Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Origin of Ta‘anit Esther

The Origin of Ta‘anit Esther

By Mitchell First

Introduction

The origin of this fast has always been a mystery. A fast on the 13th of Adar is not mentioned in the Megillah. Nor is such a fast mentioned in Tannaitic or Amoraic literature. Megillat Ta‘anit, compiled in the first century C.E., includes the 13th of Adar as a day upon which Jews were prohibited from fasting.

A widespread view today is that the fast arose as a post-Talmudic custom intended to commemorate the three days of fasting initiated by Esther in Nissan. There are Rishonim who take this approach.[1] But Geonic Babylonia is where the fast first arose and this approach is not expressed in any of the sources from Geonic Babylonia. Moreover, the statements in these sources are inconsistent with this approach. I am going to suggest an approach to the origin of the fast that is consistent with the material in the Babylonian Geonic sources.

I. The Earliest Sources That Refer To A Practice Of Fasting On The 13th

The earliest sources that refer to a practice of fasting on the 13th are the following:

- One of the four she’iltot for Purim included in the She’iltot of R. Ahai Gaon, a work composed in 8th century Babylonia.

- An anonymous Babylonian Geonic responsum that made its way into Midrash Tanhuma (Bereshit, sec. 3). (The discussion in this responsum and in the She’iltot is very similar.)

- A responsum of R. Natronai, head of the academy at Sura from 857-865 C.E. This responsum refers to the fast as פורים תענית. [2]

- The Siddur of R. Se‘adyah (882-942).[3] Here, the fast is referred to as אלמגלה צום (=the fast of the Megillah).[4] The Siddur of R. Se‘adyah was composed in Babylonia.[5]

- An index to a collection of Babylonian Geonic responsa.[6] The compiler of the index recorded the first few words of each responsum. In our case, the compiler recorded: לנפול אנו רגילין באדר יוש יג[7] ובתענית. The responsum itself is no longer extant. The responsum itself is no longer extant.

- A responsum addressed to R. Hai (d. 1038).[8] This responsum inquires whether, in the case of a hakhnasat kallah that occurs on a fast day such as the 13th of Adar, the one who makes the blessing on the kos of berakhah is permitted to drink.

- An anonymous Babylonian Geonic responsum that includes the following statement: השני אדר של כי"ג מתענין נמי הראשון אדר של וי"ג.[9]

II. Analysis

According to Robert Brody, the four she’iltot for Purim were probably not in the original She’iltot when it left the hands of R. Ahai in the 8th century. They were authored in a later stage.[10] She’ilta #79, the one which refers to fasting on the 13th of Adar, is even more problematic than the other three. After the first few lines in Aramaic, the balance of this she’ilta is almost entirely in Hebrew, unlike the rest of the She’iltot.

Careful comparison of she’ilta #79 with the Geonic responsum that made its way into Midrash Tanhuma suggests that the Geonic responsum is the earlier source.[11] It is reasonable to work with the assumption that this responsum dates from the eighth or ninth centuries.

This responsum adopts a very unusual interpretation of the sections of the Mishnah at the beginning of Tractate Megillah. These sections permit villagers to fulfill their Megillah obligation on the 11th, 12th, or 13th of Adar, on yom ha-kenisah, under certain conditions. In the plain sense of these sections, yom ha-kenisah refers to Mondays and Thursdays, and the teaching is that the reading for the villagers is allowed to be advanced to these days when the villagers enter, or gather in, the cities.

But in the interpretation adopted by the Geonic responsum, yom ha-kenisah means the fast of the 13th of Adar (= the day on which the Jews gather to fast). The reading for the villagers is allowed to be advanced because the date of the observance of the fast day is being advanced due to a prohibition to fast on shabbat and ‘erev shabbat that is being read into the Mishnah. In this interpretation, the advanced fast day is a day upon which the reading for the villagers is allowed.

