Fasting With Esther: A Different Kind of Purim Observance

Image: Hands holding a globe of earth ( cocoparisienne / Pixabay)

If you have a good Jewish calendar, you may have noticed that on the day before Purim, there is something called Ta’anit Esther, the Fast of Esther. This is one of the minor fasts – “minor” meaning a dawn-to-dusk fast, unlike the Yom Kippur 25-hour fast.

The fast commemorates the three day fast that Queen Esther asked the Jews of Persia to keep before she approached the king about the planned massacre of the Jews.

Esther bade them to answer to Mordecai:

“Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my maidens will fast in like manner; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.”

Esther 4:15-16

The usual reason given for observing the fast is that it sharpens our enjoyment of the feasting and joy of Purim. The original fast in the story had a darker meaning. Esther was about to put herself in danger, approaching the king. Meanwhile, the king had put much of the government in the hands of a bad man, Haman, whose xenophobic policies were a dire threat to the survival of the Jews. (Esther 3:8-10)

Today the human race faces some dire threats, and the governments of some nations have wrongheaded policies that are not making matters better. Genuine leadership has been in short supply, and we are in perilous times. We face climate change and a pandemic, which threaten both our physical and economic health. Xenophobia is rampant, and religious persecution, including but not limited to antisemitism, is on the rise. Economic injustice is rife, and the income gap grows wider and wider.

Some may say, “What difference does a fast make?” It is an ancient way of expressing distress at a situation beyond one’s control. It is a way of consolidating spiritual energy, of altering our experience and point of view. Sometimes fasting can produce a slightly altered state in which we see things differently. On a larger scale, my fasting speaks to my own belief that only if those of us who have more than others learn to practice a little self-denial, a little moderation, a little willingness to share, we are all going to suffer terribly in the coming years.

When Esther asked the Jews of Persia to fast, she did not know what lay ahead. She feared that when she approached the king, he would be angry and have her killed. She knew that Haman had scheduled the murder of all the Jews only a short time later. She did not know if she could make a difference. In the story, she made all the difference because she stood up for her people and took action. When she sent the message, she may not have known what she was going to do, but after fasting and prayer, she had come up with an idea that worked.

There is a growing fear of the future among us, and with fear come great evils: selfishness, xenophobia, mistreatment of the poor and the homeless. I am going to fast to express my solidarity with the people who are currently already suffering, and to express my distress at the road I see ahead. I will give tzedakah for the relief of food insecurity. I will pray for wisdom, as Americans go to the polls, as Israelis try to find their way to a new government, as governments try to mobilize against the pandemic.

I am finding – not exactly comfort, but a challenging sort of strength – in the words of Psalm 46:

God is for us a refuge and strength,

a help found easily when troubles come.

Therefore we shall not fear when the earth changes,

Or when the mountains totter into the heart of the seas,

When its waters roar and rage,

When the mountains shake as the seas rise up – selah!

A river: its channels bring joy to the city of God,

The most holy of the dwelling places of the Most High.

God is in her midst, she shall not totter; God will help her as darkness turns towards morning.

Peoples roared – kingdoms tottered;

God gave forth a sound – the earth began to melt!

Adonai of Hosts is with us,

A high tower for us is the God of Jacob – selah!

Go, behold the works of Adonai

Who has brought barren places to the earth,

Abolished wars to the end of the earth,

Broken the bow and severed the spear,

Burned up chariots in a blazing conflagration.

“Let them go, and know that I am God –

I am high above the nations, I am high above the earth!”

“Adonai of hosts is with us,

A high tower for us is the God of Jacob – Selah!”

Psalms 46:2-12 (translation from Songs Ascending by Rabbi Richard N. Levy z”l, CCAR Press.*

(Additional note: I thoroughly recommend Rabbi Levy’s translation and commentary on the Book of Psalms, Songs Ascending. They bring the ancient prayers to new life.)

Purim, Passover, Packing!

Image: These two little guys “helped” me pack for home in May of 2003. 

The staff at the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion have a saying: “Purim, Passover, Packing!” What they mean by that is that the velocity of the school year increases beginning with Purim. Assignments and tests loomed on the horizon for Year-In-Israel students as soon as we’d finished our hamantaschen. When Passover arrived we had a week out of class to catch our breath, then we hurried to hand in assignments, take final tests, and pack for the long trip back to the United States.

I still have dreams about that stretch of time between Passover and June.

