Jews and Muslims are the two major religious groups in Western Europe and North America that most noticeably practice fasting. The rules relating to fasting are very similar in both Jewish and Muslim law. Why do Islam and Judaism restrict their adherents each year from the simple pleasure of food?
The Torah decrees a day of fasting for Jews (Leviticus 16:29, 23:27) when for twenty-four hours adult Jews (in good health) are supposed to afflict their souls by abstaining from eating, drinking and marital relations. This day is called Yom Kippur, a day of atonement through introspection, reappraisal and self confession for our own failings in the areas of ethics, religious duties, and missed opportunities, in the last year.
And 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 (the Jews), that you may (gain) self-restraint,” Qur’an 2:183.
But why should people restrict their culinary pleasures? More outrageous, 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?
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 Jewish 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- the 10th of Muharram) Jews do not eat, drink, or engage in marital relations for twenty-four hours.
Fasting differs from praying in the same way that hugging someone differs from talking to someone; because fasting is visceral. When I fast I create an empty space in my body that would have been filled with food if I had eaten. This empty space helps me open myself to a personal spiritual experience.
Fasting is not magic. It is only an aid to help connect me to my maker. When my belly is full of food, and my life is full of things I have less room for God. Fasting is very different from starving. People do not choose to starve.
It is one of my religious obligations as a Jew, and as a human being, to help feed starving people. Fasting is my personal opportunity to feed my soul. Fasting results in many different outcomes that help bring us closer to God.
First of all, 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; 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)
And as Prophet Muhammad said, “Whoever does not give up deceitful speech and evil actions, Allah is not in need of his leaving eating his food and drink” Bukhari Vol.3, 31, #127
Charity (Sadaqah in Arabic, Tsadakah in Hebrew) is very important in Islam and Judaism; and even more so during Ramadan and Yom Kippur. Sadaqah/Tsadakah is voluntary charity is given above and beyond what is required from the obligation of the Biblical tithe and the Qur’anic zakāt.
Second, fasting is an exercise in will-power. Most people think they can’t fast because it’s too hard. But actually 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. Almost all humans lack self discipline.
Fasting goes in direct opposition to our increasing “softness” in life. When people exercise their will-power to fast, they affirm their self-control and celebrate their mastery over themselves. We need continually to prove that we can master ourselves, because we are aware of our frequent failures to be self-disciplined. Every year religious Muslims and Jews are forced to test their loyalty to God, against their hedonistic consumer culture’s emphasis on self-indulgence.
The third outcome of fasting is improved physical health. A study (released 6/12/2017) spanning 195 countries and territories from 1980 through 2015, found that, “Of the 4.0 million deaths attributed to excess body weight in 2015, nearly 40% occurred among people who were below the threshold considered “obese.”
In 2015, excess weight affected 2.2 billion children and adults worldwide, or 30% of all people. This includes nearly 108 million children and more than 600 million adults. The prevalence of obesity has doubled since 1980 in more than 70 countries and has continuously increased in most other nations. Among the 20 most populous countries, the highest level of obesity among children and young adults was in the United States at nearly 13%; Egypt topped the list for adult obesity at about 35%.
The annual fast on Yom Kippur and Ramadan can, however, awaken us to the importance of “how much and how often we eat” and 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. Thus going without all food and drink, even water, for a twenty-four hour period challenges us to think about the benefits of the very important religious teaching; less is more. As the Prophet said; “The food of two people is sufficient for three, and the food of three is sufficient for four.” (Bukhari, 70:11.)
Fourth in our list of outcomes; fasting is a positive struggle against our dependencies. We live in a consumer society. We are constantly bombarded by advertising telling us that we must have this or that to be healthy, happy, popular or wise. Tariq Ramadan states that: “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.”
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 or for all day everyday for a month, 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.” (Torah-Deuteronomy 8:3, Gospel-Luke 4:4)
Fifth, fasting on Yom Kippur serves as a form of penance for Jews as it does for Muslims on Ramadan. Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah’s Apostle 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. Also, the concept of fasting as penance 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. Another spiritual law is that often no pain, no gain.
Sixth, 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. A personal act of fasting is part of the Jewish people’s covenant with God.
The principal reason to fast is to fulfill God’s commandment. The outcome of your fast can be any of a half dozen forms of self-fulfillment. But simply knowing that you have done one of your duties as a faithful Jew is the most basic and primary outcome of all.
May our fasting become a first step toward the removal of the chains of self- oppression and narrow mindedness that enslave us, our neighbors, 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.
May we always be a part of those organizations and movements that are fully committed to contributing to world peace, and who are equally committed to respecting both our own religion and our neighbor’s.