The Geonic responsum included in Midrash Tanhuma reads as follows:

They asked: It was taught that the Megillah may be read on the 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th, but not earlier or later. R. Judah said that this rule is only in effect when the calendar is established by the testimony of witnesses and Israel dwells on its own land, but in our times…the Megillah can only be read on the proper date (=the 14th or 15th). Does the halakha follow the first opinion or does it follow R. Judah?

They responded: According to both R. Judah and the first opinion, the Megillah can only be read on the proper date. The following is what the first opinion meant. Towns that were surrounded by walls at the time of Joshua son of Nun read on the 15th. Villages and cities read on the 14th, but villages may advance their reading to yom ha-kenisah. When the Mishnah taught that the Megillah may be read on the 11th, 12th, 13th, etc., that applied to one who is engaged in fasting, as it was taught at the end of the Mishnah: “but villages may advance their reading to yom ha-kenisah.” What is yom ha-kenisah? The day of gathering, as it is stated (Meg. 2a): The thirteenth was a day of gathering for all (Heb: yom[12] kehillah la-kol hiy), as it is written (Est. 9:1-2): “in the 12th month, the month of Adar, on its thirteenth day… the Jews gathered themselves (Heb: nikhalu) in their cities.” They gathered themselves and decreed a fast on the 13th of Adar. But the 14th was a holiday, as it is written (Est. 9:17) “and they rested on its 14th and made it a day of feasting and gladness.” In Shushan ha-birah, they only rested on the 15th. Therefore, Shushan and all walled towns read on the 15th and make that a festive day. When the Mishnah taught that “the Megillah may be read (on the 11th, 12th, 13th …)” that concerned one who is engaged in fasting, because it is forbidden to engage in fasting on shabbat. If the 14th falls on the first day of the week, it is forbidden to fast on shabbat. It is also forbidden to fast on ‘erev shabbat, because of the necessity of preparing for shabbat. Rather, the fast is advanced to Thursday, which is the 11th of Adar. If the 14th falls on shabbat, it is forbidden to fast on ‘erev shabbat because of the necessity of preparing for shabbat. The primary reason for a fast day is the recital of selihot and rahamim, and reciting these (instead of preparing for shabbat) 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 (Heb: ta‘anit de-rabbanan). The Torah commandment of honoring the shabbat takes precedence over the fast, a rabbinic decree. Hence the fast is advanced to Thursday, the 12th. If the 14th falls on ‘erev shabbat, the fast is observed on Thursday, which is the 13th. This is set forth in the Mishnah. How does this occur? If it falls on a Monday, villages and cities read that day and walled towns read the next day. If it falls on shabbat or the first day of the week, villages advance the reading to yom ha-kenisah, etc. But when the 9th of Av falls on shabbat, the fast is postponed until after shabbat, since this fast was instituted as a punishment. Therefore, the fast is postponed and not advanced.

One of the cases discussed in the above responsum is the case of the 14th falling on shabbat. Almost certainly, this was not something still occuring at the time this responsum was composed.[13] This suggests, as does a close reading of the responsum, that the responsum is not describing a practice of fasting on the 13th that was occurring in its time. It is only interpreting M. Megillah 1:1-2, the ninth chapter of the book of Esther, and a statement in the Talmud (Meg. 2a: yod-gimmel zeman kehillah la-kol hiy), and describing a practice of fasting on the 13th that theoretically occurred in ancient times, according to the interpretations it was offering.

The interpretation of yom ha-kenisah expressed in the Geonic responsum is far from its plain sense. If M. Megillah 1:1-2 was referring to the advancement of the reading to a fast day, the term we would expect it to use would be yom ha-ta‘anit. Moreover, M. Megillah 1:3 includes the following statement by R. Judah:

“When [may the reading be advanced]? In a place where they enter (makom she-nikhnasin) on Monday and Thursday.”

