Ramadan and Yom Kippur: Why afflict ourselves by fasting?

May future years of shared fasting by Muslims and Jews lead to a greater amount of understanding and respect through increased acceptance of religious pluralism.

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May future years of shared fasting by Muslims and Jews lead to a greater amount of understanding and respect through increased acceptance of religious pluralism.

Jalal al-Din al-Rumi taught, “Ritual prayer can be different in every religion, but belief never changes.” In light of this insight, I would like to share why I think of myself, especially during Ramadan, as a Reform Rabbi and a Muslim Jew.
Actually, I am a Muslim Jew, as in that I am a faithful Jew submitting to the will of God because I am a Reform Rabbi. As a Rabbi, I am faithful to the covenant that God made with Abraham – the first Muslim Jew, and I submit to the commandments that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. As a Reform Rabbi, I believe that Jewish spiritual leaders should modify Jewish tradition as social and historical circumstances change and develop. I also believe we should not make religion difficult for people to practice. These are lessons that Prophet Muhammad taught 12 centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in the early 19th century.
For example, as Bukhari reports in a Hadith, “Narrated ‘Abdullah:
The Prophet fasted for days continuously; the people also did the same but it was difficult for them. So, the Prophet forbade them (to fast continuously for more than one day). They said, “But you fast without break (no food was eaten in the evening or in the morning). The Prophet replied, “I am not like you, for I am provided with food and drink (by Allah).” [Volume 3, Book 31, Number 145]
Reform Jews are the largest of the Jewish denominations in the U.S. and Canada. In the U.K., Reform Judaism is called Liberal  Judaism. All Reform Jews would agree with this teaching of Prophet Muhammad. As a Reform Rabbi who has been studying Islam for almost 60 years, I believe that it is vitally important for our generation to understand how much Islam and Judaism have in common. Fasting is one area where this commonality is very evident.
Jews and Muslims are the two religious groups that most noticeably practice fasting. The rules about fasting are very similar in both Jewish and Muslim law. Since there are several religious values involved in fasting; Muslims will see many similarities, and a few differences, in the following teachings about restricting what and when we eat in the Jewish tradition. Why should people restrict their culinary pleasures? More outrageously, why should we afflict ourselves by fasting? Don’t most people think that being happy is the most important thing? Isn’t eating one of the most accessible pleasures we have?
Why do Islam and Judaism restrict their adherents from the simple pleasure of food each year? For the entire the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from first light until sundown, abstaining from food, drink, and marital relations.
The Qur’an says “Oh you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may (learn) self-restraint,” [Qur’an 2:183] Why should the Torah decree for Jews a day of fasting when for twenty-four hours adult Jews (in good health) are supposed to afflict their souls by abstaining from eating, drinking and marital relations. [Leviticus 16:29, 23:27] Both religions teach us that what we do not eat may be even more important than what we do eat.
All animals eat, but only humans choose to not eat some foods that are both nutritious and tasty. Some people do not eat meat for religious/ethical reasons. Jews and Muslims do not eat pork for religious/spiritual reasons. On fast days like Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement and the 9th of Av (a day of mourning like the Shi’a observance of Ashura on the 10th of Muharram) Jews do not eat or drink and abstain from marital relations for twenty-four hours.
Fasting results in many different outcomes that help bring us closer to God. Muslims will recognise the many similarities, and the interesting differences, that Islam and Judaism share.

1 – Fasting teaches compassion

It is easy to talk about the world’s problem of hunger; we can feel sorry that millions of people go to bed hungry each day, but not until one can actually feel it in one’s own body is the impact truly there. Compassion based on empathy is much stronger and more consistent than compassion based on pity. This feeling must lead to action. Fasting is never an end in itself and that’s why it has so many different outcomes. But all the other outcomes are of no real moral value if compassion is not enlarged and extended through fasting.
As Prophet Isaiah said, “The truth is that at the same time you fast, you pursue your own interests and oppress your workers. Your fasting makes you violent, and you quarrel and fight. The kind of fasting I want is this: remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor.” [Isaiah  58:3-7] 

2 – Fasting as a form of penance

Fasting on Yom Kippur serves as a form of penance for Jews just as it does for Muslims in Ramadan. Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah’s Apostle (Allah’s blessings and peace be upon him) said, “Whoever observes fasts during the month of Ramadan out of sincere faith, hoping to attain Allah’s rewards, then all his past sins will be forgiven.” [Sahih Al-Bukhari Vol 1]

Though self-inflicted pain may alleviate some guilt, it is much better to reduce one’s guilt by offsetting acts of righteousness to others. This is why contributing to charity is an important part of Yom Kippur and Ramadan. Indeed, Judaism teaches that fasting that doesn’t increase compassion is ignored by God.

