The Fast of Esther’s 8th Cent. C.E. Origins
The most famous Jewish fast, Yom Kippur, is the only fast day commanded in the Torah (Lev 16:29). Four further fasts already mentioned in the book of Zechariah, were likely established as a memorial for the destruction of Judah by the Babylonians. A sixth fast, now commonly referred to as the Fast of Esther, which takes place on the day before Purim (the 13th of Adar), is of unknown origin. No such fast was observed in Second Temple times. In fact, at one point, that day became a day of celebration.
The 13th of Adar Was Nicanor Day
In the Hasmonean period and following, the 13th of Adar day was celebrated as Yom [day of] Nicanor, a holiday established in 161 B.C.E., when Judah Maccabee’s army defeated the Seleucid general Nicanor, who had threatened to destroy the Temple. The description of the holiday is the culmination point of 2 Maccabees, which may have been composed as a narrative to accompany and explain the yearly celebration of that day:
2 Macc 15:35 Judas hung Nicanor’s head from the citadel, a clear and conspicuous sign to everyone of the help of the Lord. 15:36 And they all decreed by public vote never to let this day go unobserved but to celebrate the thirteenth day of the twelfth month—which is called Adar in the Aramaic language—the day before Mordechai’s day. (NRSVue)
The holiday is also mentioned, if less prominently, in 1 Maccabees:
1 Macc 7:47 …they cut off Nicanor’s head and the right hand that he had so arrogantly stretched out and brought them and displayed them just outside Jerusalem. 7:48 The people rejoiced greatly and celebrated that day as a day of great gladness. 7:49 They decreed that this day should be celebrated each year on the thirteenth day of Adar. (NRSVue)
Josephus also mentions this holiday:
Jud. Ant. 12:5 §412 Now the victory took place on the thirteenth of the month which is called Adar by the Jews, and Dystros by the Macedonians. And the Jews celebrate their victory every year in this month, and observe this day as a festival. (LCL trans.)
Megillat Taanit, compiled in the 1st century C.E., includes the 13th of Adar in its list of days upon which Jews were prohibited from fasting:
בת[ל]ת עשר ביה ניקנור
On the thirteenth of it (Adar) —Nicanor [Day].
While the holidays of Megillat Taʾanit (except Purim and Chanukah) stopped being observed during the rabbinic period, the various early commentaries (known as the scholia) on Megillat Taʾanit explain the reason for the holiday, and say nothing about it being the Fast of Esther. Indeed, nowhere in classic rabbinic literature do we find mention of a fast on the 13th of Adar.
Is It in the Megillah?
The Megillah [scroll of Esther] itself mentions that the Jews accepted fasts—in the plural—upon themselves:
אסתר ט:ל וַיִּשְׁלַח סְפָרִים אֶל כָּל הַיְּהוּדִים אֶל שֶׁבַע וְעֶשְׂרִים וּמֵאָה מְדִינָה מַלְכוּת אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ דִּבְרֵי שָׁלוֹם וֶאֱמֶת. ט:לא לְקַיֵּם אֵת יְמֵי הַפֻּרִים הָאֵלֶּה בִּזְמַנֵּיהֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר קִיַּם עֲלֵיהֶם מָרְדֳּכַי הַיְּהוּדִי וְאֶסְתֵּר הַמַּלְכָּה וְכַאֲשֶׁר קִיְּמוּ עַל נַפְשָׁם וְעַל זַרְעָם דִּבְרֵי הַצֹּמוֹת וְזַעֲקָתָם.
Esth 9:30 Dispatches were sent to all the Jews in the hundred and twenty-seven provinces of the realm of Ahasuerus with an ordinance of “equity and honesty,” 9:31 [stating that] these days of Purim shall be observed at their proper time, as Mordecai the Jew—and now Queen Esther—has obligated them to do, and just as they have assumed for themselves and their descendants (or “children”) the matter of the fasts with their lamentations.