This strongly suggests that the term yom ha-kenisah at M. Megillah 1:1-2 refers to Mondays and Thursdays. Finally, an anonymous Talmudic discussion at Megillah 4a-b understands yom ha-kenisah as a reference to Mondays and Thursdays.[14]

The interpretations expressed of Est. 9:1-2 and of the Talmudic statement yod-gimmel zeman kehillah la-kol hiy are far from plain sense interpretations as well.

The critical question in determining the origin of the fast of the 13th of Adar is what motivated these unusual interpretations. Obviously, one possible motivation was an attempt to justify an existing practice to fast on the 13th. But I am going to suggest something entirely different that motivated these interpretations. Then we can understand the practice of fasting on the 13th as having originated as a consequence of the interpretations.

As I mentioned, the responsum included in Midrash Tanhuma was from Babylonian Geonim, and it is reasonable to work with the assumption that it dates from the eighth or ninth centuries. As documented in my article, a major issue of halakha in this period was the permissibility of fasting on shabbat.[15]

The unusual interpretations can be explained under the assumption that the authors were responding to and opposing contemporary practices of fasting on shabbat and ‘erev shabbat. Interpreting yom ha-kenisah the way they did enabled them to cite M. Megillah 1:1-2 as a source which prohibited fasting on shabbat and ‘erev shabbat. In their interpretation, the reading for the villagers is allowed to be advanced because the date of the observance of the fast day is being advanced, due to a prohibition to fast on shabbat and ‘erev shabbat that they were reading into the Mishnah.

The practices that the authors of the unusual interpretations could have been responding to could have been: 1) the practice in Babylonia of fasting on the shabbat before Yom Kippur, 2) practices in Babylonia of fasting on shabbat as a form of repentance or piety, or by those whose ideal shabbat consisted of studying or praying all day, or by those who enjoyed fasting, or 3) practices of fasting on shabbat in Palestine in the above contexts. It is also possible that the main motivation of the authors of the unusual interpretations was opposition to a practice of fasting on ‘erev shabbat.

I suggest that the unusual interpretations expressed in the Geonic responsum arose as a result of one or more of these polemical motivations. This led M. Megillah 1:1-2 to be interpreted to imply a prohibition to fast on shabbat and ‘erev shabbat. A new “tradition” about an ancient fast on the 13th of Adar was the result.

One clue that the authors were responding to contemporary practices of fasting on shabbat and ‘erev shabbat is that the responsum includes a polemical line stressing the importance of honoring the shabbat: “honoring the shabbat is more important than a thousand fasts…”[16] The early 9th century polemical letter of Pirkoy ben Baboy uses almost the same language:

“One who delights in one shabbat is greater than one who sacrifices a thousand sacrifices and (fasts) a thousand fasts.”[17]

The main weakness with my approach to the origin of the fast is the argument that it is not likely that a Mishnah would be polemically interpreted to such an extent that the interpretation would result in the observance of a new (assumed to be ancient) fast day. My response is that those who authored the interpretation did not foresee that a new fast day would come be observed as a result of their interpretation.

That the fast of the 13th of Adar did not arise as commemoration of the three days of fasting initiated by Esther is seen from the name for the fast day in the earliest sources. The responsum of R. Natronai is the earliest source that refers to the fast by a name, and it refers to the fast as Ta‘anit Purim. Of the four sources in the Geonic period from Babylonia and its environs that refer to the fast by a name, most likely none of them calls it Ta‘anit Esther.[18]

When the Babylonian Geonic sources express or imply something about the origin of the fast, what is consistently expressed or implied is that the fast is a rabbinic obligation, and not merely a post-Talmudic custom. For example, the Geonic responsum included in Midrash Tanhuma refers to the fast as a de-rabbanan. Moreover, an anonymous Geonic responsum takes the position that, in a leap year, one fasts even on the 13th of the first Adar. Most likely, it takes this position because it views fasting on the 13th of Adar as an obligation, based on the interpretation of Est. chap. 9 expressed in the Geonic responsum included in Midrash Tanhuma. If it viewed the fast as a post-Talmudic custom meant to commemorate fasting that took place in Nissan, a fast on the 13th of the second Adar would almost certainly have been viewed as sufficient.

