THURSDAY, MARCH 17: For observant Jews, this is a day of self denial—the Fast of Esther, related to the story of Purim. Unlike other Jewish fasts that last from sunset to sunset, today’s fast lasts only from sunrise to sunset and for a joyful reason. Other fasts involve mournful remembrance, while the Fast of Esther recalls a story of victory. Although the original fast lasted three days, today’s memorial fast has been shortened to one. (Also note: This is a pre-Purim fast—meaning it would fall on Saturday this year, since Purim falls on Sunday. But, Saturday fasts are forbidden, so this year’s fast moves earlier. Read more at the Jewish Virtual Library.)
Here’s the story of today’s fast: About 2,500 years ago, a queen of ancient Persia was Jewish and realized her Jewish people were in trouble. Queen Esther’s husband, King Ahasuerus, did not know that his wife was Jewish—and the king was swayed by an evil advisor, Haman, who wanted to rid Persia of all Jews. (Wikipedia has details.) When Esther was informed of this tragic plan, she knew she had no other choice; Esther asked her fellow Jews to fast with her in hope of divine favor, and she courageously revealed her true religious identity to her husband. (Get the full story on the fast at MyJewishLearning.) Queen Esther’s brave act could have resulted in her death, but King Ahasuerus was partial to his wife—and he spared the lives of all the Jews.
Today’s classification as a “minor fast” speaks quietly of an event that has brought great inspiration to Jews for thousands of years. In the Middle Ages, for example, Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition looked to Queen Esther and drew strength from her bravery.
For the rest of this story, jump ahead and read our column about the joyous festival of Purim.
(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.)