I experience it again, every year, because as soon as Purim is done, I begin preparing for Passover. That’s an involved process, and you can read about it elsewhere in this blog at Passover Prep for Beginners.

When do you start your Passover preparations? How do you begin?

Happy Purim! Purim Sameach!

Image: Drawing by Emily Meghan Morrow Howe, all rights reserved. 

[A question from Mordecai to Queen Esther, who has pointed out that approaching the king carries very high risks:] “Who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis?’ – Esther 4:14

I wish everyone reading this a happy, fun, inspiring Purim. May we address ourselves to the challenges of the present moment with the courage and imagination of Esther!

The Four Mitzvot of Purim

Image: Photo of Purim mishloach manot basket. Photo by Yoninah via Wikimedia.

There are four mitzvot [commandments] for the feast of Purim.

  1. Read the Megillah: Read or hear the story. Going to a Purim spiel is better than nothing at all, but ideally Jewish adults will read or hear the megillah itself. It’s short, and public readings are a matchless experience – check with local synagogues for times. Even if you don’t understand the Hebrew, make noise when everyone else does at the name of the villain Haman (ha-MAHN.) A good megillah reading is pure performance art.
    1. Attend to listen live if you possibly can. If you have no better options, though, there is a lively Megillah reading on You Tube from Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudat AchimCongregation Har Tzeon-Agudat Achim, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Maryland.
    2. Don’t read Hebrew? Follow along with an English translation. You can even do it on your smartphone or tablet – search your app store for “Megillat Esther” or for a regular Tanakh. Be sure to get a Jewish translation – Christian Bible translations are from a different text.
  2. Seudat Purim [Eat a festive meal]: Get together with your community, or some friends, and celebrate the survival of the Jewish People.
    1. Most synagogues have a festive meal of some kind.
    2. We can also fulfill the mitzvah by inviting friends over for a shared meal.
    3. Traditionally the meal includes meat and wine. Your mileage may vary, but the food should be a treat of some kind.
  3. Matanot L’Evyonim [Gifts to the Poor]: Money, food, drink or even clothing are all appropriate gifts. We are talking about actual presents. We can fulfill this mitzvah by giving money, clean clothes, or good food to individuals.
    1. This does NOT mean clean out our closets for a trip to Goodwill. If you don’t want it, it is not a true present!
    2. Since one of the customs of Purim is drinking, for one day do not worry about what a poor person is going to do with cash, or heaven forbid give the “gift” with a lecture.
    3. A gift to the local food bank is indeed a “gift to the poor” and much better than nothing but it is more in the spirit of the holiday if we perform this mitzvah personally if possible.
  4. Mishloach Manot [Gifts to Friends]: We send prepared food or drink to friends to enhance their festive meal. The food should not require further preparation, and there should be at least two portions. A gift of clothing or money does not fulfill the mitzvah. Normally it is better to do a mitzvah in person than to send it by messenger but since the Book of Esther mentions “sending” gifts, on this holiday the custom is to send by messenger.

For a more complete discussion of these mitzvot I recommend the article Purim and Its Mitzvot on the Orthodox Union website.

A Different Kind of Purim

Image: Demonstration organized by Teens For Gun Reform, an organization created by students in the Washington DC area, in the wake of the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Photo by Lorie Shaull, some rights reserved.

In the past, the Book of Esther and its holiday of Purim have mostly been celebrated as a party in the United States. We’ve been in an extraordinarily peaceful time for the Jews of North America.

So much has changed since last Purim. Some of us may not feel in our usual Purim mood, wondering what festivity is really suitable. Every community has to decide that for itself.

It is quite certain, though, that the themes of the Scroll of Esther, themes of threat and dramatic reversal are very much with us right now. The sages speak of both the book of Esther and the holiday of Purim as hafuch – upside down, topsy-turvy – and we seem to be in the midst of reversals.

Anti-Semitism and White Supremacy: In August, Jews in the United States were faced with the spectre of a president who said, and repeated, that he thought “there is blame on both sides” in Charlottesville, where white supremacists threatened a synagogue while the local police declined a call for help.  Like the Jews of Shushan, the Jews of Charlottesville were left unprotected. The fact that a non-Jewish woman who was attempting to counter the messages of hate was murdered by white supremacist violence underlined the fact that this was not paranoia, not drama, but genuine danger.

All manner of bigotries are on the rise. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports 957 hate groups currently active in the U.S.  Wholesale hatred of African-Americans, Latinx persons, immigrants, Jews, Muslims and LGBTQ people has not been this open and shameless in decades.

