Islam And Judaism On Fasting For Ramadan And Yom Kippur – OpEd


Jalal al-Din al-Rumi taught, “Ritual prayer can be different in every religion, but belief never changes.” (Fihi Mafih) In the light of this insight I would like to share my understanding of the spiritual importance of fasting from my perspective as a Reform Rabbi and an Islamic Hebrew.  

I think of myself as an Islamic Hebrew 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 that God made with Abraham – the first Muslim Hebrew (Genesis 14:13), and I submit to the commandments and the covenant that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. 

The Quran states: “Who is better in religion than one who submits himself to Allah while being a doer of good and follows the religion of Abraham, inclining toward truth? And Allah took Abraham as an intimate friend.” (4:125)

Jews have many names to self-identify because they have been immigrants for a little more than half of their 36-38 centuries of Jewish history. Even more important, by God’s design Prophet Abraham’s biological descendants through Isaac and Jacob became the first ongoing monotheistic community to last to this very day. 

“And remember Our servants, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – those of strength and [religious] vision. Indeed, We chose them for an exclusive quality: remembrance of the home [the “safe haven” Land of Israel]. And indeed they are to Us among the chosen and outstanding.” (Qur’an 38:45-7) 

It is narrated from Abu Dharr that one day he asked the Messenger of Allah: How many prophets are there in all? He replied: 124,000. He then asked: How many of them were messenger prophets? He replied: 313 from the above group. He asked: Who was the first of them? He replied: Adam…The first prophet among Bani Israel was Musa and the last of them was Isa (Jesus) and they were in all 600 prophets.” (Biharul Anwar, Vol. 11, Pg. 32.)

Prophet Abraham is called a Muslim in the Arabic Qur’an; and in the Hebrew Bible he is called a Hebrew [speaker] and a Babylonian immigrant who crossed the Jordan River. 

The term ivri (Hebrew) first appears in the Torah, when Prophet Abraham is called “the Hebrew: “And it was told to Abram the Hebrew” (Genesis 14:13) And Prophet Joseph uses the name as both a geographical and an socio-ethnic term: “I was kidnapped from the land of the ivrim” (Genesis 40:15), and “The Egyptians could not eat with the ivrim, since that would be an abomination” (Gen. 43:32)

The word Muslim is a religious identity term that refers to faithful monotheistic believers. The word Hebrew is a linguistic, geographical and ethnic identity term like German [a language],  Germany{a country] and Germans [a people]. The word descendent is a biological inherited birth identity term like nobility or tribe.

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. 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 almost 65 years. I think 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. 

In North America and the U.K., 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 from the Jewish tradition about restricting what and when we eat.

Why do Islam and Judaism restrict their adherents from the simple pleasure of food each year? For the entire 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. 

And 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. 

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- 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. 

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 nor 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 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. 

As Imam Sadiq said: “God made fasting compulsory so the poor and the rich would be equal, because the rich do not feel the pain of hunger to be able to understand and show mercy to the poor. Whenever the rich want something, it is available to them. But God wants His creation to be equal; for the rich to feel the pain of hunger so that rich people will be kind to the weak and show mercy to the poor”.

Thus 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 the 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 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 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 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. 

Third, 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.

Fasting is also a way of preparing to meet a major 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 that resulted from a plot by the King’s evil adviser; Haman. This 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 organized groups of his own supporters to attack and plunder Jews throughout the Persian kingdom on the 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 Jews 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 thought it is against the law. 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 the annihilation of the Jews. 

The fourth outcome of fasting is learning the benefits of the very important religious teaching; less is more. Since our society has problems with overabundance, fasting provides a good lesson in the virtue of denial.

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. 

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 need 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) 

Fourth, 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). 

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. 

Fasting leads us to our basic purposes. As Imam Sadiq said, “There are two moments of joy for a fasting person: one is when he breaks his daily fast and the other when he meets his God.” 

Fasting helps us meet God, who unlike materialism and consumerism, is our true God.

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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