by Rabbi Shraga Simmons
The fast of Esther the 13th of Adar is intended to hone the soul and galvanize Jewish strength for the challenges ahead.
Every year, the Fast of Esther is held on one of the days prior to Purim. Usually it is the day immediately before Purim, though there are exceptions. (see Law #4 below)
What is the source of this fast?
In the Megillah (4:16), Esther agrees to see the king uninvited, and asks the Jewish People to fast for three days beforehand.
Why did she call for a fast? Because a fast helps to lower the volume on our physical pursuits in order to focus more acutely on our spiritual selves. This facilitates the process of "teshuva" -- literally "return." We return to our essential state of purity. Esther called for a fast, knowing that through soul-searching the Jews would forge a spiritual connection necessary to make her mission successful. (And it paid off!)
This is not a fast of sadness. Rather, the purpose of the fast is elevation and inspiration.
Similarly, there was another fast during the Purim story: The Jews fasted and prayed on the 13th of Adar in preparation for their defense against Haman's decree. The Torah prescribes that whenever a Jewish army goes to war, the soldiers should spend the previous day fasting. This is in stark contrast to a secular army which spends the day preparing weapons and armaments. A Jew's best weapon is the recognition that strength and victory come only through God (see Exodus 17:10). Additionally, the fact that we are physically weakened when the battle begins, assures us that any victory cannot be attributed to our physical prowess.
Mortals have limits, but God can achieve the impossible. (Case in point: the Six Day War.) As Mark Twain wrote, "All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?"
It is actually this one-day pre-battle fast that we commemorate every year before Purim. However, in honor of the Purim heroine, it is called Taanit Esther -- the Fast of Esther.
HALACHAS (LAWS) OF FAST OF ESTHER
1) The fast begins at dawn ("Alot Hashachar") and ends after nightfall ("Tzait Hakochavim").
2) No eating or drinking is permitted. Though other aspects -- like wearing shoes and washing -- are permitted.
3) Since this is not a major fast, pregnant or nursing women are exempt from the fast, as are moderately ill people. If one is otherwise healthy but has a headache and finds it difficult to fast, he may eat, but is obligated to "make up" the fast another time. In all cases, a competent rabbi should be consulted.
4) If the 13th falls on Shabbat, we don't fast that day, due to the honor of Shabbat. The fast is not even held on Friday, since this would adversely affect Shabbat preparations. Rather, we observe the fast on Thursday, the 11th of Adar.
5) It is customary to extend the fast until after the Megillah is read. (Except in walled cities, where the Megillah is read on the night of the 15th.)
6) During the afternoon Mincha prayers, the paragraph of Aneinu is added to the silent Amidah, during the blessing of Shema Koleinu. In both Shacharit and Mincha, the chazan inserts Aneinu as a separate blessing between Geulah and Refuah.
7) As on other public fasts, the Torah reading of Vayechal Moshe (Exodus 32:11-14, 34:1-10) is read both at Shacharit and Mincha.
8) If a Brit Milah falls on the Fast of Esther, the Seudat Mitzvah should be be postponed until the evening. The father, mother, and Sandek may even eat during the afternoon of the fast day, since it is considered like their "holiday." (Sha'ar HaTziun 686:16)
9) Avinu Malkeinu is said only in Shacharit, but not in Mincha. (An exception is if Purim falls on Sunday and the fast is observed on Thursday, then Avinu Malkeinu is in fact said in Mincha.)
During the holiday of Purim, we read the book of Esther twice - it is a peculiar bible story, the only one where God is not mentioned
A person is obligated to hear the reading of the Megillah -- once at night and again the next day. (Shulchan Aruch - Code of Jewish Law 687:1)
1) Men, women, and children (who have reached the age of education -- age 6) are required to hear the Megillah.
2) The Megillah is so important that even Torah study is deferred to hear the reading.
3) The Megillah is read twice -- first at night, and again the next day. The time for the night reading is from nightfall (Tzait Hakochavim) until dawn (Alot Hashachar). Some authorities permit, even in the case of a mild illness, to read the Megillah one-and-a-quarter hours before nightfall.
4) The time for the daytime reading is from sunrise to sunset. Post facto, the daytime reading may be read even after sunset (as long as the reading is concluded before nightfall), though the blessings may not be recited.
5) Because of the concept of B'rov Am Hadrat Melech -- "with the multitude of the nation is the King honored" (Proverbs 14:28) -- it is preferable to hear the Megillah at a synagogue with a large number of people. If, however, it is difficult to properly hear the Megillah because of the crowd, it is preferable to attend a smaller synagogue.
6) Immediately before the blessings are recited, an announcement should be made that the reader has in mind to fulfill the congregation's obligation, and likewise they should have in mind to have their obligation fulfilled.