In my article, I documented four sources that refer to a Palestinian practice of fasting three days (on a Monday-Thursday-Monday cycle) in Adar. These sources are: Massekhet Soferim (chaps. 17 and 21), and three other sources that have come to light from the Genizah. The Palestinian practice almost certainly was a commemoration of the three days of fasting initiated by Esther in Nissan.[19]

That the Palestinian practice was understood as a commemoration of the three days of fasting initiated by Esther probably contributed to the name for the Babylonian fast of the 13th evolving into Ta‘anit Esther.[20]



This essay is a brief summary of my recent article that appeared in Mitchell First, “The Origin of Ta'anit Esther,” AJS Review 34:2 (November 2010): 309-351, and is adapted with the permission of Cambridge University Press.

[1] An early example is probably Maimonides. An erroneous period and vav (the vav of ובי"ג) made their way into the standard printed text of his Hilkhot Ta‘aniyyot 5:5, after the sixth word. (The necessary corrections have already been made in the Frankel edition.) The corrected text reads:

המן בימי שהתענו לתענית זכר באדר בי"ג להתענות אלו בזמנים ישראל כל ונהגו

(Est. 9:31) שנאמר דברי הצומות וזעקתם...

Maimonides clearly states that the custom of fasting on the 13th is only of recent origin, and that it is a commemoration of a fast that took place in the time of Haman, i.e., in Nissan. Maimonides is forced to cite to Est. 9:31 because chapter 4 does not expressly state that the Jews of Shushan fasted in response to Esther’s request.

[2] Robert Brody, Teshuvot Rav Natronai Bar Hilai Ga’on, 303-04, responsum # 177.

[3] Siddur Rav Se‘adyah Ga’on, eds. Israel Davidson, Simhah Assaf, and Yissakhar Joel, 258 and 319-338.

[4] Ibid., 319.

[5] It was not composed in Palestine, where R. Se‘adyah lived earlier. Ibid., intro., 22-23.

[6] Louis Ginzberg, Geonica, vol. 2, 67-68.

[7] Ginzberg suggests that the correct reading is shel or yom.

[8] Shelomoh Wertheimer, Sefer Kohelet Shelomoh, 14.

[9] Louis Ginzberg, Ginzey Schechter, vol. 2, 136.

[10] Brody, Le-Toledot Nusah Ha-She’iltot, 186 n. 5, and The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping of Medieval Jewish Culture, 209 n. 29. Structurally, they are deficient as she’iltot. Also, there is some variation in the manuscripts with regard to their location in the work. This suggests that they were later additions, attemped to be integrated into an already fixed work.

[11] It is organized and concise, and seems to reflect an attempt to record an official interpretation of M. Megillah 1:1-2. She’ilta #79, on the other hand, seems to be taking for granted an already established explanation of M. Megillah 1:1-2 that it is reiterating and commenting upon.

[12] Megillah 2a and she’ilta #79 have zeman instead of yom.

[13] When the 14th of Adar falls on shabbat, the upcoming Yom Kippur would fall on Friday. Already in the time of R. Yose b. Bun (c. 300), the 14th of Adar was not being allowed to fall on shabbat or Monday, so that Yom Kippur would not fall on Friday or Sunday. See Y. Megillah 1:2 (70b), EJ 5:49, and Yosef Tabory, Mo‘adey Yisra’eil Bi-Tekufat Ha-Mishnah Ve-Ha-Talmud, 28. See also Rosh Ha-Shanah 20a. She’ilta #79 stated explicitly that the 14th of Adar no longer fell on shabbat in its time.

