Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday, 20 March 2008

The Meaning of the Day

Other than Yom Kippur, there are five public fast days in the Jewish Year. Of all of them, only one is referred to by the Hebrew word Taanis. The remainder are either referred by simply by their date or as a Tzom. It seems appropriate to spend a moment on that interesting fact.

Taanis derives from same Hebrew root as Inui, affliction. The difference between "fast" and "affliction" is significant in relation to Yom Kippur which is described not as a day of fasting but of inui. The practical difference between the two manifests in the rule that someone who must eat for health reasons on Yom Kippur is allowed to do so if he keeps to a certain minimum amount over a certain period of time (the concept of eating in shiurim). The reason given for this is because, since Yom Kippur is not a fast day but rather an affliction day, this small amount of eating can be allowed in certain circumstances because such small amounts of food do not alleviate a person's feelings of affliction while any amount of eating ends a fast. For example, on Tisha B'Av we do not find the concept of shiurim because it is a fast day.

Conceptually one can see the sense of this as well. On Yom Kippur we are anxious that our sins be forgiven. Thus the affliction we undergo reflects our desire to be cleansed before our Father in Heaven. At the end of the day, the decision about our fate is made and we strive until that last moment to make sure it is a positive one. However, Tisha B'Av and the other historical fasts reflect events that have come and gone. Yerushalayim was laid to ruin, our Temples were destroyed (may they be rebuilt speedily and in our days) and Gedaliah ben Achikam was assasinated. There's no anxiety over the recollection of historical events, only sadness at the tragedies they caused. Thus one fasts but affliction is not required.

What then to make of Taanis Esther, the only one of the fasts to bear a name related to inui? A look at what the event commemorates might be instructive. Remember that the first Fast of Esther was not to recall a historical event but a direct plea to God to save the Jews of Persia from the machinations of Haman {insert booing noises here}. Thus, like Yom Kippur, the Fast was decreed because of a potential future outcome and was one laced with anxiety about what would happen. Hence, although the halachah decrees that the rules about eating on this day are in relation to fasting, not affliction, one can see that the concept of inui is quite relevant.

Additionally, it might be suggested that the reason we don't observe this day as an affliction day is because we do not observe the Fast of Esther on the days it was originally held on (it would make for a short Pesach seder since it went through Pesach during that year). Our Taanis Esther is a remembrance for a historical event, hence the fast, not the affliction.

But the lesson for us today is still instructive. Especially in light of recent events in our Land, we can see that the Hamans of the world are still out there plotting our demise. Far from a mere lead up into Purim, it behooves us to spend some time on this day and think about our precarious situation in this world. We love to glorify our material lives and believe that we hold the key to our own survival. As experience after experience has taught us, this is a false hope. We have only our Father in Heaven to protect us and we must keep our thoughts focused on Him and His mercy.

Yet we are not bidden to remain passive in the hopes of miraculous intervention from above. Purim follows Taanis Esther because the Jews of Persia, having put their hopes in God, then went out and fought for their lives with all their strength. As Jews we must keep our faith with God but also do our best to succeed as a people in this world with the strength He gives us.

This is the lesson of why Taanis Esther comes directly before Purim. Having spent the day in reflection of how we can only succeed with the help of God, we then rely on that help to overcome our enemies. With all that is threatening us today, we must do both more than ever.

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