This is an exciting time of the year to be an observant Jew. The religious momentum in the months of Adar and Nisan begins to build up two weeks before Purim with Parshat Shekalim and culminates at the night of the first Seder. What makes the spring time so special is that the central mitzvah of each holiday – the public reading of the megillah on Purim and the private eating of matzah on Passover – are among the few time-bound commandments that apply equally to men and women.
The reason is well known. In the language of the Rabbis, women must hear the megillah and eat matzah because “af hein hayu b’nes” – women too were included in the miracle of the rescue in Shushan and the exodus from Egypt. In the Rabbinic mind, salvation from the mortal danger which threatened the entire community rendered all Jews equal. Eve, the primordial woman, was cursed with dependence on her husband when she was banished from the Garden of Eden. But, when Pharaoh and Haman threatened the Jewish people, equality between husbands and wives, men and women, was at least partially restored. Essentialist differences based on gender are erased on Purim and Passover.
It is becoming a widespread practice among Open Orthodox think tanks like Beit Hillel to publish responsa engaging with contemporary issues relating to gender in modern Jewish life, including the questions of women’s obligation in time-bound commandments. One discomforting aspect of these well-intentioned papers is a reliance on standard halakhic categories. Much of the discussion focuses on personal status rather than the performance of the mitzvah itself. The point of departure is invariably the relative rank of men versus women rather than the intrinsic capacity of the person to fulfill the mitzvah. For example, when considering women’s participation in prayer services, the discussion hinges on the position of women in the hierarchy of obligation (slaves, children, deaf people, mentally incompetent people, women and men) and this determines whether or not women can fulfill specific roles such as reading from the Torah or leading prayers for the congregation. The same logic prevails even in the laws relating to the reading of the megillah. Some halakhic authorities persist in affording women a lower status than men and do not permit women to read on behalf of men. There have also been attempts to support specific practices with innovative applications of established halakhic principles that transcend gender status. A good illustration is Rabbi Sperber’s invocation of the principle of kvod ha’briyot, “human dignity,” to enable greater participation by women in communal prayer and Torah reading. But this is a notable exception. Usually the think tank responsa compile a list of lenient positions without establishing an underling legal basis and, as such, are unconvincing.
Back to megillah and matzah. If an external military or political threat provided a sound rationale for full equality in the requirement to perform these two mitzvot, can this model be extended to internal existential threats to Jewish survival? The notion of mortal threat to the Jewish people could be expanded to include the internal peril of inter-marriage and assimilation that is fostered by persistent gender inequality in defining status and requirement to perform mitzvot. Women and men who are fully engaged in the modern world may find Orthodoxy’s adherence to traditional gender roles, with its limitation of women’s involvement in all of the commandments, increasingly untenable and drift away from Orthodoxy. Alternatively, internal threat could be viewed on an individual level in which a person’s inner motivation to grow and thrive religiously is stymied by perceived gender inequality. This, too, might cause talented and committed men and women to abandon Orthodoxy for more egalitarian alternatives. This threat would represent a new point of departure for developing a gender neutral assessment of who should be obligated to perform all time-bound mitzvot.
Based on this reasoning, the requirement to eat, sleep, and sit in a sukkah or to participate in a daily minyan, prayer service, would be equally incumbent upon men and women. Instead of finding a reason to mandate performance of a specific time-bound mitzvah as an exception to the rule, this reformulation of the meaning of “af hein hayu b’nes” would assume that men and women are equally responsible for fulfilling this category of commandments. Rather than representing a betrayal of the Rabbinic tradition, it would remain integrally linked to classical legal texts by reformulating a concept that the Rabbis used to promote the observance by women of two specific commandments, reading the megillah and eating matzah at the Seder, to a wider context. Perhaps, looking to the future, the arrival of Adar 5776 and the change of seasons can serve as a springboard to broaden the halakhic discourse to one that emphasizes the essential equality of men and women in performing time-bound mitzvot.
“Ima, can you help me with my chapter of megillah?” My thirteen-year old son Davi, who recently became a Bar Mitzvah, has volunteered to leyn a chapter of megillah at his school’s megillah reading on Purim morning. “My teacher gave us recordings,” he tells me, “but I want to learn it the REAL way—with the trop.” I smile. He reminds me of myself as a young teenager: eager, passionate about his Judaism, yearning for authenticity.