A medieval Judeo-Arabic retelling of the Megillah understands “fasts” to refer to the 13th of Adar:
ויכתבו מרדכי ואסתר אל כל הארצות הקרובות והרחוקות, לקבל עליהם ולהסכים לסיגוף ולחיוב שיהיו חייבים כל היהודים לצום ביום י"ג לחדש אדר, זכר לצומם, שנגזר השמד ביום י"ג ניסן, וביום י"ג באדר הכו את האויבים לפי חרב, ונקבע יום י"ג באדר, לזכר ליום י"ג, דברי הצומות וזעקתם.
Mordechai and Esther wrote to all the lands, near and far, to accept upon themselves and agree to self-affliction, to the obligation falling upon all the Jews to fast on the 13th day of the month of Adar, in memory of their (Mordechai and Esther’s) fasting. For the destruction was declared on the 13th of Nissan, and on the 13th of Adar, they struck their enemies by the sword, and the 13th of Adar was designated [as a fast day] in memory of the 13th [of both Nissan and Adar], “the matter of the fasts with their lamentations.”
Noting the plural “fasts,” the Arabic commentary turns to the story of Esther’s request earlier in the Megillah:
אסתר ד:טז לֵךְ כְּנוֹס אֶת כָּל הַיְּהוּדִים הַֽנִּמְצְאִים בְּשׁוּשָׁן וְצוּמוּ עָלַי וְאַל תֹּאכְלוּ וְאַל תִּשְׁתּוּ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים לַיְלָה וָיוֹם גַּם אֲנִי וְנַעֲרֹתַי אָצוּם כֵּן...
Esth 4:16 Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast in my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast…
A similar approach was taken by Rabbi Yosef ibn Yachya (1470–1533) in his commentary on the Megillah (ad loc.), who suggests that the verse refers both to the three-day fast Esther requested the Jews of Shushan to perform in Nissan, as well as to the 13th of Adar:
רמז לתענית אסתר הנהוג ביום צרה. ולצום המוקדם ליום הפורים אשר נהגו עם ה׳.
This is a hint to the fast of Esther, that was observed on the day of suffering (i.e., when the decree was made known), and to the fast the comes before the day of Purim, which the people of God took on as a practice.
Yet reading the 13th of Adar into this verse seems like a stretch. A very different interpretation offered by Abraham ibn Ezra, among others, is that the simple referent of the verse (Esth 9:31) is the set of four fasts commemorating the destruction of Judah, which appears already in the book of Zechariah:
וטעם דברי הצומות – על הנזכרים בספר זכריה (ח:יט) שהן בתמוז ואב ותשרי וטבת. והטעם כי קיימו היהודים על נפשם לשמח בימי הפורים כאשר קיימו על נפשם ועל זרעם להתענות בימי אבלם כאשר הובקעה העיר ונשרף הבית.
The meaning of “the matter of the fasts” is a reference to the ones mentioned in Zechariah (8:19), which are in Tammuz, Av, Tishrei, and Tevet. The meaning [of the verse then] is that the Jews accepted upon themselves to rejoice on the days of Purim just as they accepted upon themselves and their descendants to fast on the days of the mourning, when the city [of Jerusalem] was invaded and the Temple destroyed.
Alternatively, it may be that the זַרְעָם here means not “descendants” by “children,” and the reference is the fast that the Jews accepted upon themselves in Nissan at Esther’s behest, and perhaps to any other fasting they did that year as part of their desire to ward off the coming attack. The significance of the instruction is that just as the Jews and their children were ready to fast in the days of their distress, so should they be willing to rejoice on the anniversary of their deliverance.
Thus, it appears that the Megillah makes no reference, or even implication that, the people fasted on the 13th of Adar.
In Commemoration of the 3-Day Fast that Esther Requested
Another explanation for the custom to fast before Purim suggests that it was designed to commemorate the three days of fasting initiated by Esther in Nissan. Thus, R. Zedekiah ben Abraham HaRofe (ca. 1210–ca. 1275) writes (Shibbolei HaLeket, §194):
נהגו בני העולם להתענות ערב פורים לזכר דברי הצומות שעשו בימי מרדכי ואסתר ואף על פי שאותם הצומות היו בימי הפסח נהגו לסמוך התענית לפורים.