[14] The severe difficulties with interpreting yom ha-kenisah as the 13th of Adar are noted by many authorities. Interestingly, there exists a manuscript of Megillah 2a (NY-Columbia X 893 T141) in which this interpretation (taken from the She’iltot) is included on the Talmudic page. The statement included is:

למכתב צריך ולא בעריהם נקהלו היהודים שנ׳ היא לכל קהילה זמן עשר שלשה אחא רב פיר׳

לתענית ישראל בו שמתכנסין תענית יום דהוא

It is therefore incorrect to state that the fast of the 13th of Adar is nowhere mentioned in the Talmud!

[15] See my article, 335-339. Much of the relevant material is found at Ozar Ha-Ge’onim, Yom Tov, secs. 41-49.

[16] The material in the Geonic responsum and in she’ilta #79 is very similar. But the passage “honoring the shabbat is more important than a thousand fasts” is found only in the Geonic responsum. The fact that the responsum does not illustrate seven scenarios, but only illustrates the scenarios of the 14th falling on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, also suggests that the main motivation for its interpretations was related to shabbat and ‘erev shabbat.

[17] Ozar Ha-Ge’onim, Yom Tov, 20, sec. 41. This was a polemical letter written to the Jews of North Africa and Spain, instructing them that Palestinian customs should not be followed. Pirkoy, a Babylonian Jew, tells us that he was a disciple of someone named Rava who was a disciple of R. Yehudai. (R. Yehudai was head of the academy at Sura from approximately 757-761 C.E.) Pirkoy writes that many of the Palestinian customs originated as emergency measures during times of persecution, or were customs resulting from ignorance. It was only in Babylonia that accurate traditions were preserved. Among the Palestinian practices that Pirkoy criticizes was their practice of fasting on shabbat.

[18] The four are: R. Natronai, R. Se‘adyah, Al-Biruni, and the expanded version of Seder Parshiyyot Shel Yamim Tovim Ve-Haftarot Shelahen. R. Natronai refers to the fast as Ta‘anit Purim. R. Se‘adyah refers to the fast as אלמגלה צום. Al-Biruni, a Moslem scholar of Persian origin (writing in 1000 CE), calls the day “the fasting of Alburi” (Purim). Seder Parshiyyot probably dates from the late ninth or early tenth century. It includes a shortened version of the responsum of R. Natronai that had referred to the fast. There are only three manuscripts of the expanded version of Seder Parshiyyot, none of which was actually copied in Geonic Babylonia. Two of the manuscripts read Ta‘anit Esther, while one reads Ta‘anit Purim. Since R. Natronai’s original responsum read Ta‘anit Purim, it seems likely that the manuscript of Seder Parshiyyot that reflects this reading has preserved the original reading and that the other reading originated with a copyist altering the name to fit the name for the fast prevailing in his locale.

Massekhet Soferim refers to sheloshet yemey zom Mordekhai ve-Esther. But the reference is to the Palestinian practice of fasting three days on a Monday-Thursday-Monday cycle. Massekhet Soferim was most likely composed in the 9th or 10th century, in a community under Palestinian influence, such as Italy or Byzantium. See Debra Reed Blank, “It’s Time to Take Another Look at at “Our Little Sister” Soferim: A Bibliographical Essay, JQR 90 (1999): 4 n. 10, and M. B. Lerner, “The External Tractates,” in The Literature of the Sages, ed. Shmuel Safrai, 399-400.

[19] This Palestinian practice may even have preceded the Babylonian practice of fasting on the 13th, although this cannot be proven.

[20] See my article, 333, n. 98. The fast of the 13th was already known in some areas as Ta‘anit Esther by the 11th century. Ibid., 332-333.

2 comments:

aryeh shore said...

O.K. Now explain to me why the Ethiopian Jews who were essentially Karaite and did not celebrate Purim, fasted on Taanit Ester.

Anonymous said...

"This Palestinian practice may even have preceded the Babylonian practice of fasting on the 13th, although this cannot be proven."

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