So, we sit together and begin to learn. We discuss the places where the trop turns to Eicha trop and why that is. We discuss where to pause for the congregation to recite a verse out loud. His prepubescent soprano voice rings out clear and sweet as a bell. We laugh together when a trop comes out sounding funny. We sit together at the dining room table, cozy and happy, learning together and enjoying each other’s company.
The only remarkable thing about this scene is that it is utterly unremarkable in our home. My son did not think twice before heading straight to me when he needed help with leyning. He didn’t even consider going to my husband. Trust me, he goes to my husband for help with lots of other things, including leading prayer services, gemara homework, and lots more. But, in our home, Ima is the leyning expert, the one who teaches the kids their parasha for their Bat and Bar Mitzvahs and who leyns the megillahs on Purim, Tisha B’Av, Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Davi doesn’t know any different. In his experience, moms are the ones who leyn.
Our lived experience is immeasurably important to how we see the world. Perhaps nothing brought that home to me as vividly as the day, years ago, when Davi came home from preschool before Presidents’ Day and exclaimed, “IMA! GUESS WHAT?! Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer! I thought only girls could be lawyers!” The only lawyer Davi knew at age four was his mother. Why should he possibly think that the law could be a career for men too?
So, part of my goal as an Orthodox feminist is to transform our community’s lived experience, and, in so doing, reform our unconscious expectations and preconceived notions about gender in Judaism. Each time my children see a Rabba or a Maharat in front of their synagogue, their automatic association between rabbi and male is challenged. Each time my children sit in a gemara class taught by a woman, their brains are being patterned to see women as Talmud scholars. As we all know, once those connections are made and once old patterns of thinking are broken, change comes more quickly and more easily. It’s a lot easier to make the case for hiring a Maharat in a synagogue whose congregants have long had experience with female religious leadership!
All of this was swirling around in my head as I sat at my dining room table learning megillah with Davi. I felt my heart swell with contentment and hope for the future. I yearned to share my moment with my community of friends, so I decided to share it on Facebook. “Teaching my son to read megillah,” I wrote—and then, in an attempt to explain why this act felt so much bigger to me than it might have appeared on its face, I hashtagged my post: #OrthodoxFeministMoment. It was my Orthodox feminist moment—a moment of poignancy and meaning in which my dreams for the future of Orthodox Judaism seemed possible and attainable.
Imagine if we all posted, tweeted and proclaimed our #OrthodoxFeministMoments. Maybe our collective voices swirling through cyberspace would help shape a new reality for the future.
Did you have an #OrthodoxFeministMoment today?
As a high school student, finding the right Purim costume can be rather stressful. There are so many factors to consider: Should I dress up thematically with my family or a group of friends? Does my costume conform to my yeshiva day school’s dress code? Can I repeat a costume from one year to the next?
One night before Purim, I spent a couple of hours scouring the internet for a new dress-up idea. Then, in perusing one of the sites geared towards Jewish consumers, I found this: “Boy’s Torah Costume, size 12-14.” I Googled the more general “Torah Costume” and was dismayed to find out that the item was called “Boy’s Torah Costume” on every website I visited. Despite the fact that it was not intended for me, I knew that I had found the costume that truly spoke to me. I love studying Torah. I love reading from the Torah in Women’s Tefillah services. I love incorporating the Torah into my ritual life.
As a petite woman, I knew that the costume would fit and I ordered it immediately. But I had to make one addition so that the costume would truly be appropriate. Many Orthodox rabbis suggest that a woman cannot touch a Torah scroll because she might be “temeah,” that is, in a ritually impure state, and she might transfer that status to the sacred Torah. Despite the many sources that clearly allow a woman to hold a Sefer Torah, this precludes women from participating in many synagogue activities, including dancing with a Torah on Simchat Torah. In order to take ownership of this costume, I added a quotation from the Talmud in tractate Brachot to the back. In English, the quotation means, “The words of Torah cannot take on impurity.”