[Jewish] people throughout the world have developed the practice to fast on the day before Purim in memory of the fasts that they did in the days of Mordechai and Esther. Even though those fasts were in the days of Passover, the practice is to make the fast right before Purim.
Yet that fast was for three days in the month of Nissan, while this is a one-day fast in Adar. This problem bothered the (unknown) author of Sefer Minhag Tov (Italy, ca. 14th cent.):
ספר מנהג טוב פא ומנהג טוב להתענות בכל מיני עינוי הכתו[בים] ג' ימי[ם] רצופים קודם הפורים אם איפשר לו ברצופים, ואם לאו, אפי[לו] שלא ברצופים, וקרא כתי[ב] (אסתר ד:טז): "וצומו עלי שלשת ימים וגומ'."
Minhag Tov §81 It is a good custom to fast, together will all forms of self-affliction that are written, for three consecutive days before Purim, if it is possible for him to do it consecutively, and if not, even discontinuous days [would be good]. And this is based on a verse (Esth 4:16): “fast in my behalf… for three days, etc.”
This custom reflects a post-fact attempt to make a narrative in the Megillah fit with the practice of fasting on the 13th of Adar, with which it is discordant. However, the narrative in Esther did inspire a different set of fasts.
The Three-Day Adar Fast in Geonic Israel
The post-Talmudic Tractate Soferim records a custom to fast for three non-consecutive days in Adar following Purim:
סופרים יז:ג שלשת ימי הצום, אין מתענין אותן רצופין אלא פרודין, שני וחמישי ושני, ורבותינו שבארץ ישראל נהגו להתענות אחר ימי הפורים, מפני ניקנור וחביריו, ועוד שמאחרין בפורענות ואין מקדימין.
Soferim 17:3 The three fast days are not fasted consecutively but separately: Monday, Thursday, and Monday. The Sages of the land of Israel were accustomed to fast after the days of Purim [and not before] because of Nicanor [Day, on the 13th of Adar] and its friends, and also because punishments are postponed and not advanced.
The text here assumes that the three-day Monday-Thursday-Monday fast—traditionally known as בה"ב (Beha”b) fasting—in Adar is to keep Esther’s fast from the Megillah.
This practice is mentioned in three other sources that have come to light from the Cairo Genizah. A Judeo-Arabic text listing all the fast days by month has this for Adar:
באדר צמו בז' לחודש מפני מיתת ר' משה עליו השלום, ובו גם צומות הפורים והם שלושה ימים...
In Adar, they fasted on the seventh of the month, on account of the death of our Rabbi Moses, may peace be upon him, and also the fasts of Purim, which are three days…
Another Judeo-Arabic text (ca. 10th/11th cent.) states that the fasts are observed at the end of the month:
ובסוף חודש אדר יצומון ג' ימים כל שנה השני והחמישי והשני הסמוך לראש חדש ניסן.
At the end of the month of Adar, they fast 3 days every year, on the Monday, Thursday, Monday closest to Nissan (=the next month).
Yet another such text, dating from the 11th century, has the three fast days at the beginning of the month, and implies they may be consecutive (and not a Monday-Thursday-Monday fast):
והצומות שנהגה האומה: שלשה לפני הפורים...
The fasts that the nation practice (i.e., not commanded fasts): The three days before Purim…
It seems clear that this practice originated as a commemoration of the three days of fasting initiated by Esther as recorded in the Megillah. This Monday-Thursday-Monday fast in Geonic Israel probably preceded the fast of the 13th of Adar, which arose in Geonic Babylonia.
Fasting on the 13th of Adar: The Earliest Sources
We begin to find references to a fast on the 13th of Adar as an established practice in the Geonic period, beginning around the 9th century:
R. Natronai Gaon (d. 865), head of the academy at Sura, lists תענית פורים “the fast of Purim,” among the fasts in which the special fast day Torah reading (Exod 32:11ff) is read during the mincha (afternoon) service.
