Taanit Esther: Insights from OU Nach Yomi Educator Leah Feinberg

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06 Mar 2024
Fast of Esther

In anticipation of Taanit Esther, we chatted with master educator Leah Feinberg who taught Megillat Esther in the first cycle of the OU Women’s Initiative Torat Imecha Nach Yomi. In Part 1 of our interview, Mrs. Feinberg shares some fascinating insights about Esther HaMalka, the heroine who takes center stage in the Purim story and in the salvation of the Jewish people.

Could you elaborate upon Esther’s two names?

Mrs. Feinberg: Esther is introduced to us as הדסה היא אסתר, with two names at once, unlike other biblical characters who were known by more than one name only after going through a name change that’s a matter of record. Therefore, there’s quite a bit of discussion about the origin and meaning of her names. 

Three of the sages cited in the Gemara (Megillah 13a) suggest that her given name was Esther, and the name Hadassah, Myrtle, was added to reflect an aspect of her character. According to R’ Meir, she was called Hadassah because tzaddikim, righteous people, are compared in the book of Zecharya to myrtles. Thus it would appear from the opinion of R’ Meir that Esther was her given name, and she acquired the name Hadassah as she developed into a tzaddeket

Ben Azzai suggests that she was called Hadassah because she was neither too tall nor too short, rather average, like the myrtle. Perhaps most famously, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha suggests that although Esther was her true name, she had a greenish complexion, like the myrtle; however, a thread of grace was miraculously drawn upon her, so that she appeared beautiful to those who saw her. The Vilna Gaon explains that her greenish complexion must have been due to her anxieties upon being forcibly taken to the palace of Achashveirosh, and to her fasting and self-deprivation in fear for her future, for the text describes her as beautiful, which was her innate condition. The Maharal explains her green-ness as a metaphor for her temperate disposition. Green is the midpoint between black and white; the perfectly balanced personality that made Esther appealing to all who encountered her. 

Two of the sages offer a conflicting approach: R’ Yehuda states that her name was Hadassah, but she was called Esther from the root ס.ת.ר, secrecy, for she concealed her origin, not revealing that she was Jewish, in accordance with Mordechai’s command. R’ Nechemiah agrees that her name was Hadassah, but suggests that she was called Esther by the nations of the world, על שום אסתהר, the Persian word for moon, indicating that her beauty shone like the moon. Just as the moon is present during the day but hardly noticeable, and only against the darkness of the night do we recognize its beauty, so too Esther’s true beauty shone brightest in the Jews’ darkest hour.  

Esther is characterized by her beauty, her righteousness and her air of mystery. She is also described as “average”, which Maharal interprets as a positive quality — she wasn’t too much of one thing or another, rather she was balanced, which made her relatable to all who came in contact with her, consistent with the text’s description of her being admired by both the servants and the king himself. 

To resolve the issue of why she had two names, Rav Yigal Ariel suggests two possibilities: One, that she was called Esther by Achashveirosh upon her ascension to the throne, as a royal name similar to Par’oh calling Yosef “Tzafnat Pa’aneach”, and the text here merely foreshadows this eventuality, since that is what she came to be called in her public life. Secondly, he cites the opinion of others that even in the time of ancient Persia, the custom of giving a child two names, one a Jewish name and the other a secular one, had already become prevalent. Thus the text reveals to us two aspects of the exilic reality; the first view emphasizes the external forces of Galut imposing themselves on the lives of the Jews, and the second view indicates the internal pressures we feel as a nation living in exile. 

In either case, it seems clear that Hadassah is her private name, more intrinsic to her character, and Esther reflects her public role, how she is perceived by others. I think it is also possible to resolve the apparent contradictions between the origin and meanings of the name Esther by suggesting that, fortuitously, it bore different meanings for different people. While the nations of the world, or at least of the Persian empire, may have associated the name with the moon and its luminescence, for the empire’s Jews it bore the connotation of secrecy — a reference to the time in which they found themselves, in accordance with the teaching of the Gemara in Chullin 139b –- אסתר מן התורה מנין? אנכי הסתר אסתיר פני — Where do we find a reference to Esther in the Torah? In the pasuk “I will hide My Face” (in consequence of their sins). [Devarim 31] 

Why did Esther choose to fast for three days — why this arbitrary number? 

Mrs. Feinberg: Three is not an arbitrary number at all – just the opposite, three is a highly significant number in Judaism. The midrash notes many important events in Tanach that occur on the third day; significant among them is Akeidat Yitzchak on the third day of Avraham’s journey to the mountain, and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai on the third day of the preparations for its reception. Maharal sees these as two divergent approaches to the service of Hashem — emotional service through prayer, exemplified by Avraham, and intellectual service through study. The concept of the third day implies balance; just as a two-legged stool would topple over, a third leg provides stability and enables the stool to stand firmly. So too, the fact that these two approaches to the service of Hashem were both illuminated on the third day reflects that they must be balanced. Esther achieved the ideal balance between these two paths in her preparations to approach the king, applying her knowledge of Torah and halachah to decree the fast, and immersing herself in prayer that she might be successful. 

