11 October 2009

Rabbi Alan Bright on fasting in Judaism

Ramadan went by with its usual speed this year, and we are nearing the end of Shawwal. Meanwhile, the Jews have celebrated the High Holy Days, one of which, Yom Kippur, involved one of the most important fasts of the Jewish calendar.

During Ramadan, all Muslims read or hear the Qur'anic verse "You who believe, fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may be mindful of God" (2:183). "Those before you" refers to older communities of monotheists, including the Children of Israel. I therefore asked my friend Alan, rabbi of the Shaare Zedek synagogue here in Montreal, to share with us his perspective on fasting in Judaism.

Atonement through Affliction

by Rabbi Alan Bright

Islam follows a solely lunar calendar; as a result, the cycle of twelve lunar months regresses through the seasons over a period of about 33 years. Judaism, however, follows a quasi-lunar calendar or, as it has become known, a “lunisolar” calendar. As the Jewish festivals are quired by Torah mandate to fall in specific seasons, months are intercalated according to the Metonic cycle, in which 235 lunations occur in nineteen years. In our days, the Jewish calendar is predominantly used for religious observances; however, it is used by traditional Jewish farmers in Israel as an agricultural framework.

Due to the mechanics of both the Muslim calendar and the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, followed the holy month of Ramadan, the most sacred time of the year for Muslims, by approximately one week this year.

A question that is often asked of me;

“Is there a corollary between the fasting within the Judaism and Islam”?

Ask a Jew why he/she fasts on Yom Kippur (the most widely observed fasts of numerous fasts within the Jewish calendar) and the answer will most likely be “to atone for our sins”. Suffice it to say that this vague answer is only one facet of repentance for a Jew.

Ask a Muslim why he/she fasts during Ramadan and the answer most likely will be "to create a greater awareness of God". Awareness of God and his presence is called "Taqwa", a word that can also mean "fear of God", "piety" or "self-restraint". Another reason many Muslims give for fasting is "to feel more empathy for the poor and indigent".

While both these great Abrahamic faiths include fasting as part of their doctrine, they do so for very different reasons.

From sunset Sunday September 27th through dark Monday September 28th, Jews around the world observed the festival of Yom Kippur. For this year only, these dates correspond to the dates outlined in the Old Testament. In the book of Leviticus the following is found:

    ...In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and you shall not do any work ... For on that day he shall provide atonement for you to cleanse you from all your sins before the L-RD. -Leviticus 16:29-30

The name of the seventh month in the Jewish calendar is Tishrei. So from the evening of the ninth day of the month of Tishrei until the following evening, (Leviticus 23:32), the holiest day of the year in the Jewish calendar is observed.

Even though not stated directly, i.e., “on this day you shall abstain from eating”, this, however, is the place from whence the concept of fasting in Judaism is derived. The question that begs to be asked is how did the rabbinic sages arrive at an interpretation of “you shall afflict your souls” to mean an abstention from all food and drink?

Throughout biblical literature, we find cases of great people who took it upon themselves to abstain from food and indeed other luxuries in order to repent for wrongdoing. For example ,in the Book of Samuel II, we read that King David –- King of Israel -- atones for his unacceptable sexual proclivities towards Bathsheba by fasting while praying to God for forgiveness. This motif of fasting as atonement for prior sins either committed or even contemplated became an accepted mode of repentance throughout Jewish history to present day. Furthermore, we find the same not only for individuals, but also for congregational penance. It is believed that fasting arouses the compassion of God to forgive the penitent for not only negative behavioral situations, but also to implore God's protection in times of calamity either personal or communal.

To answer our question about how the rabbinic sages arrived at the interpretation of “you shall afflict your souls” to mean the abstention from all food and drink,

Rabbi Arnold Bienstok in his essay on Fasting in the Jewish Tradition states that the rabbinic commentators interpreted the Biblical phrase “affliction of the soul” to embrace a generic understanding of denying oneself physical pleasure on Yom Kippur. The prohibitions included not just eating and drinking, but also bathing, washing, and anointing. Sexual abstinence also becomes part of the rabbinic understanding of “affliction of the soul.” Even the wearing of leather is prohibited because of its association with luxury or rabbinic compassion for animal life (tsaar baalei hayyim).

As stated earlier, fasting is found in the books of the Bible. Throughout biblical Judaism, the prophets develop the concept of Divine appeasement by fasting as it serves to transform the individual spiritually. Bienstok further comments that for the prophetic voice, ethical perfection is the ultimate demand of the religious life. Ritual behavior is meaningful only if it is marked by the inner transformation of the character of the penitent. The prophetic voice condemns ritual expression that is not marked by spiritual transformation. Rabbinic tradition selected the Biblical readings of Leviticus 23 and Isaiah 58 as the readings of Yom Kippur to share a balanced perspective on fasting. Leviticus 23 presents fasting as a propitiatory offering of atonement. Isaiah 58 asserts that the genuine fast is self-evaluation.

* Rabbi Alan Bright, a native of London, England, is the spiritual leader of Shaare Zedek Congregation, Montreal Quebec. Born into a modern orth'odox Jewish family, Alan attended seminaries in the UK and USA, namely Jews' College (UK), Yeshivat Rivevot Ephraim and The Jewish Theological Seminary (USA). In addition to Orthodox ordination, Alan holds a Masters' degree from Concordia University, with a major in Ancient and Medieval Jewish History. Alan's area of interest is medieval Jewish death and burial rites and customs. Alan can be reached via email at rabbi@shaarezedek.ca.

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