7) Those listening to the Megillah can sit throughout. Though when read in public, the Baal Koreh (person actually reading the Megillah) must be standing. In private, the Baal Koreh may read either standing or sitting.
8) The Megillah, which is called an "Iggeret" (a letter), is folded open before being read.
9) We say three blessings before reading:
"al Mikra Megillah"
"She'asa Nissim" and
If a woman reads the Megillah, she should say as the first blessing, "Lishmo'ah Mikrah Megillah." The blessings should be said standing, even when reading for an individual. If one accidentally omitted the blessings, he has still fulfilled his obligation to hear Megillah.
10) When the "Sheh-hecheyanu" blessing is said in the daytime, one should have in mind that it includes the mitzvot of Matanot La'evyonim, Mishloach Manot, and the Purim meal.
11) The entire Megillah must be read from a kosher scroll, written with proper ink, parchment, markings (sirtut), etc. One who recites the Megillah by heart has not fulfilled his obligation.
12) The custom is to make noise at the mention of Haman's name, to comply with the command to wipe out the remembrance of Amalek (Deut. 25:17-19). Parents should be careful that children do not make so much noise that others are unable to properly hear the Megillah reading.
13) If at all possible, every word of the reading should be from a kosher Megillah. Therefore, the reader should wait for the noise to subside after reading Haman's name before continuing.
14) Their are four verses of redemption, which the congregation traditionally reads aloud: Ish Yehudi,Mordechai yatza,LaYehudim haysa ora, and Ki Mordechai HaYehudi. Since every word of the reading should be from a kosher Megillah, the reader must repeat these verses after the congregation.
15) Where possible, it is preferable for those listening to have their own kosher Megillah to follow from (Pri Megadim).
16) Unless one is following from a kosher Megillah, he may not read along with the reader, but should listen quietly and follow in a printed book. Of course, it is forbidden to speak during the reading.
17) Post facto, if a word or sentence is not heard, it may be read from a printed book or said by heart.
18) The Talmud says that the names of all 10 sons of Haman (and the following word, aseres) should be read audibly in one breath. The custom is also to include 500 ish in the one breath, if possible. According to the Rogachaver Gaon (19th century Europe), each individual should read this verse in one breath, since the Baal Koreh cannot fulfill others' requirement of "one breath."
19) The four phrases in which God's name is hidden should be read on a higher key, and emphasized: levado avsa Vashti hamalka (1:16), he, vechol hanashim yitnu (1:20), yavo hamelech vahaman hayom (5:4), and ze aynenu shoveh li (5:13).
20) When the reader reaches the verse Nad'da shnas hamelech ("and the King's sleep was interrupted" -- 6:1), he should raise his voice, since this forms the essence of the miracle. The reader should raise his voice as well for verse 2:17, since this was the catalyst for the miracle.
21) The following verses should be read with the tune of Eicha (rather than the normal tune for Esther), to signify the sad or tragic implications of these verses: 2:6, 3:15, 4:1, the last half of 4:3, and 7:4.
22) Some have the custom to shake the Megillah when saying the words ha-iggeres hazos ("this letter").
23) After the Megillah reading, we say the blessing Harav es riveinu, thanking God for saving us. This blessing should be said only with a minyan. (If there is no minyan, it may be said without God's name.) After the night reading, we also say Uva Li-Tzion,Aleynu,"Kaddish," and Shoshanas Yaakov. On Saturday night, we also say Vee-hee Noam .
24) Someone who will be on a voyage, and will not have a Megillah available, may read as early as the 11th of Adar (and some say even from Rosh Chodesh Adar).
Giving food and money spurs feelings of camaraderie and unity among Jews. It's also a special mitzvah on Purim.
They are to observe these as days of feasting and gladness, and for sending delicacies to one another, and giving gifts to the poor. (Esther 9:22)
There is a beautiful custom before reading the Megillah in the synagogue, to contribute three half-dollar coins (or their equivalent) to charity. This symbolizes the half-shekel which every Jew used to give as dues to the Temple in Jerusalem (see Exodus 30:11-16).
But why does the Torah specify a half-shekel instead of a whole?
The answer is that by giving only a half, each Jew realizes that he'll never become "complete" unless he is part of the larger community. Accordingly, Jewish law states that everyone -- rich or poor -- is to give no more and no less than a half-shekel. This teaches that every Jew is equally important to our national mission. Just as removing one letter invalidates a Torah Scroll, so too the loss of one Jew hinders our destiny.
