A Feast and a Fast: The Fast of Esther


Why was annihilation decreed on the Jews of that generation? Because they enjoyed the feast of the wicked [King Achashverosh]

Talmud, Megillah 12a

Was participating in the feast of Achashverosh so grave a sin that it deserved a decree of annihilation, G-d forbid? Indeed, the Book of Esther implies that it was no sin at all, even desirable and necessary. We are told that Achashverosh had instructed that no man be pressured to partake of any food or drink that did not agree with his constitution or his religious beliefs. He had even arranged for kosher food for his Jewish subjects, in full conformity with the exacting standards of none other than Mordechai himself![1]

And the Jewish people had many compelling reasons to attend the week-long banquet thrown by the king to celebrate the consolidation of his rule over the 127 provinces of the Persian Empire. All residents of the capital were invited, and to turn down the royal invitation would have been a grievous insult—something that a small minority, scattered throughout the empire and threatened by many enemies, could ill afford to do. It is true that the Jews are not like the other nations of the world, whose fortune rises and falls with the political tide. In the words of the Talmud, “the people of Israel are not subject to ‘fate,’”[2] for they are under the singular province of G-d. Indeed, our millennia of survival as a “lone sheep surrounded by seventy wolves”[3] belies every law of history. But it is also true that we are commanded to construct a natural “vessel” through which the divine protection and blessing might flow.[4] Surely the Jews of Persia recalled the words spoken by the prophet Jeremiah seventy years earlier, when they were first exiled from their homeland: “Seek the peace of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray for it… for in its peace shall you have peace.” [5]

In any case, even if there were something amiss in the Jewish attendance at the feast of Achashverosh, was this a transgression so terrible that it warranted Haman being given the prerogative to “annihilate, slaughter and destroy every Jew, young and old, women and children, in a single day”[6]?

Jews in Politics

But the problem was not that they participated in the feast; it was that “they enjoyed the feast” of the Emperor of Persia.

Certainly, the Jew in exile is commanded to employ the tools that, by natural criteria, aid his survival under foreign rule. But he must always remember that this is no more than a “vessel” for G-d’s protection. Politics, business, natural law—these are no more than a front, an elaborate façade which G-d desires that we construct to encase and disguise His supra-natural providence of our lives; they are not something to be revered, much less to get excited about.

But the Jews experienced joy at having been invited to Achashverosh’s feast. As they took their places among the Persians, Medians, Babylonians, Chaldeans and the other nationalities of the realm, they felt content and secure. After seventy years of exile, they had “made it”; they were now a member of equal standing in the family of nations at Achashverosh’s table, with glatt kosher dinners issuing from the royal kitchens.

With their joy, the Jews disavowed their uniqueness as a nation under the special protection of G-d. Their feelings demonstrated that they now perceived the niche they had carved for themselves in the good graces of an earthly emperor as the basis for their survival. But the world they so gleefully entered is a capricious one. One day a Jew, Mordechai, is a high-ranking minister in Achashverosh’s court and another Jew, Esther, is his favorite queen; a day later, Haman becomes prime minister and prevails upon Achashverosh to sign a decree of annihilation against the Jewish people.

The Reversal

When Mordechai informed Esther of Haman’s plans and enjoined her to use her influence with the king to annul the decree, Esther told him to

“gather all the Jews who are in Shushan, and fast for my sake—do not eat or drink for three days, night and day; I and my maidens will likewise fast. Thus I shall go to the king, against the law…”[7]

It was forbidden, on pain of death, for anyone to go to the king unsummoned. Esther’s only chance was to charm the king into not killing her and to turn him against his favorite minister in favor of her people. The last thing for her to do under such circumstances was to approach the king looking like a woman who had not eaten for three days!

So dictate the norms of human nature and palace politics. But Esther recognized that the key to saving her people was to reestablish the relationship between G-d and Israel on its original, supra-natural terms. The Jews must repent their regression to a political people; they must draw on their only true resource—G-d’s love for them and His commitment to their survival. They must storm the gates of heaven with their fasting and prayer, and rouse His compassion for His people.

Of course, she must go to Achashverosh and do everything in her power to make him change his mind. But this is merely a formality. She must go through the motions of doing things the “normal” way because that is what G-d wants her to do—because this is the garment in which He chooses to cloak His salvation. But she will not appeal less fervently to G-d because she fears it will make her less attractive to Achashverosh—that would be like a soldier discarding his rifle because it creases his uniform.

Thus Esther rectified the error of those who enjoyed Achashverosh’s feast. They had exalted the façade, abandoning the essence of Jewish survival for the sake of the superficial vessel. Esther’s approach to dealing with the threat of Haman’s decree reiterated the true priority of the Jew, and evoked G-d’s reassertion of His singular providence over the fate of Israel.
Based on the Rebbe’s talks on Purim 5722 (1962) and 5727 (1967)[8]

By Yanki Tauber.


[1]. Esther 1:8; Targum ibid; Talmud, Megillah 12a.

[2]. Talmud, Shabbat 156a; et al.

[3]. Midrash Rabbah, Esther 10:11; et al.

[4]. Cf. Deuteronomy 15:18: “G-d will bless you in all that you will do”; see discourses on this verse by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (Sefer HaMaamarim 5565, vol. II, p. 648; 5568, vol. I, p. 165), Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch (introduction to Derech HaChaim), Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (Derech Mitzvotecha, Mitzvat Tiglachat Metzora, ch. 2), and Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch (Kuntres U’Maayan, Maamar 17).

[5]. Jeremiah 29:7.

[6]. Esther 3:13.

[7]. Ibid., 4:16.

[8]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXXI, pp. 170-176.

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