On Purim day and on Shushan Purim at my school’s celebration, I wore my costume with pride. Admittedly, I wanted to get people talking. I am sure that some individuals saw my costume as extremely subversive or, perhaps, laughed it off as just another Nahafoch hu–a traditional Purim gag that upsets the natural order of things. But though I enjoyed participating in the lighthearted fun of the holiday, I was very serious about my costume’s message and its intent. I believe that I more truly engage with the stories, commandments and teachings of the Torah because I view the Torah as approachable, because I can open the scroll for myself, kiss the parchment and read the elegant words in their regal columns. I hope that more rabbis will join the ranks of those who already support women’s access to the Torah scroll.
I’m sure you’ll agree that my “Boy’s Torah Costume, size 12-14” looks pretty good as the more generic “Torah Costume, one size fits all.” Generally, I don’t wear a costume more than once, but I think I’ll make an exception next year. I want to keep spreading the message that women and men, girls and boys may approach and embrace the Torah.
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Purim is behind us. The kitchen counter is littered with nosh from lavish Purim baskets. There’s a lingering ringing in your ear from the boo’s shouted at Haman, and a faint whisper of inspiration lingering in your heart from the heroic acts of Esther and Mordechai.
Perhaps the most pivotal moment in the Megillah story is when Esther is hesitant to approach King Ahasuerus on behalf of the Jewish people because she might be killed for entering the Royal Court uninvited. She is so scared for her own safety that Mordechai must rouse her to action by suggesting that perhaps her whole life was building up to this very moment. Esther is convinced by his argument and three days later she enters the Court to confront the King.
Is she beheaded? No. Burned alive? No. Thrown into a pit of lions, or snakes, or lions that shoot snakes out of their mouths? Nope. She’s warmly greeted by the King. Before she can say a thing he asks, “What troubles you, Queen Esther? And what is your request? Even to half the kingdom it shall be granted you.” He’s magnanimous!
She had vastly underestimated her power and influence with the King. She entered unsure whether he would even spare her life, and discovered that he was prepared to give her half his kingdom! She had been blessed with a life of riches and royal influence that she didn’t fully appreciate, and had to be reminded that “perhaps you have attained this royal position for just such a crisis.”
American Jews today suffer from a similar lack of self-awareness. We too have achieved lofty stations for a purpose, and too frequently we forget how even our smallest actions can have great consequences. The American Jewish community has wealth and political influence that is significantly disproportionate to our population. We have the opportunity to engage in activism and philanthropy that can have a real impact on the world we live in and people who we may not always realize are our global neighbors.
Just such an opportunity is at hand. Today, International Women’s Day, marks the reintroduction to Congress of the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA). While protection of women and girls from gender-based violence is currently a part of US foreign policy by executive order, IVAWA would cement it into law.
There is a narrow window of opportunity for passing this legislation before the next election cycle begins. You can learn more about getting IVAWA passed on the website for the AJWS We Believe campaign. Please take a minute to call your congressional representatives and ask them to support the International Violence Against Women Act.
An estimated one out of every three women worldwide will be physically, sexually or otherwise abused during her lifetime. In some countries, the numbers are even more devastating, with seven in 10 women experiencing significant forms of violence.This legislation would ensure that the US government remains focused on this important issue.
Who knows? Perhaps for just such a crisis you have been elevated to this position.
Still not sure about why IVAWA is important? Spend 4 minutes watching Theresa’s story and realize that one crucial part of the bill will direct funding to local non-profits like the one that helped her escape an abusive husband.
Ever since I was young, I have always felt a strong connection to Purim. For most girls at that age, the focus was dressing up as princesses and making lots of noise at appropriate moments during the Megillah reading, but for me there was something about the courage of our heroine Esther that made her stand out as a true role model. It was always refreshing to celebrate the actions of this extremely brave young woman, who I interpreted to be rather unassuming and from a regular background just like you or me.
As an Orthodox girl who attended a non-Jewish school throughout my education, I understood to some extent how it felt to be in the minority but, unlike Esther, I was able to be outwardly proud of my Jewish identity, and never once considered hiding it. I used it as an opportunity to educate my fellow students about a religion with which most of them had no previous experience.