#MeToo: In October, a different set of Esther themes resonated as a series of high-profile, powerful men lost their jobs when men and women began to speak up about their experiences of sexual harassment at the hands of those men. It seemed that the rules changed overnight: the accounts of victim/survivors were taken seriously. We are still in the midst of comings-out and revelations, and we are also beginning to see some backlash, but the situation is filled with echoes of the reversals in Esther, and the story of Vashti, the shamed queen from Chapter 1.

 

The Youth of Parkland: Then on February 14, 2018, we have witnessed yet another mass murder in a school, carried out by a white man armed with an assault rifle. At first it seemed much like the mass shootings that preceded it: white male uses legally acquired AR-15 to mow down an unthinkable number of students going about their business in what should have been a safe place. Then the story changed, with an Esther-like reversal: the victims have refused to behave like victims. They have already traveled to the state government in Tallahassee and to the federal government in Washington. They are organizing school walkouts and marches in the coming weeks and months. They are absolutely serious about fighting back against the horror of mass murder by AR-15, and they have rallied the hearts of many Americans.

It remains to be seen what comes of all of this. On the one hand, dark forces have been set loose in our society, given permission and encouragement by people at high levels of the government. On the other, the new willingness to listen to and believe victim/survivors of sexual violence is astonishing to many of us who had despaired of change in that quarter. The voices of the young men and women of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School seem downright miraculous. I am reminded of the line from the prophet Joel 3:1:

And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out My spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, [while] your old men dream dreams, your youth shall see visions.

However you choose to observe Purim this year, whether with the usual Purim spiel or a more solemn observance, pay attention to all that is hafuch – upside down – in our world at the moment.

We can allow the spirit of Mordechai’s words to Esther to percolate through our being:

Who knows whether you are not come to royal estate for such a time as this? – Esther 4:14

Like Esther, we must use the tools at our disposal to right the wrongs in our world.

Purim sameach!

Adar and the Fight Against Evil

Image: A figure in a Venice Carnival mask. With his three-cornered hat, he could be the villain Haman!  (xxxmax/Pixabay.)

I was born in the month of Adar. About 20 years ago I decided that I wanted a new last name to mark a new chapter in my life.  It seemed logical to choose “Adar,” since it was the month in which I was born. However, a famous line from the Talmud gave me pause.

 משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה

When Adar enters, joy increases.  — Taanit 29a

I resolved that if I was going to take the name Adar as my own, I had to take this famous teaching about the month of Adar very seriously. I needed to live life in such a way to affirm and not contradict it.  A line from the Mishnah has been my guide in this matter:

שַׁמַּאי אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה תוֹרָתְךָ קֶבַע. אֱמֹר מְעַט וַעֲשֵׂה הַרְבֵּה, וֶהֱוֵי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת:

Shammai says, “Make your Torah fixed, say little and do much, and receive every person with a pleasant countenance.”

I loved the fact that the speaker in this case was grumpy old Shammai. He understood that it was no easy thing to greet everyone cheerfully every day. However, if he could do it, then I could certainly try to learn this mitzvah.

But Adar is not always a joyful month. This Adar, Adar 5778, began with a tragedy: a young man took an assault weapon and killed 17 people in Florida. Many of them were Jews, for whom Adar is supposedly a “joyful” and “lucky” month. Unfortunately, Feb 14 and the month of Adar will never again be a time of joy for their families.

24 years ago, in Adar 5754, a Jewish physician and IDF reservist named Baruch Goldstein opened fire in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Israel. He murdered 29 Muslims at prayer, and wounded 125 others. His actions set off a wave of violence in the West Bank. Mainstream rabbis and politicians condemned his actions, and the State of Israel took steps to see to it that in future Muslims and Jews could both pray in peace at the holy site.

I was still very new to Talmud study when I changed my name. I knew the saying, “When Adar enters, joy increases” but I did not know the context of the saying. It is an important principle of text study to pay attention to context, never more so than in this case. 

As you can see above, the line appears in Taanit, “Fasts,” the volume of Talmud having to do with days of fasting. If you look at the page on which the line about Adar appears, you will see that it comes only at the bottom of the page. What preceded it is a long list of disasters that have befallen the Jewish people during the month of Av. The line about Adar is almost an afterthought, mentioned in contrast to the horrors mentioned before it.

There is nothing magic about the month of Adar. It has the reputation of being “lucky” and “happy,” mostly from the association with Purim, but in fact bad things happen in Adar, too. So why talk about Adar as a time of joy? Is it just superstition?