R. Saʿadiah Gaon (d. 942), a later head of the Sura academy, includes צום אלמגלה (=the fast of the Megillah) among the other fasts, and includes three selichot prayers for it.
R. Sherira Gaon (d. 1006), the head of the Pumbeditha Academy, begins a responsum with ובתענית (יוש) [יום] יג באדר רגילין אנו לנפול “on the fast of the thirteenth of Adar, we are accustomed to fall [on our faces] (=to recite the Tachanun prayers).”
R. Hai Gaon (d. 1038), the son of Sherira, and the last head of the Pumbeditha academy, received a question about whether, if a wedding takes place on a fast day such as the 13th of Adar, the one who makes the blessing on cup of wine is permitted to drink.
An anonymous Babylonian Geonic responsum states that וי"ג של אדר הראשון נמי מתענין כי"ג של אדר השני “[in a leap year,] we fast on the 13th of Adar I just as we fast on the 13th of Adar II.”
Al-Biruni (ca. 1,000), a Moslem scholar of Persian origin, knows about this Jewish fast and calls the day “the fasting of Alburi” (Purim).
With the exception of Saʿadiah (who lived in Palestine before coming to Babylonia), none of these texts refer to the fast in such a way as to connect it to the story of Esther. What, then, is the origin of the fast? The answer lies in a geonic responsa, probably from the 8th century, and its unusual interpretation of the opening Mishnah of Tractate Megillah.
Yom HaKenisah in the Mishnah
Mishnah Tractate Megillah begins by explaining that the Megillah may be read on any day between the 11th and the 15th of Adar, depending on what kind of town it is. The basic principle is that (ancient) walled cities should read on the 15th, and villages and large towns on the 14th, אֶלָּא שֶׁהַכְּפָרִים מַקְדִּימִים לְיוֹם הַכְּנֵיסָה “except that villages move up [the reading] to the day of assembly.”
The “day of assembly” refers to Mondays and Thursdays, market days, when villagers came to the bigger cities for commerce. As it would be difficult for small villages to have someone who could read the Megillah for them, they were allowed to read it on the day of assembly just before Purim if need be.
Yet, an anonymous Geonic responsum, found in Midrash Tanchuma (Bereishit §3, Warsaw ed.), offers an unworkable reading of the Mishnah, claiming that the day of assembly is a reference to the fast of the 13th of Adar and that the Mishnah is actually about pushing back the fast day and not reading the Megillah at an earlier date than usual. The responsum begins with the question of whether we follow the Mishnah, that allows villages to read the Megillah early, or the alternative view of Rabbi Judah quoted in the Talmud that says the ruling is not applicable nowadays:
בבלי מגילה ב. אמר רבי יהודה: "אימתי בזמן שהשנים כתקנן וישראל שרויין על אדמתן, אבל בזמן הזה הואיל ומסתכלין בה אין קורין אותה אלא בזמנה."
b. Megillah 2a Rabbi Judah said: “When [does the law allowing earlier reading apply]? When the years are established properly, and Israel is living upon its own land. But nowadays, since they look towards it (the date of Purim as a calendrical marker), it should only be read at the proper time [namely on the 14th of Adar].”
The geonic responsum answers that the questioner is misunderstanding the Mishnah and Talmud.
מדרש תנחומה בראשית ג בין לרבי יהודה בין לת"ק מגילה אינה נקראת אלא בזמנה.
Tanchuma Bereishit §3 Both Rabbi Judah and the anonymous first opinion [in the Mishnah] believe that the Megillah must be read on the proper day.