Sometimes it is through our enemies that we come to realize: Every Jew is precious and integral to the future of our nation. The Talmud says that the biggest problem of the Jewish people at the time of Mordechai and Esther was a lack of unity. It was the wicked Haman who reminded us that we stand together as one people: In plotting genocide, he referred to the Jews as Am Echad -- and planned that they should literally "hang together." In modern times as well, we've seen that the anti-Semite doesn't distinguish between an assimilated Jew and a Chassidic Jew.
ALL FOR ONE
On Purim, we send two types of ready-to-eat food to at least one friend, symbolizing the spirit of kinship which can help prevent the appearance of future Hamans. On Purim, we also give charity to at least two poor people. We reach out to each other, so that no one should miss the joy of the occasion.
It is particularly meritorious to send a gift to someone you need to make up with. Just as we would never consider distancing ourselves from a good friend based on our disagreements, so too we should never consider distancing ourselves from any Jew (or group of Jews) based on our differences. In fact, the Talmud says that the epitome of evil in this world -- Amalek, from whom Haman descends -- was born out of a Jewish refusal to accept others lovingly.
The Talmud says Kol Yisrael Araivim -- each Jew is responsible one for the other. If the boat is sinking, we're all going down. But when there is love and unity amongst us, even the wrongdoers become righteous and our enemies cannot harm us! For this reason, on Purim we give charity to anyone who asks, without investigating the validity of their need. (In contrast to the rest of the year, when we are obligated to ensure that our Tzedakah money is being disbursed properly.) On Purim, every Jew is worthy without question.
God treats us as we treat others. On Purim, if we give others the "benefit of the doubt" and don't check their worthiness, then God doesn't "check us for worthiness" either. Purim, therefore, is an auspicious time to ask God to bestow gifts of health, unity and a speedy redemption for the Jewish people.
HALACHAS (LAWS) OF GIVING GIFTS ON PURIM
1) Mishloach Manot is fulfilled by sending two types of ready-to-eat food to at least one friend. This mitzvah should be performed on Purim day itself.
2) There is a custom to send Mishloach Manot through a third person messenger, since the word Mishloach is related to the word for messenger, Shaliach .
3) Matanot La'evyonim is fulfilled by giving money to at least two poor people on the day of Purim. The gift should at least equal the value of a fast-food meal.
4) This is not a "family" obligation, but rather each person should perform the mitzvah themselves.
5) The money needn't be given directly to a poor person, but can be given to a community representative -- as long as the money is actually distributed to the poor on Purim day.
6) Matanot La'evyonim is a special mitzvah, not to be included in the amount of money a person sets aside for charity during the rest of the year.
7) Maimonides writes that it is inappropriate to buy expensive Mishloach Manot, if this will come at the expense of larger gifts to the poor.
Are you a resident of a "walled city"? If so, you'll celebrate Purim on a different day than other Jews.
The Megillah (Esther 9:20-22) says that the Jews prevailed over their enemies on the 13th of Adar, and on the 14th they feasted to celebrate the victory. But in Shushan the capital, the battle lasted another day and the holiday was not celebrated until the 15th.
When the Sages instituted Purim, they took into account that Shushan was a walled city, and made the following stipulation: While most cities celebrate Purim on the 14th of Adar, cities which were walled at the time of Joshua (Yehoshua Bin Nun) should celebrate a special Purim -- called "Shushan Purim" -- on the 15th of Adar.
(The Sages originally considered making Shushan Purim conditional on whether a city was walled from the time of Achashverosh -- because the victory occurred at that time. However, as not to honor a Persian city more than the Land of Israel, which was in ruins at the time of the Purim miracle, the Sages made "Purim on the 15th" conditional on cities walled from the time of Joshua.)
The only city that was definitely walled at time of Joshua is Jerusalem.
For a number of other cities in Israel -- such as Jaffa, Akko, Hebron -- there is a doubt whether they were surrounded by walls at the time of Joshua. (Tiberias, though it was likely a walled city at the time of Joshua, nevertheless has doubtful status because there were really only three walls plus the sea.) Such cities celebrate Purim on the 14th, and have an additional Megillah reading on the 15th as a stringency. Therefore, they do not recite the blessings when reading on the 15th.
What Day to Observe?
In Jerusalem, suburbs and towns from which the Old City walls can be seen also observe Shushan Purim. Towns and suburbs less than one kilometer from the walls also observe Shushan Purim, even though they may not be able to see the city.
If a resident of Tel Aviv (unwalled) will be in Jerusalem (walled) on the 14th of Adar, and his intention is to return to Tel Aviv before daybreak on the 15th (or according to the Chazon Ish, at nightfall of the 15th), he reads the Megillah on the 14th -- even if he was inadvertently delayed in Jerusalem. If he intended to stay in Jerusalem until the day of the 15th, he reads on the 15th only.
