The Purpose Of All Fasting – OpEd


Tariq Ramadan states: “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.”

The Quran 2:183 states, “O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those who were before you, in order that you may learn taqwa (piety)”. “Those who were before you” refers to the Jewish community and many centuries later, the Christian community. The Arabic word for fasting is “sawm”, in Hebrew tsom. 

The word tsom/sawm in both languages means “to abstain”. The Quran says Mary, the mother of Prophet Jesus said “I vowed a “sawm” (fast) for the sake of the Merciful One, so today I shall not speak to anyone.”[Quran 19:26]. Mary may have been influenced by Rabbi Shammai who always urged: “Say little and do much. And receive every person with a pleasant countenance.” [Avot 1:15]

According to Shariah Law [Halakhah in Judaism], the word sawm means to abstain from all those things forbidden during fasting and to do this with the intention of fasting. The same is true for Judaism. 

Taqwa [piety, Hasidut in Judaism] is a very important spiritual and ethical term of the Quran. It is the sum total of all Islamic and Judaic spirituality and ethics. It is a quality in a believer’s life that keeps him or her aware of God’s demands and blessings. A person who has taqwa/piety  loves to do good and avoid evil for the sake of God. Taqwa is piety, righteousness and consciousness of God. Taqwa piety requires patience and perseverance. Fasting tsom/sawm teaches patience and perseverance which can raise one to higher and higher levels.

Millions of people spend billions of dollars on pills, diet books and gym memberships but still lack the self discipline to control themselves. And in America young people are leading the way in increasing self indulgence. In the majority of states (30+ out of 50) the percentage of overweight or obese children is at or above 30%. We have largely lost the spiritual value of self restraint that is so important in the Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim tradition. That self restraint was practiced every year by voluntary community fasting. 

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? Why should religions restrict our pleasures? Why should the Torah of Moses decree a 24 hour day of fasting? (Leviticus 16:29, 23:27). 

For twenty-four hours on Yom Kippur, Jews (in good health) are supposed to afflict their souls by abstaining from eating or drinking anything; because 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. 

Hindus do not eat beef and Jews and Muslims do not eat pork for religious/spiritual reasons. And on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement, Jews do not eat or drink anything at all for twenty-four hours. Every year for the entire month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from first light until sundown, abstaining from food, drink, and marital relations.

Prophet Muhammad said that fasting is a shield. It protects a person from sin and lustful desires. When the disciples of Jesus asked him how to cast-out evil spirits he said, “But this kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting.” (Matthew 17:21). For example, both Islam and Judaism teach that kissing between husband and wife is allowed while fasting, those who are very pious [the Orthodox in general and Jewish Hasidim in particular] avoid it, so that one may not do anything further [like intercourse] that is forbidden for all believers during the time of the holy fast.

Imam Ibn Al Qayyim, viewed fasting as a means of releasing the human spirit from the clutches of desire, thus allowing moderation to prevail over a self centered mindset. Maulana Mawdudi (d. 1979 C.E.) emphasized that fasting for a full month every year trains a person individually, and the Muslim community as a whole, in piety and self restraint. The same concept is found in Judaism. 

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 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)  

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)

This is why feeding the hungry and giving charity are so important during Yom Kippur and Ramadan.  As Anas related: “The Prophet was asked, ‘Which type of charity is best?’ He responded, ‘Charity done during Ramadan.'” (Tirmidhi, #663)

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 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. I have on occasion fasted for three days, and found that after the first twenty four hours the pain decreases slightly as the stomach becomes numb. The reason it is so hard to fast is because it is so easy to stop. The food is all around, and 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. 

My just published book “Qur’an and Torah; Islam and Judaism” offers dozens of examples that show that the differences between Islam and Judaism are meant by the One God of Abraham to shine light on each other. 

Our society has increasingly become one of self indulgence. 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. Which is why the Qur’an (2:183) says “Oh you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may (learn) self-restraint.”

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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