Now known as a fast day that is in remembrance of Queen Esther and the story of Purim, its date on the calendar has another history remembering the death of Nikanor. Other names this holiday is referred to are The Fast Days of Mordechai and Esther and The Fast of the Thirteenth of Adar.
The Book of Esther (9:31) talks about the original fast but it didn't become a custom until several hundred years later.
Nikanor Day is from First Maccabee Chapter 7. There is also reference in Second Maccabee Chapter 15. Josephus mentions it in Antiquates 12:10.
In some ways, this holiday is a replacement of the festival of Nikanor. The Fast of Esther precedes Purim by one day. It is celebrated on the 13th day of Adar. It is a fast day, set aside to remember the great risk the Queen took when she went to the king without prior permission, to help save the Jewish people. Purim, which is linked to the Fast of Esther is the next day on the 14th of Adar.
Second Maccabee is the earliest post biblical work to mention Purim. It doesn't mention a fast. Neither does Josephus, which was written around 165 years later. Josephus was published around the year 93.
Prayer should always be part of a Fast Day. Sometimes, special prayers known as S'lichot are added to the Fast of Esther morning prayer service.
The first record of Nikanor Day is found in 1 Maccabee Ch. 7. The account retells the defeat of Nikanor's large army and his death on the battlefield. His threat to destroy the temple was causing the Jews a lot of stress. When he died suddenly, the people rejoiced and decided to make that day a holiday that would be celebrated annually on the 13th of Adar. While commemorating Nikanor's death was a joyous celebration, the Fast of Esther was not. There couldn't be a fast on a holiday that was for celebration so this created a problem.
Nikanor Day was ordained by the same Maccabean court that only a few years earlier had ordained Hanukkah. It was included in Megillat Taanit, the official rabbinic holiday list completed in the year 120. This gave it worldwide recognition and acceptance throughout the Jewish community. The Megillat Taanit was then abolished approximately around the second half of the third century although it is believed that the observance of Nikanor Day survived for a few centuries after that. This is implied in the post Talmudic work known as Masechet Sofrim (8th century) Chapter 17. Even up to this time, there was a fast day on the 13th day of Adar, and it was known as Nikanor Day. This festival of Nikanor proceeded Purim by one day.(1)
Over a period of time, Judaism decided to observe a fast for the Purim holiday. At one time the fast was observed on a Monday, Thursday, and the Monday following Purim. Eventually it became just one fast day.
With Maimonide's help (Yad Hachazakah, Hilchat Taaniyot 5.5), there was worldwide acceptance of this fast at Purim, based on the passage in the Book of Esther 9:31. It was reduced to one day and observed on the 13th day of Adar. When the Tur (14th Century) included the phrase "The Fast of Esther" in his code (Orach Chaim) Ch. 686 it became accepted and has remained that way.(1)
The Fast of Esther is generally held the day before Purim. When Purim falls on a Sunday, the Fast of Esther is pushed back to Thursday because fasting on the Sabbath (Friday night through Saturday night is prohibited unless it is The Day Of Atonement.
The uniqueness of this holiday is not so much the Fast Day but the Biblical book that it is drawn from. The Book of Esther is the only book in the Bible that does not have God's name in it (the Septuagint copy does because it has additional verses in it).
Fasting can be a great time to examine ourselves and our relationship with God. It is one way we can show God that we desire to know him better and our willingness to give something up to accomplish this. Fasting should be accompanied with prayer, centered on whatever the reason is for the fast. God must have heard the prayers of the Jews in Persia because He answered them. Notice that the original judgment wasn't stopped. The decree by the king still had authority. There was, however, a chance after the decree was issued for everyone to prepare themselves for that day. The decree for all those who sin in death (Ezekiel 18:4). There is a way to prepare ourselves before that happens. At least the Jews of Persia knew when their judgment time would arrive, we cannot be so sure.
Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:16-18).
Are you ready to meet your judgment? With Jesus Christ to be your High Priest and make intercession on your behalf you can be ready also.
Fasting with Jewish friends can be a good chance to pray together. Both Christians and Jews can offer praise to God for allowing the Jews to survive. While the fast is considered a solemn occasion, the following day, is a joyous one. A fun time can be had in the celebration of the Purim holiday. Then the conversation may arise as to why God has preserved the Jewish people the way He has.
For a list of future holidays dates check the Master Calendar Table.
If you know of someone fasting on this day, one of the appropriate greetings would be "I hope you have an easy fast" (Tzome Khal). From another perspective, a new greeting, "I hope you don't have an easy fast" is emerging. The thinking behind this greeting is that the fast should not be easy but challenging, so that it can serve its purpose (of reminding us that we are dependant upon God) to the fullest.
Are You An Esther?
Find out more about Fast Days observed in the Jewish Religion:
Read about Messiah In The Jewish Holidays.
1). Information from The Biblical And Historical Background Of The Jewish Holy Days, by Abraham P. Bloch is copyrighted material and was used with permission of the publisher. KTAV Publishing, 900 Jefferson Street. box 6249, Hoboken, NJ 07030-0102
The Feast of Israel by Bruce Scott of Friends of Israel ministries.