Ta’anit Esther? Or Nicanor’s Day?

Esther Today, the 13th of Adar on the Hebrew calendar, is Ta’anit Esther, the Fast of Esther, one of the so-called “minor fast days” in which Jews traditionally fast from sunup to sundown.

I have to admit that I have long felt a certain ambivalence about the minor fast days. Most of them commemorate events from a very long time ago – events that don’t have the same urgency and immediacy as they once had. Take Tzom Gedaliah, for example. As one colleague put it, “why should I fast for Gedaliah? Would he have fasted for me?” When I was living in the US, serving congregations away from heavily Jewish areas, hardly anyone observed the minor fast days. Which made it hard to generate a lot of enthusiasm for fasting.

Why fast?

There is no real agreement about the origins of the Fast Esther. It is observed on the 13th of Adar, the day before Purim. Some say it commemorates the fast that Esther declared in the Purim story, as told in the Book of Esther, chapter 4: “Go, gather together all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my girls will fast likewise; and so will I go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.”

The only problem is that the fast Esther declared was observed at a completely different time. In Nisan. There are rabbis who say we are commemorating that fast, just moved to a different time because we don’t fast during Nisan, the month of redemption. Other rabbis say, no we are not commemorating that fast at all, but rather the fast that was actually observed on the 13th of Adar, the day of the battle for the lives of the Jewish people – a fast not specifically mentioned in scripture, but it was pretty common to fast before a war, so we can assume they fasted on the 13th.

Either way, the idea behind the fast was simple: there are bad people out there who want to kill us, we need to do some spiritual preparation for the physical battle.

In distinction to the Fast of Esther, hardly anyone remembers it, but today is not only a fast day on the Jewish calendar – once upon a time it was a feast day: the Day of Nicanor. Who, you might be wondering, was Nicanor, and why did he deserve a feast day?

The Talmud, in tractate Ta’anit tells us “What is Nicanor’s Day? It has been taught: Nicanor was one of the Greek generals; every day he waved his hand against Judah and Jerusalem and exclaimed, ‘When shall it fall into my hands that I may trample upon it?’ But when the Hasmonean Rulers proved victorious and triumphed over him they cut off his thumbs and his great toes and suspended them from, the gates of Jerusalem, as if to say of the mouth that spake arrogantly, of the hands that were waved against Jerusalem, May vengeance be exacted.”

So, why fast? Why not revive “Nicanor’s Day” and make it a day of celebration?

As I was contemplating this quandary today, I realized I couldn’t really drum up a lot of mental/spiritual support for going with Nicanor’s Day over the Fast of Esther. For one thing, I’m not big on gloating, and I especially didn’t want to gloat over something like cutting off Nicanor’s thumbs and toes.

And the truth is, the Jewish people are facing a lot of trouble in the world. Just like in the days of Esther, there are people out there who want to kill the Jews. And some of them are Persians! Just like in times past.

So I’m fasting today. I’m fasting for peace, I’m fasting to prepare for battle, battle I don’t want, but battle that will likely come because just like in the days of Esther there are people out there who hate the Jews. It’s certainly not a day for gloating about our victories – not when the nut case president of Iran wants to blow us off the map with a nuclear bomb, and not when Kassam missiles are falling on Sderot. And not when newspapers bring news like today’s depressing news that 84% of Palestinians supported the cold-blooded murder of 8 high-school aged Jerusalem yeshiva students which occurred a few weeks ago. No, it’s not a day for gloating. It is a day for fasting, and living in Israel certainly makes that hatred out there feel much more palpable than it felt living in the Diaspora. Another one of the many ways in which life in Israel is more intense, for better and worse, than life in America.

But I wouldn’t want to close on a pessimistic note – this is, after all, the month of Adar, the month to be happy. As the saying goes “k’sh’nichnas Adar marbim b’simcha,” when Adar enters, joy increases.

So the good news is the Jews are much better equipped to fight off those who hate us than we were in the days of Esther. We have lots of guns, rockets, bombs, fighter planes even submarines of our own. And armored personnel carriers (APCs). Just a little while ago while driving home we got stuck behind an APC that was being transported on a truck. And I was greatly amused to see a stenciled on sign which read in Hebrew “Eich ani noheg/et?” Which means “How’s my driving?,” and it was followed by a phone number. And the question was phrased grammatically both ways, just in case the driver was a woman.

My wife and I cracked up when we saw that. "How’s my driving? Not that I care!! I’m in an APC!"

Happy Purim!

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