Adar and Purim are a reminder that we are not helpless in the face of tragedy. In Esther, the Jews fought back and survived. The ninth chapter of Esther is not a pretty story – the Jews fought back hard and killed a lot of Persians. That chapter is there to remind us that fighting back is not a happy fantasy; it is mostly an ugly necessity.

The rabbis insist (at the beginning of tractate Megillah) that we must, must, must read the story every year because they wanted us to remember to stand up for ourselves in the face of evil. They wanted us to realize that Purim wasn’t a party; it was a struggle against evil, and it cost a terrible price.

This Adar, this Purim, I encourage us all to think about how we will fight back against the wave of school shootings over the past 20 years (Columbine was in April, 1999.)  We are commanded in Leviticus:

לֹא־תֵלֵ֤ךְ רָכִיל֙ בְּעַמֶּ֔יךָ לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃

Do not deal basely with your countrymen. Do not stand upon the blood of your fellow: I am the Eternal. – Leviticus 19:16

Many, many innocent children have died or been maimed by these shootings, and it is long past time that we began fighting back against them. Whatever our opinions about the Second Amendment, surely we can agree that these shootings must stop.

  • If you believe that NRA lobbyists are to blame, demand that your lawmaker stop taking contributions from the NRA.
  • If you believe that better security in the schools is the answer, write your lawmaker and insist that funds be allocated for security measures.
  • If you believe that better mental health care is the answer, write your lawmaker and insist on free mental health care for anyone who needs it.
  • If you think the above three are not good ideas, ask yourself: what am I going to do?

If you want to make a public commitment to doing something in particular, you can use the Comments section to do so.

And don’t forget the words of Shammai: “say little and do much” – talk is cheap.  Insist on more than talk from public officials. We must insist on doing more than talking inside our circles of agreement: we must call, we must write, we must vote, we must show up to make our point. Social media is a means, not an end to action.

Purim is not just a children’s party. Listen to its call and take action!  Take action so that in future there might be joy.

Shabbat Shalom! – Tetzaveh

Image: Rabbi Ruth Adar admires as Cantor Ilene Keys practices leyning Megillat Esther. Photo by Linda Burnett.

Parashat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20 – 30:10) begins with instructions for the oil and the great lamp [menorah] of the Tabernacle. After that, it is concerned  with the appointment of Aaron and his sons as Cohanim, priests of Israel, with their vestments and with instructions for their ordination. It concludes with instructions for the altar.

Moreover, this is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat immediately before Purim. Purim itself begins at the end of this Shabbat, at sundown on Saturday, March 11.  Lots happening – and all of it is reflected in our divrei Torah this week:

What to Wear? by Rabbi David Ackerman

What Costumes Can Reveal by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Tetzaveh by Rabbi Seth Goldstein

Purim: A Lesson in Moderation by Rabbi Andy Gordon

Illumined by Love by Rabbi Nina Mizrahi

Clothes Make the Man (or Woman) by Rabbi Jordan Parr

Vashti: A heroine not just for Purim #nastywoman by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Why Is Purim Essential?

Image: 19th c painting of Hasidic Jews celebrating Purim with a Sephardic Jew (left). The inscription  “Ad lo yada” is part of a passage from Talmud urging Jews to feast and celebrate. Collection of Isaac Einhorn, Tel Aviv. (Erich Lessing/Art Resource NY.) Public Domain.

The Scroll of Esther records a grave threat to the Jews of Persia, a threat that was quelled only by the massacre of our enemies. The book makes clear that there was no other way: it was a fight to the death. You might think that the “lesson learned” would be: Fight back, even if you have to kill.

However, this is the command near the end of the Scroll of Esther:

Mordecai recorded these events. And he sent dispatches to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Ahasuerus, near and far, charging them to observe the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar, every year — the same days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy. They were to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor.  – Esther 9: 20-22

Mordecai did these things:

  1. He wrote the story.
  2. He commanded that the Jews of Persia observe the 14th and 15th of Adar.
  3. He commanded that they feast, send gifts to one another, and send presents to the poor.

This is where we get the four mitzvot of Purim:

  1. Hear the Scroll read aloud.
  2. Have a feast.
  3. Send gifts to one another.  (Traditionally, food.)
  4. Send gifts to the poor.  (Traditionally gifts of food.)

