The Results Of Daily Dietary Rules And Annual Fasting – OpEd


In North America and the U.K., Jews and Muslims are the two religious groups that noticeably practice eating according to daily dietary rules and annual fasting. In the light of this, I would like to share a wonderful story and my understanding of the spiritual and moral importance of both eating and fasting from my perspective as a Reform Rabbi and an Islamic Jew. 

I think of myself as an Islamic Jew i.e. a faithful Jew submitting to the will of God, because I am a Reform Rabbi. As a Rabbi I am faithful to the covenant of circumcision that the One God made with Abraham – the first Jew to become a Muslim, and because I also submit to the commandments and the covenant that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. 

As a Reform Rabbi I believe that Jewish spiritual leaders should not make religion difficult for people to practice. This is an important lesson that Prophet Muhammad taught 12 centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in the early 19th century. Reform Jews are the largest of the Jewish denominations in the U.S. In the U.K..Reform Judaism is called Liberal  Judaism. 

I am a Reform Rabbi who has been studying Islam for over 65 years. I think it is vitally important for our generation to understand how much Islam and Judaism have in common. Eating daily according to God’s dietary rules and annual fasting are two areas where this commonality is very evident. 

The rules about daily diet restrictions and fasting are similar in both Jewish and Muslim law. Since there are several religious values involved in both eating and fasting; Muslims will see many similarities, and a few differences, in the following teachings from the Jewish tradition about restricting what and when we eat and drink.

First of all, why should people restrict their culinary pleasures in general? More outrageous, why  afflict ourselves by fasting? Don’t most people think being happy is the most important thing in life? Eating is one of the most accessible pleasures we have! 

Indeed, that is why Islam and Judaism restrict their adherents from some of the pleasure of food. All animals eat, but only humans choose to not eat some foods that are both nutritious and very tasty. Jews and Muslims do not eat pork for religious reasons relating to self-discipline.

Almost all religions have always taught that self restraint is a virtue. Fasting and ritual dietary restrictions are the most widespread example of spiritual self-restraint and self discipline. When a religious community fasts, it is not like a diet to make you look better.  

The Torah decrees a  24 hour day of total denial of food and drink for every Jewish adult (Leviticus 16:29, 23:27) and the Qur’an decrees (2:183) a month of fasting for Muslims. “Oh you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may (practice and learn) self-restraint.” 

On fast days like Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement and the 9th of Av (a day of mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem like the Shi’a observance of Ashura- the 10th of Muharram) Jews do not eat or drink, and abstain from marital relations for twenty-four hours. Fasting differs from praying in the same way that  hugging someone differs from talking to someone. Fasting is very different from starving. People do not choose to starve. 

One of my religious obligations is to feed starving people. Fasting is my personal opportunity to feed my own soul. Fasting and daily diet restrictions result in many different outcomes that help bring us closer to God. As Prophet Muhammad said: “The blessed month of Ramadan comes to you, a month Allah made fasting obligatory for those who are able; whoever denies himself the benefits of that month; denies himself many virtues.”

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 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)

And 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) 

Second, fasting and daily diet rules are an exercise in will-power. The reason it is so hard to fast is because it is so easy to break your fast, since food is almost always in easy reach; all you have to do is take a bite. Thus the key to fasting and daily diet 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 need to increase their self discipline. 

Fasting and daily diet restrictions are 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.

Third, fasting and daily diet restrictions for Jews is the performance of a mitzvah (religious duty), which is, after all, the one fundamental reason for daily diet restrictions and fasting in general. Jews do not do mitzvot (religious duties) in order to benefit ourselves, but because our duty as Jews requires that we do them. The same applies to Muslims.

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 120 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 in general to fast, and to eat according to daily diet restrictions, is to fulfill God’s commandments. The outcome of your fast and your daily diet restrictions can be several forms of self-improvement. But simply knowing that you have done one of your duties as a faithful Jew is the most basic and primary outcome of all.

Fourth, fasting is a way of preparing to meet a major life challenge. People in the Bible who faced great trials and troubles often prepared themselves through prayer and fasting. Whenever special courage, wisdom, insight or strength was needed, people who trusted in God turned to prayer and fasting. 

For example, the Jewish community in Persia once was threatened by a government sanctioned pogrom, plotted by the King’s evil adviser; Haman. The Torah does not mention the evil Haman because the Torah focuses on Prophets Moses and Aaron vs. the hard hearted Pharaoh; but Haman’s name is well known to Muslims because it occurs six times in the Qur’an (28:6, 8, 38; 29:39; 40:24, 36) 

These ayahs portray the Egyptian Haman as an official close to Pharaoh, who was in charge of building projects that Banu Israel were forced to work on. The Persian Haman was an official close to the King, who organized groups of his own supporters to attack and plunder Jews throughout the Persian kingdom on an appointed day. 

When the plot was leaked, the Queen, who was Jewish, although nobody in the court knew it, was asked to intercede. Before Queen Esther approached the King to ask him to spare the Jewish People from destruction, she asked her people to join her during three days of prayer and fasting. 

She felt that this dangerous enterprise needed prayers fortified by fasting if her effort was to be successful. Esther said, “When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the rules. And if I perish, I perish,” (Esther 4:16).

Consequently, Esther approached the king with confidence and boldness, persuading him to reverse an edict that called for one day of slaughtering Jews.

Fasting was also a means, during desperate times, of appealing to God for help surviving natural as well as historical dangers.  A wonderful Jewish folktale from Syria illustrates this theme. 

Once, in the land of Syria, there was a great drought. A rabbi called all the Jews of his village to the synagogue. They prayed day and night, but no rain fell. Then the rabbi declared a fast, and asked God to answer their prayers.

That night the rabbi heard a voice from heaven, saying, “God will send rain only if Rahamim, who sits in the back corner of the synagogue, prays for it.” “But he’s an ignoramus,” protested the rabbi and rarely comes to Torah study classes.” Silence was the response.

When Rahamim came to the synagogue the rabbi said, “tomorrow you will lead the congregation in prayers for rain,” “But” said Rahamim “there are so many others who know more than I.” “Nevertheless,” said the rabbi, “it is you who must lead the prayers.”

The next day the rabbi called all the people together to pray. The synagogue was filled wall to wall. All eyes were on the bimah, where everyone expected to see the rabbi leading them in prayer. How great was their amazement to see poor Rahamim standing up there before the Holy Ark, holding a clay jar with two spouts in his hands. “Now I ask that you pray with all your heart,” Rahamim told the congregation. 

So the people poured out their hearts to heaven, wailing bitterly and beating their breasts. Then Rahamim lifted up his jar, first placing one spout to his eye and then the other to his ear. Instantly there was a rumble of thunder and then the sky opened up, drenching the earth with rain. 

The rabbi later asked Rahamim, “Why did you bring that jar to the synagogue? What did you do with the jar?”

”Rabbi, I’m a poor, ignorant man,” Rahamim replied. “What I earn as a cobbler barely feeds my many children. Every day they cry for bread and I have little to give them. When I hear their cries my heart breaks, and I too cry. I collect my tears in this jar. 

When you asked me to lead the prayers, I looked into the jar and said, ‘Master of the Universe, if you do not send rain, I will break this jar in front of the whole congregation.’ 

Then I heard a voice that said, “Ask again when you stand before the congregation” 

“So I did and I heard a voice saying: ‘Do not break the jar’. And then it began to rain.

May our daily diet restrictions and fasting become a first step toward removing the chains of self- oppression and narrow minded prejudice that enslave us, our neighbors, and our world! 

May future years of shared fasting and daily diet restrictions 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.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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