My teenage self found special affinity with Esther over the fact that we were both vegetarians, something which I still am to this day. According to the Talmud, Esther was a vegetarian while she lived in the palace of King Ahasuerus, Vegetarianism would have allowed Esther to have avoided violating the kosher dietary laws while keeping her Jewish identity secret. Not necessarily my reasoning for abstaining from eating meat but, in my eyes, it was another factor that contributed to my personal understanding of Esther’s character and conduct.
When I moved to my community of Borehamwood and Elstree a few years ago and discovered that there was a women’s Megillah group, I was immediately drawn to it and felt I must try to be a part of it in some way. However, as much as I was extremely keen to learn to recite a part of the Megillah, this decision came with a great deal of fear and trepidation. Would my Hebrew be good enough to allow me to learn my section accurately? Would I be able to conquer the tune, reading Hebrew without vowels, and overcome my stage fright? And, perhaps bizarrely, would the other women in the group accept me with open arms? I remember turning up to the first meeting with a huge sense of intimidation and worry—was I really capable of this or was I aiming a bit too far out of my comfort zone?
In contrast, what I discovered was a group of like-minded, supportive and dedicated women, all with their own reasons for wanting to read the Megillah, which made me realize that I actually hoped to gain more from this experience than I initially thought. Yes, there was the obvious challenge of tackling something new and becoming more involved in my community but also, when offered the chance to be a public voice in a festival that exists as a result of one woman having the strength to stand up for what she believed in, and when halakha permits all of this, how could I take a passive seat? It made me start thinking about my two-year-old daughter, the image of women in Judaism that I wanted to project, and the opportunities that I hoped would be available to her in the future.
The women’s Megillah reading in Borehamwood is such a special event in my calendar and, as a result, Purim holds more meaning for me than it ever has before. Listening to the clear and beautiful voices of all those women who strive to recite their portions without error and knowing the hard work that has gone into it, especially when we all have our own pressures from our family and professional lives, makes me very proud to be among them. It is a very emotional experience for many of us – the sense of achievement and camaraderie is hard to put into words. It is something that I hope I will continue to share with my daughter in the years to come. While not all of us are faced with obstacles as extreme as Esther’s, Purim allows us to reflect on the fact that each of us is capable of making a difference in this world in our own unique way.
Crying isn’t supposed to be part of Purim. Maybe it’s okay if you’re six and having a sugar-induced meltdown right when your parents tell you that, no, you can’t have another can of soda and fruit roll up for your seudah. But you’re not supposed to cry on Purim if you’re a grown woman and mother of children yourself.
Unfortunately, that’s what happened to me one year right before our seudah, Purim day feast. We had decided to participate in a community seudah at synagogue, which would allow us to enjoy the day without worrying about food preparation. And, super conveniently, there would be a Megillah reading right before sunset for those who would be attending the meal.
So imagine my horror when I sat down to hear the Megillah, and a few moments later, the live music in the adjacent room started up, loud enough for us to hear the music clearly through the walls. And then, when the young Megillah reader started a fast and mumbled reading of the Megillah, I knew it was going to be a challenge to hear every word and fulfill my obligation of hearing the Megillah read on Purim day.
Just a few verses in, I realized that I had already missed a few words. The reading was too difficult to hear, and the music was too loud, and it was too late to find another reading. For the first time ever, I was forced to forfeit the mitzvah of hearing every word of the Megillah.
I was totally helpless. I don’t know how to read the Megillah. I couldn’t obtain a Megillah and fulfill the obligation of reading the Megillah out loud to myself. I felt powerless to do anything, and all that was left for me to do at that point was cry. So I did.
After calming down (it was Purim, after all!) and reflecting a bit, I thought about how great it would be if I learned how to leyn the Megillah myself. I’m part of a more conservative Orthodox community, and a women’s reading wouldn’t be acceptable. And, honestly, I wouldn’t feel comfortable with it anyway. I’ve studied the sources and know that it’s a halakhically valid progression that’s been made in some communities, but I prefer a more traditional environment.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t learn to leyn and do so privately, for myself. It would ensure that I’d alway be able to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the Megillah, and I could read it whenever I wanted to during the day. All of that would really enhance my joy on Purim.