The ancient rabbis were particularly concerned that everyone hear the Scroll of Esther read aloud. Mishnah Megillah  begins:

The Megillah [Scroll of Esther] is read on the eleventh, on the twelfth, on the thirteenth, on the fourteenth, [or] on the fifteenth [of Adar], not earlier and not later. Cities surrounded with walls from the days of Yehoshua son of Nun read it on the fifteenth [of Adar]. Villages and large cities read it on the fourteenth, but villages read in advance on the day of assembly.

 How does it work? If the fourteenth of the month fell on a Monday, villages and large cities read on that day, and those surrounded by a wall – on the next day. If it fell on a Tuesday or a Wednesday – villages [read] in advance on the day of assembly, and large cities read on that day, and those surrounded by a wall – on the next day. If it fell on a Thursday, villages and large cities read on that day, and those surrounded by a wall – on the next day. If it fell on the day before Shabbat – villages [read] in advance on the day of assembly, and large cities and cities surrounded by a wall read on that day. If it fell on Shabbat, villages and large cities read in advance on the day of assembly, and those surrounded by a wall – on the next day. If it fell after Shabbat, villages [read] in advance on the assembly day, and large cities read on that day, and cities surrounded by a wall – on the next day. – Mishnah Megillah 1:1-2
That’s just a taste. The ancient rabbis were absolutely determined that we should hear the words of the Scroll of Esther every single year. If not one day, then another day. If not the other day, then yet another. They convey a sense of urgency in those lines. Mishnah is usually telegraphic, brief bursts of commands and questions, but here the rabbis hammer at us: Read it. Read it. READ IT!!!

 

And if we look at their times, all becomes clear. The Mishnah was written down from oral tradition by the year 200 CE, just after two bloody revolts that scattered the Jewish people into the Galut, an exile, that would last for almost two thousand years. They had seen the murder of their greatest teachers. They had seen families torn apart, entire towns sold into slavery, their holy city ground into dust. They had seen the absolute worst that Rome could dish out, and they knew it would not end anytime soon.

 

They knew that we needed Purim for all the days that lay ahead.

 

The message of Purim is “Don’t give up.” The message of Purim is “Persist.” The message of Purim is that the bad guys are going to do what they do – they’re Haman! – but we will not be defeated. We are so sure that we will not be defeated that we schedule our celebration in advance.

 

Yes, in a good year, it’s a children’s holiday. But in a tough year, in a year when our dead are defiled and our Jewish Community Centers receive threat after threat after threat, we remind ourselves that we are tough competitors, so tough that we will schedule our celebration amidst it all.

 

We will not be intimidated.
We will not let you see us sweat.
Those are the defiant messages of the holiday of Purim. We celebrate to remind ourselves of that.

The Spirit of Purim (Videos!)

Image: A little girl enjoys facepainting. Photo: JKakaroto/Pixabay

Are you ready for Purim yet? Got the little gifts for friends? Given tzedakah for the holiday? Planned a festive meal? Decided where you are going to hear the megillah?

Or are you having trouble getting in the mood?

Yes, the news is full of bomb threats and vandalism. In the United States, there are not many Jews alive who can remember a time when there was so much open anti-Semitism. This is exactly the sort of time for which Purim was made: it is when we feel most threatened that Purim comes to buck us up, to remind us that we’ve seen it all before.

Celebrate in spite of it all. That principle is at the heart of Jewish survival.

So here are some videos to help you get in the mood for the holiday.  Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

And some fun traditional children’s songs, in Hebrew:

When Purim Invades the Headlines

Image: A Purim noisemaker to drown out the name of Haman. Photo: Rabbi Ruth Adar.

Rabbi Karp, this is so good that I want to be sure to share it with my readers, too. Thank you for an inspiring look forward to Purim.

Rabbi Henry Jay Karp's Blog

The Jewish world will soon be observing the holiday of Purim.  I said “observing” when truth be known, we Jews don’t just “observe” Purim; we CELEBRATE it!  We dress in costume.  We hold the most raucous, noisiest worship service of the year.  We sing and we shout and we stomp our feet.  We eat and we drink (and I am not just talking about iced tea or punch but the hard stuff, for on Purim the Talmud commands us to drink so much that we can no longer tell the difference between “cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai.”[1]).  And then, of course there is the Purim Seudah (feast – in our case, a pizza dinner) and the ever popular Carnival.  We eat hamantaschen, send shlach manot (food gifts to our loved ones) and matanot le’evyonim (gifts to the poor).  It is Mardi Gras, New Year’s Eve…

View original post 1,041 more words