The concept of fasting as penance also helps us understand that our hunger pains can be beneficial. Contemporary culture desires happiness above all else. Any pain or suffering is seen as unnecessary and indeed evil. Though we occasionally hear people echo values from the past that suffering can help one grow, or that an existence unalloyed with pain would lack certain qualities of greatness, many today seem to think that the primary goal in life is “to always be happy and free of all discomfort.” The satisfaction one derives from the self-induced pain of fasting provides insight into a better way of reacting to the externally caused suffering we have to experience throughout life. Taking a pill is not always the best way to alleviate pain, especially if by doing so we allay the symptoms without reaching the root cause.

3 – Improved physical health

Naturally, one twenty-four hour fast will not have any more effect than one day of exercise; only prolonged and regular fasting promotes better health. The annual fast on Yom Kippur can, however, awaken us to the importance of acknowledging how much and how often we eat.

For many years research has shown that when animals are somewhat underfed, receiving a balanced diet at below the normal quantity for maximum physical health, their life spans were prolonged from 50% to 100%. With all the additives placed in food these days, a reduction of total food intake has to be healthful. More important, since our society has problems with overabundance, fasting provides a good lesson in the virtue of denial. Health problems caused by overeating are the most rapidly growing health problems in affluent Western countries. America’s consumer culture urges us to constantly over-indulge ourselves, and now even our children suffer from our bad models.

Thus going without all food and drink, even water, during Yom Kippur and Ramadan challenges us to think about the benefits of the very important religious teaching: less is more.

4 – A positive struggle against our dependencies

We live in a consumer society and without realising it, we are constantly bombarded by advertisements telling us that we must have to be healthy, happy, popular or wise. By fasting, we assert that we need not be totally dependent on external things, even such essentials as food. If our most basic need for food and drink can be suspended for twenty-four hours, how much more our needs for all the nonessentials.

Judaism and Islam do not advocate asceticism as an end in itself. In fact, it’s against Muslim and Jewish law to deny ourselves normal physical pleasures. But in our overheated consumer society, it is necessary periodically to turn off the constant pressure to consume, and to remind ourselves forcibly that “Man does not live by bread alone.” [Deuteronomy 8:3]

5 – Exercising willpower

Most people think they can’t fast because it’s too hard but in reality, the discomfort of hunger pangs is relatively minor. A headache, muscle pains from too much exercise, and most certainly a toothache, are all more severe than the pains hunger produces. The reason it is so hard to fast is because it so easy to break your fast since food is almost always in easy reach, all you have do is take a bite.

Thus the key to fasting is the will power to decide again and again not to eat or drink. Our society has increasingly become one of self-indulgence and we lack self-discipline. Fasting goes in direct opposition to our increasing “softness” in life. When people exercise their will-power and fast, they are affirming their self-control and celebrating mastery over themselves. We need continually to prove that we can do it because we are aware of our frequent failures to be self-disciplined.

6 – Performing religious duties

The sixth outcome of fasting is the performance of a mitzvah (religious duty), which is, after all, the one fundamental reason for fasting on Yom Kippur. We do not do mitzvot (religious duties) in order to benefit ourselves, but because our duty as Jews requires that we do them. Fasting is a very personal mitzvah, with primarily personal consequences. Fasting on Yom Kippur is a personal offering to God, from each and every Jew who fasts. For over 100 generations Jews have fasted on this day and it is seen as a personal covenant with God.  The outcome of your fast can be any of a half dozen forms of self-fulfillment, but simply knowing that I have done one of my duties as a faithful Jew is the most basic and primary outcome of all.

As Tariq Ramadan says; “The philosophy of fasting calls upon us to know ourselves, to master ourselves, and to discipline ourselves; the better to free ourselves. To fast is to identify our dependencies, and free ourselves from them.”

May our fasting become a first step toward the removal of the chains of self- oppression and narrow-mindedness that enslave us, our neighbours, and our world! May future years of shared fasting by Muslims and Jews lead to a greater amount of understanding and respect through increased acceptance of religious pluralism.

Individual conductors and composers are different, but the source of musical creativity is one. According to a Hadith narrated by Abu Huraira, Prophet Muhammad said, “The prophets are paternal brothers; their mothers are different, yet their religion is one (because they all have the same father).” [Bukhari, Book #55, Hadith 652]

Rabbi Maller’s website is: www.rabbimaller.com



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