I still haven’t made the time to learn how to leyn. It’s still on my “bucket list.” But it’s there. And I know that not too many years ago, it never would have occurred to me to put it there. But the knowledge that I can make that choice to add it to my bucket list always makes me smile.
The story of Esther teaches us many things, amongst them, that timing is everything.
This year, the women’s Megillat Esther reading in Sydney, Australia marks its fifteenth year! We began in a private home with about thirty women. As the years went on and our numbers grew, we read the Megillah each year in various communal halls in Sydney. In 2013, for the very first time, we held our women’s Megillah reading in the main sanctuary of a Modern Orthodox synagogue! Over 25 women read from the Megillah for a total of 110 women in attendance.
This year we will have more women reading than ever before and, please God, a record number of women attending in celebration.
What can we, a group of women who have been gathering to read the Megillah for fifteen years, learn from the story of Esther? When we are looking for Hashem’s hand in Jewish history, we must take a long-term perspective.
The story of Esther seems like an unlikely, outrageous chain of events that follow one after another. During the course of the hour-long reading, the Jews go from the verge of annihilation to miraculous redemption. The events seem to occur in immediate succession, but actually Achashverosh ascended the throne a full twelve years before Mordechai and Esther step up and consolidate their political power.
In our twelfth year of reading Megillah – our “Bat Mitzvah” year – we gathered in a hall at the oldest and largest Modern Orthodox Jewish Day School in Sydney. It took some discussion, but we successfully gained permission from the rabbi of the school to hold the reading on the premises.
A young woman’s Bat Mitzvah is the point in her life when she enters adulthood and assumes responsibility for her own spirituality. As a consequence, the community takes her seriously. And so it was with our women’s Megillah reading. Our Bat Mitzvah year was a turning point – it was the year that the mainstream Orthodox community began to “take us seriously.”
We were excited to be in this new phase. Since then, we have gone from strength to strength. In year thirteen, we held two readings: The first was in the Jewish Day School, at which some of the readers were students of the school and the attendees included female students and teachers. For many women, this was the first time they had even heard of a women’s Megillah reading. The second reading that morning was held in the hall of a Modern Orthodox synagogue. Last year, we read the Megillah inside the sanctuary of that same synagogue. We are grateful to be meeting in the main sanctuary again this year.
We have followed the example of Queen Esther in working with some of the Modern Orthodox rabbis in our city: we ask for what we want, respectfully, assertively, and persistently. In this way, we have been able to grow and inspire more women to become involved.
A women’s Megillah reading celebrates Jewish women as the source of redemption and continuity. We hope that through our reading we can pass on to our daughters and to the next generation, our passion and enthusiasm for the story of Esther, our enhanced connection with the festival of Purim and the text of the Megillah and our love for and commitment to Judaism.
This year on Purim, several minyanim in the U.S. and in Israel will be reading the Megillah with a twist. The congregations will recite aloud communally, not only the traditional sentences about Mordechai, but an additional sentence about Esther as well. If that doesn’t sound radical to you, you haven’t been around an Orthodox synagogue lately.
Carol Newman, JOFA’s past president, has long been amazed and frustrated at how women have been taken out of everything in Orthodox Judaism. When she talks about the absence of mothers’ names in ketubot, on gravestones, and during aliyot, she can get pretty “fahitzed” (worked up). But until this year, she couldn’t figure out how to put Esther back in the Book of Esther (waving fabric flags with Esther’s likeness on them when Esther’s name was mentioned didn’t really do it for her). Until she saw a source sheet identifying verses about Esther that are parallel to those we read aloud about Mordecai. And so a personal campaign was born.
After many passionate phone calls and email chains over the past few weeks, two partnership minyanim have decided to recite a verse about Esther aloud during their megillah reading this year. According to Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat and Chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, “There is absolutely no halakhic problem for the congregation to pre-read a verse which will then be repeated by the megillah reader. Therefore all the verses about Esther can be read in that way.”
Darkhei Noam, a partnership minyan in New York, will repeat the verse introducing Esther, “He was foster father to Hadassah – that is, Esther – his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother. The maiden was striking and beautiful; and when her father and mother died, Mordechai adopted her as his own daughter” (Esther 2:7).
