther. Rabbeinu Tam implies that he does not believe that Esther 9:31 is the source for Taanit Esther.
The Character of Taanit Esther
Rav Soloveitchik notes that according to the Raavad, Taanit Esther is an integral part of the Purim enactment. Indeed, the Raavad writes that Taanit Esther “is unlike all other fast days as it commemorates the miracle that occurred on that day.” Thus, Taanit Esther is an expression of joy as it celebrates a very happy occasion: the overwhelming success of the Jews over their enemies. We celebrate by fasting because our ancestors fasted in anticipation of war. Fasting is a form of beseeching Hashem for success in battle, and we rejoice that Hashem granted our request. Thus, Taanit Esther is part of the enactment of rejoicing on Purim. The Raavad believes that Taanit Esther is not a mournful fast.
Rav Soloveitchik notes, though, that those who disagree with the Raavad do not perceive Taanit Esther as rooted in the enactment to rejoice on Purim. Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam do not state (as the Raavad did) that Taanit Esther differs from all other fast days. It seems that they view Taanit Esther as they view all other fasts. The Amoraim (according to Rabbeinu Tam) or the Geonim (according to Rashi) instituted Taanit Esther as a fast just like all other fasts. Thus, it appears that Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam believe that Taanit Esther parallels all other fasts and is a mournful fast. Rabbeinu Tam explains that on Taanit Esther we recite Selichot because the Jews in Mordechai and Esther’s time needed mercy from Heaven. Taanit Esther is mournful because it is designated to recall the precarious position the Jews found themselves in on the thirteenth of Adar as they prepared themselves for battle.
Five Implications of the Dispute
There are at least five ramifications of this dispute among the Rishonim. The first is how strict we must be regarding the observance of Taanit Esther. We treat a rabbinical obligation stricter than a custom. We also treat a rabbinical obligation rooted in the words of the prophets more strictly than a conventional rabbinical obligation (Mishna Berura 692:16). We would therefore be much more reluctant to grant permission to someone to eat if he is experiencing difficulty fasting, if the obligation to fast on that day is rabbinical than if it is merely a custom.
The Rama (Orach Chaim 686:2) rules that “this fast is not an obligation; therefore, we may be lenient regarding the fast in case of need such as a pregnant or nursing woman or a sick individual.” Accordingly, the Rama accepts Rashi’s assertion that Taanit Esther is merely a custom. The Mishna Berura and the Aruch Hashulchan do not record any objection among the Acharonim to this ruling of the Rama. Thus, the Rama's ruling represents normative Halacha.
The Mood on Taanit Esther
The Rambam (Hilchot Taaniot 1:14) rules that during any fast “one should not engage in Idunim (entertainment or delicacies).” He should neither act in a light-hearted manner nor be happy and in good spirit. Rather, one should be in an apprehensive and mournful mood. The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 568:12) rules in accordance with the Rambam. Interestingly, Rav Yehoshua Hoffman told this author that Rav Soloveitchik once stated in a lecture at Yeshiva University that movies are a type of Idunim that the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch believe should be avoided on a fast day.
Rav Soloveitchik observes that according to the Raavad, this rule does not apply to Taanit Esther since it is not a mournful fast. However, Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam would not agree with this, as they view Taanit Esther as a mournful fast. The aforementioned Rambam and Shulchan Aruch emphasize that on every fast we must be in a mournful mood. They do not mention that Taanit Esther is an exception to the rule. Again, we see that the Halacha follows Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam’s approach to Taanit Esther.
When the Thirteenth of Adar Falls on Shabbat
When the thirteenth of Adar falls on Shabbat, we observe Taanit Esther on the prior Thursday (Shulchan Aruch 686:2). This practice seems problematic in light of the Gemara’s rule (Megila 5a) that “we do not hasten [the commemoration of] tragic events.” Indeed, we observe Tisha B’Av and other fasts on Sunday when these fast days fall on Shabbat. Why is Taanit Esther different?
The Maggid Mishna (commenting on Rambam Hilchot Taaniot 5:5) explains that we cannot observe Taanit Esther on Sunday (the fourteenth of Adar) because that is the day we observe Purim. We can hardly observe Purim properly if we are fasting. Rav Soloveitchik notes that according to the Raavad, one may simply answer that Taanit Esther is not a commemoration of suffering. Therefore, hastening our observance of Taanit Esther does not violate the rule that “we do not hasten [the commemoration of] of tragic events.”
Fasting on the Day before Purim
The Gemara (Taanit 18a) concludes that one may not fast on the day preceding any of the observances mentioned in Megilat Taanit (a work that lists the days of celebration of the miracles that occurred during the Second Temple period). Elsewhere, the Gemara (Rosh Hashana 19b) concludes that observance of the holidays listed in Megilat Taanit is defunct, except for Chanuka and Purim. Accordingly, Rishonim are troubled by the fact that we observe Taanit Esther on the day before Purim. Rishonim offer a variety of answers to this question. Tosafot (Taanit 18a s.v. Rav Amar), for instance, answers that the prohibition to fast the day before Purim elapsed when we discontinued observing Megilat Taanit. Although we observe Purim, the prohibition to fast the day before Purim is defunct.
The Raavad answers, though, that we are prohibited only to engage in a mournful fast on a day before a “Megilat Taanit holiday.” We are permitted to observe Taanit Esther on the day before Purim because Taanit Esther is not a mournful fast.
Observance of Taanit Esther During the Messianic Era
Rav Soloveitchik notes that another ramification of the debate between the Raavad and Rashi is whether we will observe Taanit Esther after the arrival of Mashiach. The Rambam (Hilchot Megila 2:18) writes that “although we will no longer commemorate national tragedies after the arrival of the Mashiach, the days of Purim we will observe.” The Rav argues that according to the Raavad we will observe Taanit Esther during the Messianic Era, since observance of Taanit Esther constitutes an integral part of the Purim holiday. On the other hand, Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam would say that we will not observe Taanit Esther after Mashiach arrives, since Taanit Esther is not an integral component of the Purim holiday. Moreover, it is a commemoration of the tragedy that Haman placed our ancestors in such an extremely vulnerable situation. We will not commemorate such tragedies during the era of Mashiach.
Different theories of why we observe Taanit Esther appear in the Rishonim. These theories impinge on how we perceive Taanit Esther and how we observe Taanit Esther. Rashi’s theory seems to be accepted as the Halachic norm.