“Agunah Day” on Ta’anit Esther

The following is an explanation of the connection between Agunah Day and Ta’anit Esther, authored by Dr. Rachel Levmore, which accompanied proposed legislation to mark “Agunah Day” in the Israeli Knesset, presented by ICAR (International Coalition for Agunah Rights).

Awareness of the woman known as the agunah has existed for thousands of years. She is the woman whose husband’s whereabouts is unknown, and there is no proof of his demise. According to Jewish law a woman cannot change her status from a “married woman” to a “widow”, without absolute proof of his death, or to being a “divorcee” without the consent of her husband. In modern times the agunah took on another dimension – that of the woman denied a divorce.

Handcuffed WomanToday, most agunot are women who have severed all relations with their partners – emotional, economical and physical. Nevertheless they have not succeeded in ending their marriages in divorce, neither according to the halakha nor according to the laws of the State of Israel. The husband, whether he is physically present or has abandoned the family, refuses to divorce his wife according to Jewish law. This woman – the agunah – remains with the status of a “married woman” and cannot legally marry again and rebuild her life. Thus the agunah is imprisoned in the marriage against her will.

Remembering the Agunah Every Year on the Fast of Esther

Every year, for more than a decade, throughout the Jewish world, “International Agunah Day” is observed on the Jewish calendar date of the Fast of Esther. (Most years it is the 13th day of Adar. On leap years it is on the 13th day of Adar Bet. In the years that we observe an early Fast Day, such as this year of 5774, the fast is on the 11th day of the month of Adar Bet, which falls this year on March 13th.) This special day has been chosen to symbolize our identification with the agunah for two contrasting reasons – due to her suffering and due to her salvation.

According to Jewish tradition, Megillat Esther is included in the religious canon of books. It is counted as one of the holy books of the Bible (Talmud Bavli, Megilla 7a). The Megilla relates how around the 4th Century BCE the ruler of Persia and Media – Ahasuerus – sought a new queen from among “all the beautiful young maidens” (Esther 2,3). The Fast of Esther commemorates Esther, the cousin of a Jew of distinguished lineage called Mordechai. This same Esther married King Ahasueras even though she didn’t want to enter into the marriage (Talmud Bavli , Sanhedrin 74b, Tosefot 71b based on Megilla 13b). “Esther was taken to King Ahasueras into his palace” (Esther 2, 16). She was brought there against her will. And so, Esther found favor in the eyes of the king and he crowned her his queen. “He set the royal crown upon her head” (Esther 2, 17). Although she was the queen, Esther lived in fear, hiding her personal background, as explained in Yalkut Shimoni (Esther 247): “And why was she called Esther? Because she hid her personal self ” (The root of her name connotes hiding).

Like Esther, the Agunah Suffers in Quiet

Like Esther, the agunot of the present era do not want to be in the marriage in which they find themselves. Like Esther, many women who are refused a get live in fear of their spouses and live a double life. Like Esther, the aguna, a victim of get-refusal finds herself lacking control of her own freedom. Like Esther, the agunah suffers in quiet, on the deepest existential level.

However when Esther is called upon by Mordechai to find a way to save her people, she instructs him “Go, assemble all the Jews found in Shushan and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day…..then I will go in to the King although it is unlawful, and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4, 16). Esther rises to the occasion and takes upon herself the burden of leadership, even though it may come at a high personal cost. In proclaiming the “Fast of Esther” she put emphasis on assembling the entire nation in her efforts to save them. Esther realized that in the unity of the people lies their strength.

In this manner all who concern themselves with having a just, stable Jewish society rise to the challenge. “Agunah Day” symbolizes awareness of the general public. It serves as a rallying cry among the people calling for the eradication of this destructive phenomenon in a healthy, balanced society. In proclaiming “Agunah Day” the people come together to declare that the abandonment of a wife or the refusal of a get is not tolerated in the State of Israel or amongst Orthodox Jews the world-over.

Like Esther, it Takes the Cries of the Jewish People to Save the Agunah

At the end of Megillat Esther, the act of remembering the salvation is emphasized: “Then Queen Esther, daughter of Avihail, and Mordechai the Jew, wrote with full authority … and the ordinance of Esther confirmed these matters of Purim, and it was recorded in the book” (Esther 9, 29 -32). Moreover, in the Talmud the request of Esther to be remembered through the inclusion of her story in the Book of Books is emphasized: “Esther sent to the sages: Record me for all the generations … Inscribe me for all the generations” (Talmud Bavli, Megilla 7a).

The proclamation and the inscription in the Book of Laws are the acts which bring about remembrance and the learning of the lesson. With Queen Esther’s insight every agunah in Israel calls out: “Go, assemble all the members of the Knesset and mark Agunah Day; With Queen Esther’s insight every agunah in the world calls out: “Go, assemble all the rabbis and the members of the halakhic world and mark Agunah Day by accepting halakhic solutions in unison to the agunah problem – thus I can attain freedom in keeping with the laws of Moses and Israel for all the generations”.

Dr Rachel LevmoreDr. Rachel Levmore, Rabbinical Court Advocate, is the Coordinator of the Agunah & and Get-Refusal Prevention Project for the International Young Israel Movement in Israel and the Jewish Agency; a member of the State Committee for the Appointment of Dayanim; author of “Min’ee Einayikh Me’Dimah: Heskemei Kdam Nissuin LeMeniat Seiruv Get”, Mosdot Ariel & CYIR, Jerusalem 2009.


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