Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Tezaveh (Zakhor) 5762/ February 23, 2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Tezaveh (Zakhor) 5762/ February 23, 2002

The Fast of Esther in the Lore of the Marranos

Prof. Moshe Orfali
Dept. of Jewish History


Even though the character of the holiday of Purim is patently one of rejoicing and feasting, the Marranos paid special attention to the Fast of Esther, eventually raising it a level of importance no less than the fast of the Day of Atonement itself. It is easy to understand why this was so: Esther did not reveal "her people or her kindred," but nevertheless remained true to the faith of her forefathers in a foreign environment - closely paralleling their position. Moreover, the moving prayer ascribed to Queen Esther in the Apocrypha[1] seemed to suit their own circumstances exactly. Indeed, they considered it so important that we are told Mariana Nunez[2] knew to recite it by heart, backwards.[3] If we look at the words of this prayer[4] we can easily understand its popularity:

She prayed to the Lord, G-d of Israel, saying: Lord, we have no other King but You. Save me, for I am misfortunate and have none other to help and support me but You, lest I perish in my calamity. From childhood I heard in my father's house that You, O Lord, took Israel of all the peoples, choosing our forefathers from all their ancestors, to be Your inheritance; and You did for them all that You had promised.
But we have sinned against you, and you turned us over to the hands of our enemies, whose gods we worshipped. To You, O Lord, is righteousness. But they are not satisfied having us live miserably, but applaud their idols: for they would bring to an end that which You commanded, and would wipe out Your inheritance and silence the mouths of those who bless You, and make threats against the majesty of Your Temple and Your altar, and open the mouths of idolaters to sing praises to their abominations, exalting forever more a king of flesh and blood. Lord, do not give dominion to those who are naught and do not let them gloat over our misfortune. Turn their evil intent back against them, and all that they plotted against us turn into a byword. Remember, O Lord, and appear to us in our hour of need. Give me the courage, G-d of all peoples, Lord of all strength. Give me eloquence before the Lion, and turn his heart to hate those who oppress us, that he and all those who plan to harm us may perish, and deliver us with Your mighty arm. Save me, for I am woebegone and have no succor but You. For You know the conscience of the heart; You knew that I hated the glory of the wicked, detested the bed of the uncircumcised and was repulsed by all idolaters. You knew my coerced condition: loathsome to me is the sign of my sovereign that I bear on my head in the day when I am in fear; as a contaminated garment I am repulsed by it and remove it when I sit alone; nor has your maid-servant eaten from the table of Haman, nor paid homage to the king's feast, nor drunk the wine of libations. Nor has your maid-servant known joy from the day she arrived here to this moment, save for my joy in You, Lord, G-d of Abraham. Almighty, G-d Supreme, hear the voice of those that are lost and save us from the wicked and deliver me from fear.

The Marranos were especially touched by the fast day associated with Esther and, as we see from the files of the Inquisition, accorded it greater importance than other days in the calendar of the Marranos. The fast was generally observed on the full moon of February, exactly a month before Passover. According to the Book of Esther, Esther fasted for three consecutive days, although not in the month of Adar, when the Fast of Esther is observed, but in the month of Nissan. The Marranos were so strongly influenced by the parallel between their condition and that of Esther that some of them fasted three consecutive days, just as she had done - a stringent observance not known in Jewish tradition.[5] In general the Marranos tended to observe many fast days, even more than the Hassidim of Poland and Ashkenaz, who were accustomed to fasting. It is especially interesting to read in the files of the Inquisition about victims who had been sentenced who would fast on the Monday and Thursday after the festivals of Passover and Sukkot. Even small children of four and five years old fasted. These fasts served as atonement for sins committed unwittingly. It appears that the Marranos, who daily violated the laws of the Torah, felt great need of such atonement. Therefore it is not at all surprising to learn of women from fine homes who died in their youth from this three-day fast, a fast that embodied the anguish of their lives and view of the world. For them the verse, "Esther did not reveal her people or her kindred" (Esther 2:10), was a reflection of their way of life, a way that had been shown them prophetically. So they undertook to fast three days, as Esther ordered, in the hope of being delivered as the Jews were delivered from the fate of the lot cast by Haman.