Shira Hadasha, a partnership minyan in Jerusalem, will repeat the verse where Esther establishes Purim as a holiday for the Jewish people, “And Esther’s ordinance validating these observances of Purim was recorded in a scroll” (Esther 9:32).
Mordy Hurwich-Kehat, a member of Shira Hadasha who was instrumental in creating this change, says, “I like Darkhei Noam’s practice, as it parallels Mordechai’s dramatic introduction, and Shira Hadasha’s too–as we learn in the Talmud tractate Megillah that Esther pushed for ‘her’ megillah’s inclusion within the Biblical Canon. Maybe, next year each of the two congregations will adopt the other’s practice.”
You might think it would be easy to convince people to repeat these little sentences but most rabbis and most synagogues, no matter how well intentioned, are not comfortable with change even when, as in this case, there is good support for it.
After all, who wouldn’t want to viscerally celebrate with Esther when she finally takes matters into her own hands and musters up her courage to save her people? So, this year, we take one small step for womankind… Next Sukkot maybe Miriam will show up in the prayer for rain!
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This Thursday (March 13) many Jews will fast from sunrise to sunset in commemoration of Esther’s fast before she approached the king, unbidden, to ask for compassion on her people. The Fast of Esther is one of the four minor fast days in the Jewish calendar. At the JOFA conference in December, Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold presented a session called Fasting for Two: Who Makes the Call? in which she contributed a much-needed woman’s voice to the conversation.
For centuries, halakhic questions around pregnant and nursing women fasting have been asked by women and answered by men. This session will explore the sources surrounding fasting from the female perspective. What does it mean to study these sources with a woman who is a halakhically knowledgeable member of the clergy who has actually experienced pregnancy and nursing? The answers may surprise you.
Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold recently joined Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim as the Director of Education and Spiritual Enrichment. Previously, she served for six years as the Education and Ritual Director at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago. Rachel (pronounced “Rakhel”) is a founding member of the Orthodox Leadership Project, serves on the editorial board of the JOFA Journal, and was recognized as one of Chicago JUF ‘s “36 Under 36.” Rachel received her B.A. in Religion from Boston University and completed the Drisha Scholars Circle. She recently graduated as part of the inaugural class of Yeshivat Maharat. Rachel lives in Montreal with her husband, Rabbi Avi Finegold, and their three young daughters.
Session handout available here.
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Every year costumed women and children arrive from communities across the island, all aglow and abuzz with great anticipation. Purim with the MWTG is truly a happening here in Montreal. The Montreal Women’s Tefillah Group (MWTG) was founded in 1982 under the direction and leadership of Dr. Norma Baumel Joseph and our halakhic advisor, Rabbi Howard S. Joseph of Canada’s oldest congregation (1768), the Spanish and Portuguese. At the time our mandate was to provide a venue wherein women, citywide, could gather in prayer, complete with Torah service on Rosh Chodesh. Years later we were able to realize Norma’s goal of conducting our very own reading of Megillat Esther by and for women. I believe we may now claim to be another of the treasured fixtures on the Montreal Jewish scene.
Montreal is also home to the Coalition of Jewish Women for the Get, a body created to advocate on behalf of the agunot in our midst. The Coalition deals with agunot, rabbis, and government. In 1990, the Coalition succeeded in having Bill 21.1 amended to the Canadian Divorce Act, which removed any barriers to religious remarriage.
The Coalition had held its first Vigil for Agunot on the evening before Ta’anit Esther. After another year with a small turnout, the vigil was moved to Purim day, just before Megillah reading. It was quite a success! As Purim is our most well-attended event of the year, averaging one hundred participants, it is our best opportunity to inform and update our community on this most shameful and deplorable status.
We have led workshops on agunot, held art displays, watched Israel’s Savta Bikorta videos followed by group discussion, and listened to a
very moving address and plea from a local agunah of six years now. Last year seven women scattered and seated throughout the chapel read brief, scripted accounts of local agunot. This action had quite an impact on attendees, as a voice was suddenly heard from one side of the room, followed by another from the opposite side and so on. These added activities have fostered much creativity in our community and I heartily suggest that other groups follow suit.
CHAG PURIM SAMEACH!
Click here to read more about International Agunah Day, which is on Ta’anit Esther (March 13, 2014).