How then are we to understand the reference to reading early and to the day of assembly? The Gaon’s explanation is two-pronged. First, he argues that “the day of assembly” is synonymous with the day the Israelites gathered to fight their Persian enemies, i.e., the 13th of Adar, described in the Megillah:
אסתר ט:א וּבִשְׁנֵים עָשָׂר חֹדֶשׁ הוּא חֹדֶשׁ אֲדָר בִּשְׁלוֹשָׁה עָשָׂר יוֹם בּוֹ אֲשֶׁר הִגִּיעַ דְּבַר הַמֶּלֶךְ וְדָתוֹ לְהֵעָשׂוֹת... ט:ב נִקְהֲלוּ הַיְּהוּדִים בְּעָרֵיהֶם בְּכָל מְדִינוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ אֳחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ לִשְׁלֹחַ יָד בִּמְבַקְשֵׁי רָעָתָם...
Esth 9:1 And so, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month—that is, the month of Adar—when the king’s command and decree were to be executed… 9:2 Throughout the provinces of King Ahasuerus, the Jews gathered in their cities to attack those who sought their hurt…
To support this identification, he quotes the Talmudic statement from Tractate Megillah:
מדרש תנחומה בראשית ג ומאי יום הכניסה יום הקהל[ה], דאמר מר שלשה עשר יום קהלה לכל היא.
Tanchuma Bereishit §3 What is the day of assembly? The day of gathering [in the Megillah], as the master said: “The thirteenth [of Adar] was the time when everyone gathered.”
Second, the Gaon explains that the Mishnah is not referring to people who live in villages generally, but to fasting (ליושב בתענית) on the 13th of Adar (=the day of assembly), and says that it should be moved earlier when the fast falls on Shabbat, שאסור לישב בתענית בשבת “for it is forbidden to fast on Shabbat.” The responsum then lays out how the Mishnah is understood:
שאם חל י"ד להיות באחד בשבת אסור להתענות בשבת ובערב שבת נמי אסור מפני טורח שבת אלא מקדימין ומתענין בחמישי שהוא אחד עשר באדר
If the 14th (=Purim) falls on Sunday, [and thus the fast of the 13th on the previous day], it is forbidden to fast on Shabbat. It is also forbidden to fast on Friday, because of the necessity of preparing for Shabbat. Rather, the fast is advanced to Thursday, which is the 11th of Adar.
ואם חל ארבעה עשר בשבת אסור להתענות בע"ש מפני טורח שבת—שעיקר תענית סליחות ורחמים הוא, ואתי לאימנועי מכבוד שבת, וכבוד שבת עדיף מאלף תעניות, דכבוד שבת דאורייתא ותענית דרבנן ואתי כבוד שבת דאורייתא ודחי תענית דרבנן—אלא מקדימין ומתענין בחמישי בשבת שהוא י"ב.
If the 14th falls on Shabbat, it is forbidden to fast on Friday because of the necessity of preparing for Shabbat—the primary reason for a fast day is the recital of seliḥot and raḥamim (prayers for forgiveness and mercy), and reciting these will detract from honoring the Shabbat; honoring the Shabbat is more important than a thousand fasts, for honoring the Shabbat is a commandment from the Torah, while the fast is a rabbinic decree, and the Torah commandment of honoring the Shabbat takes precedence over the fast, a rabbinic decree—instead, the fast is advanced to Thursday, the 12th.
ואם חל י"ד בע"ש מתענין בחמישי שהוא שלשה עשר
If the 14th falls on erev shabbat, the fast is observed on Thursday, which is the 13th.
The responsum then explains that the Mishnah’s meaning is that villagers may read the Megillah on the fast day, “the day of assembly,” which, when pushed back, will always be on the Thursday before Purim.
This interpretation of the Mishnah cannot reflect its original meaning. If they had wanted to say “fast day” they would have used יום תענית. Moreover, the very next Mishnah makes the matter clear:
משנה א:ג אָמַר ר' יְהוּדָה: אֶמָּתַי? מָקוֹם שֶׁנִּיכְנָסִים בַּשֵּׁינִי וּבַחֲמִישִׁי; אֲבָל מָקוֹם שֶׁאֵין נִכְנָסִים לֹא בַשֵּׁינִי וְלֹא בַחֲמִישִׁי, קוֹרִין אוֹתָהּ בִּזְמַנָּהּ.
m. Megillah 1:3 When [do villages move the reading up to the day of assembly]? In a place [where the population] assembles on Monday and Thursday. But a place [where the population] assembles neither on Monday nor Thursday— they read [the Scroll] only at its [proper] time.