How do we know with certainty that Esher also davened while fasting? 

Mrs. Feinberg: The midrash sees a reference to Esther’s prayer in her words, “ובכן אבוא אל המלך“, and so I shall approach the King. The word HaMelech, the King, refers to both Hashem, whom Esther would approach in prayer and supplication, relying on His mercy, and to King Achashveirosh, whom she would approach even after fasting for three days — proof that she was relying on her faith and inner strength to carry the day, not on her physical beauty, which would suffer from three days of fasting. Chazal teach that the words of Tehillim 22 were prophetically written by David HaMelech, anticipating Esther’s prayer while in the palace of Achashveirosh. This prayer attests to both Esther’s deep despair and equally deep wellspring of Emunah. She cries out, “אלי אלי, למה עזבתני? – My G-d, my G-d, why have You forsaken me?” In the same breath as she speaks of her feelings of abandonment, she still relates to Hashem personally.   

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught that the antidote to Galut is Emunah, and the deepest expression of Emunah is prayer. Prayer by definition is lema’alah min haTeva, supernatural, with the power to alter the course of nature. In order to believe that prayer can be effective, we have to believe that reality isn’t some sort of cosmic accident but is constantly willed into being by G-d. Hashem, who brought the world into being, renews creation daily, and has the power to change reality at will. Thus prayer, fueled by Emunah, can bring redemption at any moment. This was exemplified by Esther’s own prayer, and her instruction that the entire nation fast and pray on her behalf. The Maharal comments on Esther’s instruction “לך כנוס את כל היהודים, Go gather all the Jewish people,” that any time the Jewish people gather together for the sake of serving Hashem, we experience a taste of Geulah, of the redemption. Every Beit Knesset, every house of assembly for the sake of prayer, is like a miniature Beit HaMikdash. 

Could you expand upon Esther’s knowledge of Halacha? 

Mrs. Feinberg: Esther took complete responsibility for the halachic innovation that she was proposing. Mishbetzot Zahav cites the Bnei Yissaschar, who explained that when Esther said “וצומו עלי“, she meant that she was taking full responsibility for decreeing that the people fast even though that meant they wouldn’t be able to fulfill the biblical commandments of eating Matzah and Maror on Pesach. The Gemara translates the pasuk “ויעבר מרדכי, ויעש ככל אשר צותה עליו אסתר” to mean that Mordechai passed the first day of Pesach as a fast day, in accordance with Esther’s instructions. Thus Mordechai, who was a member of the Sanhedrin, accepted and confirmed the halachic p’sak of Esther, his protégée. According to the midrash, her reasoning was that if Haman’s decree were allowed to stand and the Jewish people were destroyed, there would no longer be any observance of Pesach altogether. Pesach would have to be violated for one year in order to be preserved for all future generations.    

If the fast wasn’t proclaimed on the 13th of Adar why do we fast on that day? 

Mrs. Feinberg: Although in the year that the Purim story took place the people fasted in Nissan, even foregoing the mitzvot of Matzah and Maror on Pesach in order to complete the fast, that was a Hora’at Sha’ah – a one time halachic alteration due to the extreme and immediate danger they faced. We connect our fast with the celebration of Purim, fasting on the day when the battle took place. This juxtaposition of the commemoration of the battle with the celebration of victory is akin to our contemporary celebration of Yom HaAtzma’ut following Yom HaZikaron – we cannot celebrate the miracle of our victory without first recognizing the danger we faced and the heroism of those who faithfully fasted, prayed and fought for our redemption. 

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.

Leah Feinberg is a master educator, who taught at Stella K. Abraham High School for Girls in Hewlett for 21 years, also serving as Tanach Department Chairperson and New Teacher Mentor. She was a popular maggedet shiur in the Woodmere community, where she taught a weekly Navi shiur for women. Since making Aliyah in 2017, Leah has taught at Michlalah and the Emek Learning Center. She is a frequent lecturer at Kehillat HaElah in Ramat Beit Shemesh and at the OU Israel Center, where she is currently teaching a series on Clothing in Tanach. Leah taught Megillat Esther in the first cycle of the Women’s Initiative Torat Imecha Nach Yomi, Sefer Shmuel Bet in the second cycle, and is teaching Sefer Shmuel Aleph in the current cycle. To register for the third Nach Yomi cycle, visit www.ouwomen.org/nach.