TA’ANIT ESTHER: Why do we fast today?

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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 intercede with King Ahashverosh and persuade him to reverse that royal edict.

But this mission was not simple at all. Rabbi Moshe Almosnino explains that Esther did not know whether Ahashverosh and Haman were on the same page, and both wanted to carry out this genocide, or if the King had been deceived by Haman to write that terrible edict without knowing that it will affect the Jews. Esther then decided to invite the King with Haman to a banquet (5: 4) in order to gather the information she needed: if Esther would find out that Ahashverosh was in complicity with Haman, she would try to dissuade Haman. And if she would see that Ahashverosh had been deceived by Haman, then she would expose Haman before Ahashverosh, hoping to gain the King’s favor (Yede Moshe on pasuq 7: 4). This was certainly a high-risk mission.

But there was a previous step to this mission, which was even more risky: Esther had to speak with the King. We probably think that for Esther this was the easiest part of her mission, since she was the queen, his wife, and lived in the palace. But in the kingdom of Ahashverosh no one could ask for an audience with the King, let alone approaching him without being summoned by the King … Why? It was the king’s exclusive prerogative to call and meet with his subjects, even with the queen. And Esther had not been called by the king all last month (4:11). Esther did not have the possibility to ask for a hearing. And the only option he had left was to approach the King directly. But this, which also seems simple, was very risky! If someone entered the maximum security zone of the king (jatser hapenimit) without being called, had to be executed before reaching the King. Let me explain: Persian Kings had at their side their most loyal guards armed with long axes, ready to execute on the spot any person who could threaten the Monarch’s physical integrity. The Persian emperors were obsessed with their personal safety, and with good reason. Ahashverosh himself was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards, Artabano, in 465 BCE. The Persian law (dat) stated that any person entering the security zone of the King should be executed immediately (4:11), unless the King himself detected his presence and stopped his guards before the execution, by extending his scepter In sign of the Royal pardon. This rule also included the queen. It was not uncommon that the queens were part of the plot to get rid of the King. Additionally, Esther knew that this King, Ahashverosh, had already ordered the execution of the previous queen, Vashty (1:19) and that he would not hesitate to get rid of her too.

In other words, “approaching the king” to ask for a hearing was a suicide mission (in my estimation, Esther had a 80 or 90 percent chance of being executed before reaching the king). Esther was rightly afraid for her life, and this is why at the beginning she said  to Mordekhay that there was nothing she could do to save her people from genocide, but she had no choice. There was no one else who could do anything to gain access to the King and try to stop Haman’s decree.

Esther thus, decided to risk her life (4:16) and she embarked on this suicidal mission. But before beginning this delicate assignment  Esther asked all Yehudim to fast with her and for the success of her mission (tsumu ‘alai, 4:16). Fasting, together with prayer, is what our Tora and our rabbis instructed us to do under difficult circumstances. At the request of Esther, all the Jews fasted for three days and prayed for her success.

As we all know, with the help of HaShem, Esther’s “Mission Impossible” was successful. And in memory of those days, when we fasted and prayed to HaShem for our salvation, we observe today the fast of Esther or “Ta’anit Esther.”

The fast ends in NYC at 6:16pm  (in some communities 6:27pm).