Why, then, does the author of this responsum go to such lengths to reread a Mishnah, allowing villagers to read the Megillah on market day (the simple meaning of “the day of assembly”), to be about making sure a fast day—that is never mentioned in this Talmudic passage or in any other one—doesn’t conflict with Shabbat?
The Polemic about Fasting on Shabbat
One possible reason for reading the Mishnah this way may have been to justify an existing practice to fast on the 13th that otherwise had no textual support. Yet the rhetorical emphasis (bolded above) in the author’s claim that “honoring the Shabbat is more important than a thousand fasts” implies a different motivation.
The responsum’s language is reminiscent of a similar phrase found in the early 9th century polemical letter of the Babylonian sage, Pirkoy ben Baboy, to the Jews of North Africa and Spain, instructing them that the customs of the Land of Israel should not be followed:
וגדול עינוג שבת אחד יותר ממקריב אלף קרבנות ומאלף תענית.
The enjoyment of one Shabbat is greater than offering a thousand sacrifices or a thousand fasts. 
Pirkoy is speaking in hyperbolic language against a custom, which was widespread in Israel, and sometimes practiced in Babylonia as well, of fasting on Shabbat as a form of piety, to make Shabbat a day with only spiritual enjoyments. Clearly the author of the responsum wishes to show that the Mishnah already makes clear that fasting on Shabbat—even erev Shabbat (the day leading up to Shabbat)—is a sinful act.
A Side-Effect of the Polemic?
The author of this responsum may have been inspired to read the Mishnah this way because of a pre-existing custom to fast on the 13th of Adar. In other words, he wanted a proof that fasting was forbidden on Shabbat, and seeing the word “gathering” in connection with the thirteenth of Adar, he connected it to the fast and offered his new reading. This, however, would leave the origins of the fast unexplained.
Instead, I suggest that the rereading of the Mishnah began as a purely theoretical, polemical gesture, and that the author had no knowledge of any fast day in his time on the 13th of Adar. He simply posited its existence in Mishnaic times, based on his rereading of the verse and the Mishnah. Once this reading was introduced in the Babylonian academies, however, and used as a proof against the problematic religious practice of fasting on Shabbat, it almost inevitably led to the introduction of this practice, framed as a reintroduction of an ancient practice.
Indeed, we can see the effect of the responsum’s argument in the seriousness with which the Sefer HaMiqtzoʿot, a geonic work from a later period, takes the fast:
וחייבינהו הקדוש ברוך הוא לישראל לענויי נפשייהו בשלשה עשר...
The Blessed Holy One requires the Jews to fast on the 13th…
The author goes on to defend this claim by citing how the Megillah calls this a day of gathering, which means a fast day, thus giving the fast of the 13th of Adar a biblical pedigree.
If this is correct, then the emergence of this fast was an unforeseen consequence of a polemical reading. Either way, in Geonic Babylonia, it was not known as תענית אסתר, “The Fast of Esther,” a name it likely borrowed from the custom in Israel to fast for three non-consecutive (beha”b) days after Purim, in commemoration of Esther’s command.
This accident had a beneficial effect for observant Jews in later times, who fast for one day before Purim, following the Babylonian custom, as opposed to the earlier and more difficult custom practiced in Israel of fasting for three-days (Monday-Thursday-Monday) after Purim.
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Mitchell First is an attorney, with an M.A. in Jewish History from the Bernard Revel Graduate School. He is the author of Roots and Rituals: Insights into Hebrew, Holidays, and History, as well as Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy and Jewish History in Conflict: A Study of the Major Discrepancy Between Rabbinic and Conventional Chronology, and Links to Our Legacy: Insights into Hebrew, History, and Liturgy, and Words for the Wise: Sixty-Two Insights on Hebrew, Holidays, History and Liturgy. His website is www.rootsandrituals.org.
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