It was recently discovered[6] in a collection of documents about women converting to Judaism in the New Spain (i.e., Mexico), that one of the reasons for the centrality of the Fast of Esther among the young Jewish converts was that they believed observing these fasts would help them quickly find a husband.[7] Several of the files on these women attest that their mothers told them they were soon to be married and must therefore observe the fast of Queen Esther, after which young maidens are wed. There is also evidence of uncles telling the young women that they must fast three days in order to bring on Redemption, just as Queen Esther did on the advice of her uncle Mordechai, and in order to bring them good fortune in establishing their own home in the near future.[8]

The figure of Esther in the Marrano community was not only a literary disguise expressing their identity, and not only an expression of the special nature of the miracle of Purim (a miracle different from all the other miracles described in Scriptures, insofar as it is a "hidden miracle," not involving any change in the natural order), but also, and primarily, a figure symbolizing their martyrdom and a source of strength for their collective identity. Just as they admired the victims of the inquisition as people who died to sanctify the name of G-d- "martyrs" in Christian terminology-so Esther was included in the list of martyrs around whom the Marranos rallied, for she sacrificed herself for her people, even saying, "if I am to perish, I shall perish" (Esther 4:16). Therefore, included among the distinguished people in whose name they founded religious associations, as if they were Christian martyrs (like St. Raphael, St. Tobias, etc.), is also St. Esther, around whom a ritual developed parallel and counter to the ritual surrounding the Virgin Mary, and chapels were even dedicated to her.

In conclusion, we note that the Scroll of Esther refers in similar terms to the days of feasting and fasting. With respect to Purim, it is written, "charging them (le-qayyem) to observe the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar, every year, ... as days of feasting and merrymaking" (Esther 9:21-22); and with respect to the fast, it says, "These days of Purim shall be observed (le-qayyem), ... just as they have assumed for themselves and their descendants the obligation of the fasts with their lamentations" (9:31). For the Marranos in their special situation, the fast was central in their attempt to observe this holiday, perhaps of more significance than the feast itself.


[1] The Marranos considered the Apocrypha as holy as the Bible itself. In their lack of knowledge about Judaism, they considered them part of the divinely inspired canon, and often used them to justify their religious position. For example, in the Epistle of Jeremiah, in the last chapter of the Book of Baruch, there is a verse in which the prophet warns his brethren as follows: "When you see masses before you and behind you bowing down, you must say to yourselves, 'You must worship the Lord.'" The Marranos applied this text to themselves, and from these words of the prophet deduced that under duress it was permissible to follow the observances of another religion, provided that in their hearts they directed their worship to G-d.
[2] Mariana Nuñez, one of the daughters of Francisco Rodriguez Mattos, an instructor in Halakhah to the Judaizers. She was burned in effigy in Mexico in 1592.
[3] Archivo General de la Nación, Inquisición, vol. 12, exp. 2, fols. 34-38, 55.
[4] From the verdict of Brites Henriques, published in Lisbon on May 10, 1682 (after 8 years imprisonment). The collection of prayers and liturgical poems found in the file on her case was published by N. Slutsz, Ha-Anusim be-Portugal, Tel Aviv, 1922.
[5] An unusual description of the observance of this fast can be found in the file on the trial of Francisco Dies Mendes Brito. See H. Beinart, Records of the Trials of the Spanish Inquisition in Ciudad Real, Jerusalem 1974-1985, Leg. 142, exp. 6, fol. 22r.
[6] Through the research work of my doctoral student, Ms. Rinat Gordon, on her dissertation in the Department of Jewish History.
[7] Archivo General de la Nación, Inquisición, vol. 397, exp. 2, fol. 54.
[8] Archivo General, vol. 415, exp. 2, fol. 270.