Similarly, a resident of Jerusalem who will be in Tel Aviv and whose intention was to return to Jerusalem before daybreak of the 14th, reads on the 15th -- even if he is detained in Tel Aviv. If his intention was to be in Tel Aviv on the 14th, he reads on the 14th. And if he returns to Jerusalem on the 15th, he reads again on the 15th.
Shushan Purim on Shabbat
In a case where the 15th of Adar falls on Shabbat, then Shushan Purim is celebrated over a three-day period (Purim mishulash), with different parts of the holiday being distributed as follows:
Megillah Reading: The Sages prohibited reading the Megillah on Shabbat, in order that the scroll not be inadvertently carried in the public domain, which is a violation of Shabbat. The reading of the Megillah is therefore advanced to Friday. It is not postponed to Sunday, like other Rabbinical decrees such as the fast of Tisha B'Av, because the Megillah itself says: "And it shall not pass without being fulfilled, the days of Purim at their proper time and in their proper way" (Esther 9:27). This means we are not allowed to have Purim pass without reading the Megillah, but we are allowed to do so earlier if necessary.
Matanot L'evyonim: Monetary gifts to the poor are also moved earlier to the 14th (Friday) for three reasons: (1) in order that the poor might enjoy their gifts as early as possible; (2) so they'll have provisions for Shabbat; (3) they are accustomed to receiving such gifts on the day which the Megillah is read -- thus when the Megillah is read early, they receive their gifts early as well.
Shabbat Day: On the 15th, which is the actual day of Shushan Purim, the paragraph of "Al Hanisim" is added to the prayer service and to the Grace After Meals. Also, a second Torah scroll is included in the morning Torah reading. The story of the attack of Amalek (Exodus 17:8-16), which is the Torah reading for Purim, is read in addition to the regular weekly parsha. The Haftorah is the same as for Parshat Zachor.
Mishloach Manot: On the 16th (Sunday), gifts of food between friends are exchanged, and the festive Purim meal (Seudah) is eaten. Nevertheless, it is customary to send out a few Mishloach Manot gifts on Friday, while reserving the bulk for Sunday. Additionally, many authorities hold that some Mishloach Manot should be given on Shabbat -- by sending parts of the Shabbat meal to friends.
The festive meal could theoretically be eaten on Shabbat, but it is postponed until Sunday based on the principle that we do not mix two celebrations -- in this case, the Shabbat meal and the Purim meal. However, it is customary to make the Shabbat meal somewhat more elaborate than usual, in honor of Purim.
Get out the silly string and fire up the oven. It's the wackiest time of the Jewish year. But don't forget the rules.
The Purim feast is unlike any other in the Jewish year. In addition to good food and lots of alcohol, the meal is characterized by its zany raucous atmosphere -- trombones blare, silly string flies, and grown men dance together for hours on end.
But for the Jew, there is always a deeper side to the party. The antics are often connected to philosophical topics. Jokes and riddles may even take on a halachic flavor:
Q: I come from a kosher animal, but I cannot be eaten because I am both milk and meat. What am I?
A: The udder of a cow.
Here's another fun Purim gag, rooted in Jewish concepts:
Make a big production out of drinking (non-dairy) rice milk with your hamburger -- while leaving the box of rice milk conspicuously on the table. (see Yoreh Deah 87, Shach #6) When people express shock at seeing you mix milk and meat, act drunk and unaware!
These are great gags, and they're RC (religiously correct). And who says that rabbis don't have fun!
LAWS OF THE PURIM FEAST
1)The Purim Seudah (feast) is held during the daytime. It is also customary to extend the meal until after dark.
2)Even if the meal finishes after dark, we still include the paragraph of Al HaNissim in Grace After Meals.
3)If Purim falls on Friday, the festive meal is held in the morning, so that the meal ends in plenty of time to finish preparations for Shabbat.
4)It is also appropriate to have a "more festive than usual" dinner on Purim night. Some also have the custom of eating a bread meal in the morning.
5) One is obligated to drink until he can no longer distinguish between Arur Haman and Baruch Mordechai.
6) However, one should not become so drunk that he will be negligent in performing mitzvot -- e.g. Netilat Yadayim (washing hands before bread), saying the blessings of "HaMotzi" and Grace After Meals, and praying Mincha and Ma'ariv. It is improper to say Grace After Meals or to pray if a person is so drunk that he is "unfit to stand before the King."
7)If a person has limited funds, it is better to limit spending on the Purim meal, and to increase gifts to the poor.
In the weeks surrounding Purim, the Torah gives us four special messages to remember the season by and to inspire the rest of the year
The Sages instituted four special Torah readings on four different Shabbats during the Purim season. These readings are read as the Maftir portion in the synagogue on Shabbat morning, immediately following the weekly parsha.
1. PARSHAT SHEKALIM